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01 November 2015

Scars across humanity: the scourge of global violence against women

Scars across humanity: the scourge of global violence against women

On 25 November 1960, the Mirabal sisters – three political activists from the Dominican Republic – were brutally murdered following years of campaigning against the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. It’s in commemoration of these affluent, educated women that the UN now marks the annual International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. 

Women all over the world – many of whom are voiceless and living in abject poverty, who no one will remember when they become tragic victims – are suffering horrific abuses and violations. Violence against women is as much a scourge on our society today as it was 50 years ago. And it’s something that writer, thinker, theologian and sociologist Elaine Storkey has witnessed all her life in her travels around the world. But why? That’s the question she asks in her new book Scars Across Humanity. 

“It’s about the ubiquity – the worldwide global incidence – of violence against women, which I have been coming across all my life really without really realising it,” she says. “It’s expressed in different cultural forms in every country.” 

Elaine first became aware of just how prevalent across societies violence against women is during her time as president of Tearfund. “Before Tearfund days I was very involved in counselling women who have been victims of domestic violence, incest and rape. I’ve been part of a number of networks for some years listening to women who were subject to abuse or violence or violation.” 

But it was when she visited Congo that the overwhelming reality of it all hit her “between the eyes”. “It’s a war-torn place,” she says. “Women were being mutilated and abused; used as weapons of war. I met those women and their stories just broke my heart. Then suddenly, every country I went to – whether it was Albania or Hungary or Northern Ireland – I was hearing the same story – that women were being violated. The only thing I felt I could do about it was write.

While lecturing at the Open University, she became familiar with evolutionary biological arguments that endeavoured to explain why violence against women is so prevalent in societies.

“There’s this argument that there’s a selfish gene. We assume we can’t do anything about this because this is the way the world is. But I lose my patience with these arguments because it is nonsense. It renders us not human anymore. It suggests that we’re just automata and I just don’t believe that’s who we are as persons. There are other reasons, including sociological ones: culture,  patriarchy, economics, power, poverty. And religion to some extent where you get powerful people saying things in the name of God.

“But above all, you need a theological framework in which to understand why violence against women happens. Our theological framework is: creation and sin. We were made in the image of God and to serve and love one another. But sin screws that all up. Sin is alienation and delusion and destruction. This is just one manifestation of sin.

“For me, the beauty about the Christian analysis is that sin never has the last word because there’s always the possibility of redemption. There has been a lot of misappropriation of the Bible in relation to women. But there has also been the opposite. Christianity has looked after women and raised their dignity; and that story has to be told as well.

Elaine Storkey has fit more into her life over the years than most people can ever dream of. She’s authored several books including What’s Right With Feminism and The Search for Intimacy. She’s been a regular broadcaster on the BBC for more than 20 years, including writing scripts for the BBC World Service and presenting Thought for the Day on Radio 4. She’s been on the Church of England’s General Synod since 1987. She succeeded John Stott as executive director of the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity (LICC) in 1991. She became president of Tearfund in 1997 and in 2010, along with her husband Alan, founded Restored – a Christian organisation dedicated to ending violence against women. And there’s so much more; including being a member of the Evangelical Alliance’s council member for “longer than she can remember”.

In so many situations, Elaine has been the only woman in the room. She has been braver than she realises and a pioneer for so many women who are following in her footsteps. But does she think things have improved for women over the decades?

“In some ways,” she says. “Numerically, women are doing more. They are more respected and hold more offices. In the Church of England, they’re now bishops. But in many ways we’ve gone backwards as a society. Women still earn less than men doing the same jobs. There are a lot more independent businesswomen. There are far more women in the professions, but there’s huge rates of disrespect towards women. There’s a whole move of sleazy, stand-up humour that we would never have allowed 30 years ago, including horrible rape jokes. How is rape ever funny? And there are people laughing at these jokes.

“There’s a subterranean layer of horrible, horrible rubbish that is still there quite deep in our own society. You don’t have to go to the Congo to find it, you can find it in the UK. The other side of it, of course, is that some women are giving men a much harder time than they used to. There is much more violence against men by women than there used to be.”

Throughout the changes in society and the different places that her work has taken her, Elaine has remained committed to belonging to the evangelical family; and endeavoured to be a clear-thinking, distinctive Christian voice in places where Christians are often not invited to be. But how does she define an evangelical?

“People have the right to define themselves as evangelicals if they believe that Christ is Lord, if they have a personal commitment to him and they believe the Bible is the word of God. They also need to have some understanding of the evangelical tradition: about conversion and about the gospel and evangelism and social action going together. And about justice. All of that for me comes into what it means to be an evangelical. Some people choose to focus on one part of that, but for me it’s about all of it.

“My hope for the Evangelical Alliance is that it will have the kind of penetrating voice in the country that will be most of all a Christian voice and a coherent voice and that it will continue to draw Christians together and that it will take the sting out of this thing called evangelicalism, so that people don’t misunderstand what we are and who we are. An awful lot of people keep suggesting that surely I’m now postevangelical and not really an evangelical. I’m sorry, but I’m an evangelical. 

“I do think, however, that it’s important that we keep our breadth. We differ, but we differ in love. But most of all what unites us is greater than what divides us. What unites us is a passionate love of Jesus Christ and a desire for his kingdom.”

“I wanted to express something as a Christian because so often, feminists believe that religion is part of the problem. But in a very real sense, Christianity is also the solution.”

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