I am often asked how others can contribute to or support my fight to end violence against women, both in my home country of the Democratic Republic of the Congo as well as the world over. Having just returned to the DRC after a journey to the U.S. to receive awards for my work repairing the bodies and futures of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) victims, I have had time for a moment’s reflection on this question.
In addition to the usual needs of any worthwhile effort to shift social norms – for example, generating political will and demonstrating positive role models — the movement to end violence against women is most in need of the collective faith community bringing its full power to bear on this issue. As a doctor and an advocate for women, as well as a man of deep personal faith, I believe that now is the time for the faith community to take coordinated, concerted action to speak out forcefully against sexual violence.
SGBV is a public health emergency devastating its victims and their families physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Sexual violence is a horrific act that the perpetrator forgets, but the survivor does not, with the consequences continuing – from the posttraumatic stress, to compromised health to the lower survival rates of her children. And these crimes are not just occurring in areas of war and civil unrest. Rather, they are a part of deeply ingrained behavior in all levels society the entire world over. This year, the World Health Organization reported that 1 in 3 women globally will experience SGBV in her lifetime. Studies in the United States produced similar findings.
Rape is a war crime and can be an act of genocide. Yet we often do not respond adequately to it as a global society. For example, in my country, women impregnated by rape may pass HIV to their babies. Children born from rape may also suffer community rejection because of the atrocities of their conception. SGBV programs must take this dynamic into account.
SGBV requires a holistic response that does not forget the indirect victims of rape, the spouses and children of the victims and the community at large. We must remember that rape tears at the social fabric of communities because victims and their families often “lose” themselves. This is why the faith community is so important to this effort.
The faith community is a powerful agent of social change and possesses a founding principle of love and spirituality as well as the power and influence to lead individuals and communities to respond appropriately and effectively to SGBV. Faith leaders and their communities have immense power to reach all levels of society as well as a proven track record of leadership on such issues as poverty alleviation, HIV/AIDS and malaria.
Yet despite sexual violence’s being endemic the world over, leaving massive destruction in its wake, the faith community has remained virtually silent on this issue and sometimes has even perpetuated the stigma and discrimination of SGBV survivors. This was brought to light by a 2011 Tearfund report called “Silent No More” that highlighted the church’s collective silence and failure to adequately respond to SGBV around the world. It called all churches to account and to action, spurring a movement called “WeWillSpeakOut.”
The good news is that since 2011, WeWillSpeakOut has been building momentum and inspiring other organizations to form national versions of the campaign. Earlier this year a version was launched in the United States called WeWillSpeakOut.US and a WeWillSpeakOut South Africa will launch on Nov. 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. I welcome these efforts, but more leadership by faith leaders is still needed.
As a global faith community, we must give survivors a voice and adequate support. It is important to enforce laws, but just as important, the faith community must ensure that women are not re-victimized or blamed for what happened to them. That has gone on for too long and faith communities have been complicit in that. We must believe survivors if they are brave enough to disclose what happened to them. With a sexual assault, a perpetrator steals a victim’s power. We must give the survivor back their power.
Today I am calling on my brothers and sisters in the faith community to join me in this effort by speaking out in a collective voice for an end to sexual and gender-based violence. This Sunday is Speak Out Sunday— a chance for all of us in the faith community to “speak out” together against sexual and gender based violence. Monday is the first of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, another chance to educate and raise awareness about SGBV locally, nationally and globally. Join me and other leaders of WeWillSpeakOut and WeWillSpeakOut.US and together let us change our global culture of tolerance and inaction of sexual and gender based violence once and for all.
Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013, Denis Mukwege Mukengere is the founder and medical director of Panzi Hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo where he specializes in the treatment and care of survivors of sexual violence.
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