Scan the pews on a typical Sunday morning, and it’s likely that several women within eyeshot have been hit, verbally abused, stalked, or raped by the men in their lives. In the United States and worldwide, gender-based violence affects one in three women, regardless of how much money she makes, her level of education, or where she lives. The abuse taxes a woman in every way—emotionally, physically, mentally, and economically—as well as our society as a whole.
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Clergy and other religious figures are often the initial point of contact for women seeking help, and while some congregations can offer counseling or other resources, most often women need a more extensive network—emergency shelter, financial help, or medical care, for example. These kinds of services depend on strong community support—and that requires funding.
But women seeking a way out of abusive situations may face a dwindling number of options. In January, President Bush proposed a budget that cuts $120 million from the 14-year-old Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), a federal law that supports programs including transitional housing, domestic violence hotlines, the enforcement of protection orders, and anti-violence education and training on campuses. That’s 30 percent of its funding. So in addition to the difficult, and often dangerous, task of leaving her abuser, a woman faces the equally Herculean task of trying to heal and rebuild her and her children’s lives with diminishing support from her local community.
Two newly formed coalitions of women’s advocates intend to ensure that effective programs continue and increase, not just for women in the U.S. but for women worldwide. In February, faith-based activists launched the Interfaith Domestic Violence Coalition (IDVC), a group of 21 organizations—including the Mennonite Central Committee, the Union for Reform Judaism, and Islamic Social Services Association—that aims, among other initiatives, to get VOWA fully funded, at least to its 2006 level. To that end they’ve mobilized clergy and laity to educate themselves on the issues, and to write and lobby their representatives.
“I’M GLAD the faith community has become so involved, and that many are acknowledging that domestic violence happens, which is the first step to stopping it,” said Tovah Kasdin, program manager at Jewish Women International, the group that birthed the coalition. “On lobby visits, [congressional staffers] are enjoying hearing from a different voice. They haven’t always heard from the faith community.”
The IDVC also supports the International Violence Against Women Act, a bill introduced last October that provides $1 billion over five years to violence-prevention and reduction programs worldwide—many in developing countries, where women have far fewer resources. Up to two dozen countries with poor records on gender-based violence will be targeted, with funds going toward training police and courts to recognize the abuse, or protecting women and girls from genital mutilation, mass rape as a tool of war, and sex trafficking. Other programs provide microfinance and other economic empowerment opportunities; if a woman can support herself and her children, it’s more likely that she’ll be able to leave her abuser.
Gender-based violence is a leading cause of poverty, and changing attitudes and structures that condone or permit it requires major investments of faith, sweat, and money. It also requires collaboration from all levels of society. Another newly created coalition, the Women, Faith, and Development Alliance, is combining forces—more than 90 faith-based, nonprofit, government, women’s, and development organizations in all—to work against the poverty that women and girls suffer disproportionately. Ending outright violence is a crucial element to this fight.
“Appalling abuses are still being committed against women,” said former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, speaking at the April ceremony celebrating the alliance’s launch in Washington, D.C. “Some say all this is cultural and there’s nothing anybody can do about it. I say it’s criminal, and we each have an obligation to stop it.”