To facilitate greater exchange of grassroots knowledge, resources, best practices, and lessons learned, we are conducting a series of guest interviews to sustain both public and private conversations about critical and timely issues.
In recognition of International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, which takes place annually on Nov. 25, we are discussing religious perspectives on violence against women. Professor Stan Chu Ilo, PhD., is a Research Professor at the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology, DePaul University, Chicago, USA.
Forum on Women: Can you tell us a little about yourself and your work?
Fr. Ilo: I will say that I wear several hats. First, I am a Catholic priest, originally from Nigeria, who is an African-Canadian working in the United States as a professor of religion and world Christianity at DePaul University, Chicago.
I will identify myself with the Catholicism represented in a unique way by Pope Francis’ call that the church should be a habor for the poor. This means that like every other authentic religion the goal of Christianity is to transform human hearts and human cultures so that the world will be a better place.
This can be achieved when we all commit ourselves to a God-centered ethics of love, compassion, care and solidarity toward all human beings and the world of nature.
This begins with a change in the heart of people, so that they think more about others rather than only about themselves; that they avoid the enslaving selfish and prideful tendencies which lead to violence, greed, envy, anger and other deadly sins which hurt individuals and hurt their neighbors.
I believe that religion and faith can play an important role in social transformation because there is a significant part of the human population particularly in Africa who see reality only through the lens of God. So I work in using faith-based narratives and praxis to reach out to the poor, women, minorities and those who are marginalized because of their color, sex, sexuality, gender, or creed.
14 years ago I started a charity in Canada, the Canadian Samaritans for Africa, with some Canadians to work on supporting local communities in Africa in the provision of water and sanitation and the improvement of community health especially for women. One of our most successful projects was done in Nigeria and received an EPA award.
It was nominated for the Mondiologo award in 2009 because it was rated as one of the top ten successful student and community-led projects in the world. We did that project in collaboration with the Engineers Without Borders-USA at the University of Illinois Urbana- Champaign. The project was featured by the State Department as a success story.
However, within the last ten years our group has concentrated on working in five African countries — Uganda, Kenya, Central African Republic, Nigeria and Burkina Faso — building on the assets of African women in rural communities through micro-credit, skills development, support for income-generating activities for women and civic and legal education on their rights and claims.
We prioritize assets over needs because we believe that African women are immensely gifted and have strong local organizations, and individual and communal capacities to grow wealth and break the cycle of inter-generational poverty. However, the experience from the ten active women groups we currently work with shows that the best way of protecting the rights of women is to give them economic power.
There will be no women’s rights without authentic freedom which comes from economic power. So we are concentrating particularly in countries like Uganda and Central African Republic which are recovering from wars. We have found a formidable partner and model in Sr Rosemary Nyirumbe whose work has been featured in the documentary Sewing Hope.
What she has done is exceptional in rescuing more than 4,000 young girls and women from abduction by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda and giving them hope through education and skills. So we are trying to identify sites of hope for African women in small communities leveraging on the assets of the women themselves and scaling up their operation through credit, skills development, and emotional, cultural, legal, economic and spiritual empowerment.
Forum on Women: What are your thoughts on religion and domestic violence? Does your religion support domestic violence? If not, how so?
Fr. Ilo: I identify myself with both Christianity and the values of African Traditional Religions. I actually see African Christianity as a new phase in the evolution of African Traditional Religion, but this is a topic for another day. However, these are the two religious frameworks which I will use to answer this question. I will say categorically ‘NO.’
Christianity does not support domestic violence nor do I believe that true Christianity supports any form of violence. Actually, no authentic religion supports violence. People sometimes abuse religion; every human reality is open to abuse.
However, I will like to say that even if we didn’t have religion or religious groups, people will still be violent if they choose to live in selfishness and without loving and caring for their neighbors in a spirit of sacrifice. Violence is rooted in the heart of human beings because of selfishness and pride — personal, cultural, religious, national, racial, ethnic etc. Even though many use religion as justification or an instrument to express their violence, I do not believe that religion is the cause or source of violence. Like any instrument — gun, nationalism, economic interest — people may use or abuse religion for expressing what unfortunately is an evil tendency in humanity to conquer, and dominate in the fight for survival.
