The Elephant in the Sanctuary: Women and Abuse

By Mimi Haddad 04-08-2011

I concluded my celebration of Women's History Month (March) with a sober realization that the abuse of females is inseparable from the study of women's history.

When my organization Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE) began, within months we heard from abused women everywhere. Since then, CBE has endeavored to understand why so many Christian women have encountered abuse, and how the church might become agents of healing and reconciliation.

The World Health Organization released a 10-year study interviewing 24,000 women to learn more about the nature of abuse against women around the world. The World Health Organization believes that somewhere between 15 percent to 71 percent of the world's women report being physically or sexually violated at some point in their lifetimes. Their report also suggests that:

  • Many women said that their first sexual experience was not consensual (24 percent in rural Peru, 28 percent in Tanzania, 30 percent in rural Bangladesh, and 40 percent in South Africa.)
  • Between 4 percent and 12 percent of women reported being physically abused during pregnancy.
  • Every year worldwide, about 5,000 women are murdered by family members in the name of honor.
  • Trafficking of women and girls for forced labor and sex is widespread (more widespread than slavery prior to abolition), and often affects the most vulnerable.
  • Forced marriages and child marriages violate the human rights of women and girls, yet they are widely practiced in many countries in Asia, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Worldwide, up to one-in-five women and one-in-ten men report experiencing sexual abuse as children. Children subjected to sexual abuse are much more likely to encounter other forms of abuse later in life.

Though groups like the World Health Organization have been assessing the prevalence of abuse for years, Christian churches as a whole have been slow to respond to this pervasive problem. For this reason Catherine Clark Kroeger, Nancy Nason-Clark, and Barbara Fisher-Townsend published Beyond Abuse in the Christian Home: Raising Voices for Change, to help pastors and churches address abuse. Citing research from interviews with pastors and women parishioners, here is what they found:

Pastors:

  • Pastors believe one out of every five couples in their congregation is violent.
  • 8 percent feel well-equipped to respond to domestic violence
  • 9 percent have counseled five or more abused women in the last year.
  • 83 percent have counseled at least one abused woman.
  • 31 percent have preached one sermon on abuse.
  • 40 percent discuss violence in premarital counseling.

Women parishioners:

  • 95 percent have never heard a sermon on abuse.
  • 58 percent have personally helped an abused woman.
  • Many Christian women who have been violated by abusive acts do not feel that the term "abused woman" applies to them.

Though abuse against women is prevalent, these findings show that the church is not dealing with it, perhaps because we lack the tools. Thankfully, there are many biblical resources to challenge the abuse of women and girls. While many pastors are reluctant to discuss abuse in premarital counseling, we must continue to present tools for churches all over the world to help couples prepare for healthy marriages free from abuse that live into the fullness of God's love and grace.

Mimi HaddadMimi Haddad is president of Christians for Biblical Equality.

+ Read more about the church and gender in Sojourners magazine.

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