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Religious Leaders Need to Work to End Sexual Violence

Bishop Simeon Hall recently called on the church to take a stance against sexual violence, specifically including acts within families and marriage. He made a distinction between the desire for sex and the attempt to gain power which leads to sexual violence. Hall also correctly made the connection between the dehumanisation of women and failure to see us as valuable people, noting society must value women in order for sexual violence rates to go down.

We need more leaders of the church to not only “boldly decry” sexual violence, but to implement programmes and policies that address the issue and support survivors. Hall encouraged women to report to the police, seek medical care, and take their time to heal. These are all important to hear, particularly for women who have been taught their wellbeing is worth less than the reputation of male relatives.

Many churches have men’s groups and women’s groups. Are they talking about sexual violence, making a distinction between sex and rape, making members aware of available resources, and advising of the support they can expect from the church and its leadership? They need to do all of this, but also to sensitise members to the issue and encourage them to support survivors and refrain from trying to silence them for any reason, biblical or otherwise.

A troubling part of Hall’s statement, however, was his comment about Bahamian women accepting and promoting “a low self-image of themselves and other women”. It is not clear exactly what he meant, but it appears to be a form of victim-blaming — pointing to women’s own behaviour or beliefs as contributing factors.

It is important to understand that nothing women do outside of perpetrating acts of sexual violence is a cause of sexual violence. Self-image could mean appearance in which case I emphatically state that nothing about a woman’s appearance is a cause of rape, whether she looks a certain age, wears a particular outfit, is visibly differently-abled, or seems to earn a low income. There is no such thing as asking for sexual violence.

Self-image could also refer to sense of self including abilities and value. Again, this is not a cause of sexual violence. It is, however, important to separate perceptions of women (including our perceptions of ourselves) from the value of women as human beings and as contributors to family, society, and economy in a system rigged to extract our labour in excessive amounts without appropriate compensation or consideration to the need for change.

Men do not just need to learn to take rejection. They need to respect women and recognise us as human beings. They need to be taught about consent and agency which is our ability to make decisions on our own. It is critical we all understand consent where agreement to participate in a specific activity is given freely and enthusiastically without coaxing and can be withdrawn at any time, whether or not the activity has started.

Some structures function to limit us and force non-consensual activities such as the belief that men are entitled to the bodies of their wives and wives are biblically bound by a one-time consent rule. These cause harm on multiple levels and are contributing factors in the high rate of sexual violence in The Bahamas. People look to the church for direction, and the leadership needs to stand up and provide it in ways that create change.

Published by The Tribune on May 1, 2019.

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