The Christian tradition condemns violence against women in its entirety. Christianity teaches that marriage is a covenant between equals; it is a union of love, respect, complementarity, partnership, and reverence between two people who become one mind, heart and soul. This is why St. Paul asks husbands to love their wives as they would love their own body and treat their wives as they would treat and care for their own body. This harkens back to the Creation story in Genesis when God made Eve out of the ribs of Adam, and in joy Adam called Eve, the ‘flesh of my flesh.’ So who in their right mind will inflict violence on their own body?
The love in the family, according to the Christian tradition, is modeled after the kind of love which Jesus Christ has for the church and humanity; it is a love that forgives; a love which goes the extra mile; a love which is tolerant and a love which heals and renews the human spirit. There are many passages in the scripture and in Christian teaching which uphold this basic ethical, spiritual and moral insight and practices about marriage.
The most important teaching though for me which clearly shows the rejection of domestic violence in the Christian tradition is the basic Christian anthropology that everyone is created in the image and likeness of God; everyone is beautiful unto God and everyone’s right and freedom flows from the inestimable dignity of every human life. In that light, the dignity of a woman is no less than that of a man in a marriage for eg. Human dignity is to be prized not priced; so Christianity rejects as a grave sin against God acts of violence against women and any marginalization of women or any treatment of women as objects of pleasure. This is because the woman stands in the place of Christ who says that ‘whatsoever you do to the least of the brethren you did to me.’ So any violence against any woman or any exploitation of a woman is an offence against God.
Catholicism particularly upholds in her social teaching an option for the poor—the vulnerable and the historically marginalized. The church teaches that God who takes side with the poor seeks the liberation of women from any structures and systems in which violence, suppression and subordination of women fester.
As per African Traditional Religion, I can summarize this with a proverb from my Igbo ethnic group in South Eastern Nigeria which says: “Any man who beats his wife has lost his manhood.” There are serious repercussion and punitive measures which are inflicted on a wife-beater. In my community, a wife-beater is regarded as a coward. He is also treated as a threat to society and a source of negation of the highest value of the ethnic group which is the giving of life which in traditional society has always been iconic of womanhood.
Forum on Women: One of the major roadblocks that activists have faced when dealing with issues of violence against women is that abusive men tend to find texts and interpretations of texts to justify their behavior. Are there really texts that justify these behaviors, and how can activists deal with such issues?
Fr. Ilo: Religion is a cultural system, as Clifford Geertz, one of my favorite cultural anthropologists, argues. What it means is that somehow people construct religious narratives and legitimize practices based on the interpretation of religious texts and traditions by the dominant power base which controls a particular religious system. Christianity particularly expressed through my own tradition, Catholicism, is very male-dominated. It is therefore not surprising that the ‘hidden transcript’ behind some Christian texts is patriarchy hence some interpretations of biblical claims that the man is the head of the family could fuel misogyny and violence against women.
However, in my work I do not encounter many African men who make appeals to religious texts in justifying abusive behavior; they just act based on the prevailing patriarchal thinking and cultural patterns. They also treat women that way because there are still no enforceable legal protections for women against violence acts from their husbands and partners in many countries in Africa.
This is why I think that this problem is much more complex and cultural. If someone appealed to biblical text to justify an action, it is actually easy to engage the person in dialogue at the level of interpretations. One could show that many biblical texts multiple meaning and traditions than is expressed. In addition, some biblical texts are very contextual reflecting the gender bias or limited cultural understanding of certain realities at a particular point in history.
What is most fundamental for me is the mindset of men, African men in particular, and the failure to change the socialization process for men in Africa today. This is why violence against women and this unacceptable cultural reproduction of male dominance, and oppressive cultural practices and customs which deny women of their rights are still common place.
Changing mindsets and worldviews are difficult. I do not think that violence against women in Africa is simply the product of what Africans learned from the bible. I will say that it is a coming together of different traces of traditional, cultural, religious and biblical narratives especially the teaching that women must obey their husbands, and that it is ‘the man who goes out in search of the woman and proposes to her.’
Thus the argument goes that marriage and family is the initiative of the man and should be sustained through the domestic ordinances of the man. The biblical ideal of obedience in marriage is shown to be mutual between partners.
However, it is not uncommon to see male Christians who hold on to some interpretation that the man is the head of the family and somehow the man calls the shots and may adopt certain disciplinary practices including ‘wife beating’ if need be to enforce compliance just as he could do with his children. It is the man who ‘owns’ the wife, according to this kind of thinking.
As for how activists can work around this, I will propose that they begin with understanding how African men think about male-female relationship and the objectification of womanhood. So there is need for cultural proficiency especially with regard to the cultural knowledge behind the mindset which perpetuates or legitimizes some form of violence against women.
The other point is about what is so common in many African Christian churches where women are often being blamed for the death of their spouses, for divorce, for childlessness etc. In some cases, I have seen a raped woman or young girl being blamed for this terrible crime because she ‘seduced’ a man by her way of dressing! Violence against women also come in various shapes in our churches in Africa.
Many healing sessions in churches in Africa are populated by African women who are often seeking healing for being under the ‘attack’ of demonic spirit, or for being possessed with the spirit of witchcraft, sorcery etc. I worry about religiously validated negation of womanhood or the treatment of a woman’s body as the repository of evil, water spirits etc in some African Christian groups.
Violence against women in Africa is also reflected through these religious rituals not only in the psycho-emotional destruction of women but also the often violent beating that go with ‘deliverance’ sessions for women suspected of being witches, or being possessed with evil spirits. The beating is always severe for those accused women who refuse to confess their membership in the spirit world.
So social activists must begin with re-education of men and education of women on their rights. Also women themselves need to be liberated from centuries of being made to accept this situation as natural. Things can actually change and have changed in many African countries where practices like Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and wife beating have been outlawed.
We must also understand that every religious narrative while being representative of some voices, marginalizes other voices, hence activism might begin by exposing the power play in religious systems and narratives and showing how they negatively damage women’s rights in particular but also society in general.
Forum on Women: For many women who are religious especially in Africa, a first response to abuse by an intimate partner is to seek out help from their faith leader such as an Imam or Pastor. How would you advice such leaders to address this issue?
Fr. Ilo: I will advise religious leaders to do the following:
(i) Listen to women who bring their pains and sorrows to you without being quick to judge, blame and condemn them. I have heard some colleagues talk down on women or pass harsh judgments like this; ‘what is it that you are doing that makes your husband to beat you.’
Religious leaders must learn to enter into the mess, chaos, brokenness and pain of many African women and accompany them with mercy, compassion and hope;
(ii) Use the language of love and affirmation in embracing women’s stories of pain. I mean that we should use appropriate language of communication which is respectful of women and preserves their dignity and privacy in helping those who come to us with their daily stories and struggles.
Sometimes simply citing passages from the Bible or Quran will not help or heal. Also spiritualizing the situation by calling violence ‘a time of temptation’ for the woman and calling for more prayers etc may actually be a way of enabling the man’s unacceptable behavior.
Men’s violence against women in Africa—domestic violence, sexual violence, verbal violence, sexual harassment, rape etc—reflect immaturity, irresponsibility, and some personality problems on the part of some men and a patriarchal mindset which needs to be addressed culturally, legally and also pastorally in a more comprehensive way. Priests and imams must, therefore, speak from the heart and show how religious texts can heal the pain and darkness of the woman who is suffering;
(iii) Strengthening the agency of women even when they are broken and suffering. The whole goal of pastoral intervention is to give the woman hope and agency to fight her own fight and to walk away where necessary from an abusive and destructive marriage or relationship.
Justice also demands that healing of both victim and victimizer requires appropriate measures to hold the victimizer accountable under the law. Sometimes the appeal to the Christian proposition that marriage is ‘for better and for worse’ in order to remain in a bad and abusive marriage creates double victimhood for women. Pastors should not be too quick to fix marital problems especially where violence is present.
Sometimes it might be necessary to journey with the woman and then the man rather than read the riot act to them or rush into fixing the problem; sometimes it might need helping to get the woman legal services to press charges against a man and secure the rights of the woman should a divorce become inevitable;
(iv) I think that given the rate of violence against women in Africa that there should be a legal aid group in most churches and mosques to provide legal and counseling support for women. A lot of our pastors and imams have very limited professional training or skills in adequately addressing domestic violence.
In that regard, I propose that churches and mosques may need to engage the services of social workers and work in a more coordinated way with other agencies in this fight to secure the dignity and rights of African women against violence.
Also, leadership in churches and mosques is male-dominated so some of religious leaders are biased against women and may even be complicit in covering sexual abuse against women through a culture of secrecy which still exists around sme of these crimes against women.
In this kind of situation, the women who come to them become double victims. I propose that establishing a committee of experts, populated by women and those who understand the context and structure of oppression against women even in religious groups might be a good starting point.
Forum on Women: What are the consequences of violence against women to the societies in general and in religion?
Fr. Ilo: The United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women of 1993 defined violence against women as ‘any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.’
There are three consequences of violence against women in Africa among many which I identify from my work:
(i) It destroys the feminine genius. No society can progress when a majority of her population is suffering and not realizing their potentials. I think of how better my faith tradition, the Catholic Church, would have been if it allowed women greater participation in leadership and greater input in decision-making. The same could be said of African societies where women are very active in the labor sector and in agriculture—more in percentage according to ILO than men—but because of cultural factors their talents and skills are not being used;
(ii) It destroys families and delegitimizes religions: violence replicates itself as a vicious cycle. Research shows that abusive fathers tend to produce abusive children and that abusive fathers create an unhealthy family climate for the flourishing of positive human spirits and values in the children. Catholicism teaches that the family is a domestic church where all the wonderful things we want to see in our world should be happening in a small way because the family is the miniature cosmos.
The UN calls the rights and welfare of the child a ‘first call’ on society’s resources but what is the fate of children who watch their father beating their mother on a regular basis? I am convinced that violence against women is the greatest threat to families because it damages the central core of family and society which is love, respect and compassion and care for everyone.
Any religion whose texts, teaching or practices in any manner or shape legitimize violence against women has lost its soul because authentic religion is about how to make the world a better place by the way we treat each other;
(iii) it destroys our human future. We cannot have a better world when over half of the world’s population—women—is living in unacceptable situations of violence, exploitation and abuse. Women preserve human futures by conserving and transmitting values and traditions which in Africa for instance are conveyed through the stories of our grandmothers. Without the safe space to flourish, our women in Africa will not offer the world their unique gift.
Forum on Women: Prevention is key in ending #VAW, based on religious views, what are effective prevention strategies?
Fr. Ilo: First, prevention cannot be achieved solely through a religious approach. All stakeholders—religious groups, civil society, governments, NGOs, women’s groups etc must work together through a multi-pronged, multi-sectoral strategy.
Second, African nations, clans and ethnic groups must educate African men to respect the dignity and rights of African women. Third, women at all levels in Africa should be educated on their rights; this is what we try to do through our charity, the Canadian Samaritans for Africa.
I have personally been part of programs in three African countries where educating and empowering women led to changes on the part of their men. Fourth is economic power. This is because beyond creating safe heavens for women and legal protections, the greatest weapon in the hand of African women for combating violence from men is economic power which is the route to authentic freedom for our African womenfolk.
Many people have wondered why Africa has not made significant progress in protecting women against violence despite the clear commitment made in 1995 by 53 African nations with the African Union’s Protocol on the Rights of African Women.
There is a lack of political will to change because unfortunately some of the African leaders and ‘big men’ take advantage of women too. African Recovery reports that violence against women in Africa goes beyond domestic violence. It includes forced marriage, dowry-related violence, marital rape, wife-beating, and sexual harassment, intimidation at work and in educational institutions, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, forced sterilization, trafficking and forced prostitution.
These practices cause trauma, injuries, the spread of HIV/AIDS, and even death to many African women. Churches and other religious groups must see these evils as sinful in the sight of God and take concrete steps to prevent them through a well coordinated messaging and practical ethical models of behavior. All religious peoples and groups in Africa as well as all men and women of goodwill must see violence against women as an unmitigated evil and a social epidemic which must be prevented through every good means at our disposal.
Professor Ilo is also the editor of African Christian Studies Series for Pickwick Publications, Wipf and Stock Publishers. He is a visiting faculty member at the Institute of Social Ministry and Mission, Tangaza University College, Nairobi, Kenya and is the founder and President of the Canadian Samaritans for Africa, a registered Canadian charity working to alleviate poverty among African women and helping to develop the assets of African women in four African countries. He is a commentator on Africa, religion, and politics for Canada Television (CTV), and Al-Jezzera. He writes columns for CNN African Voices, The Hill Newspaper, Washington, DC, Catholic Register and Premium Times. He is a blogger for Huffington Post (World Affairs, Religion, and Black Voices). He is the author of The Church and Development in Africa: Aid and Development from the Perspective of Catholic Social Ethics (2014) and the editor of the forthcoming book, Searching for Abundant Life: Christianity, Money and Africa’s March Towards Modernity.