Scars across humanity: An interview with Elaine Storkey

GenderRelationshipsRestoredViolence against Women

Today is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, a day focused on raising awareness of the fact that women around the world are subject to violence and oppression.

This is an issue that is close to Tearfund’s heart. We believe that God has called us to work with churches around the world to challenge this ongoing injustice and to help free women from violence and oppression.

One of the many people who has encouraged us in this work is our friend and former president, Dr Elaine Storkey. Elaine is publishing her new book, Scars Across Humanity: Understanding and Overcoming Violence Against Women, today. Tearfund’s Hannah Swithinbank had the privilege of speaking to Elaine about the book.

Hannah: When – and how – did you first become aware of the problem of violence against women?

Elaine: I have been aware of the issue since I was a teenager: I knew that some women were abused and some men were violent towards them, but I did not really come face-to-face with it until I was a young adult. Even then, I did not really understand the full scale of the problem.

I knew some of the statistics. For example, I knew that violence against women aged between 15 and 44 across the globe produces more deaths, disability and mutilation than cancer, malaria and traffic accidents combined. I knew that one in three girls and women will be beaten or raped in their lifetime. But it was only when I started working with Tearfund that I saw the reality of this in the places I was visiting and the people I met.

Hannah: And what was that experience like?

Elaine: It was really shocking, and it made me so angry. It was not just the violence and suffering that struck me – it was the way that it was so normal in so many places.

In the book, I have written about a trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). During this trip I met with some senior military officers in a community where I had seen a lot of women who had been beaten, raped and mutilated.

The officers wanted to thank me for Tearfund’s work to tackle HIV, and I politely asked if they thought the spread of the disease might be linked to the high rate of violence against women.

At first they simply denied that rape was happening. Even when they admitted that rape did happen and that some Congolese soldiers might be involved, it was clear that no one was being held accountable for this. It was obvious that there was no system or desire to hold anyone accountable for violently abusing and raping women.

Hannah: And is that what led you to write this book?

Elaine: I wanted to understand what was going on, and why. I could see that this kind of violence was a part of our societies, but I did not believe it was ‘natural’ or the way God had intended relationships between men and women to be.

I wanted to do some research into how violence against women had become so normal. I was so furious about what I had seen that I had to do something, and writing a book was something I could do. I hope that by understanding why violence against women is so common we might be able to advocate for change in our societies, and ultimately end the problem.

Hannah: In the book you talk about a number of beliefs, attitudes and behaviours that contribute to violence against women. From what you have seen, what do you think has led to positive culture change in gender relations? What will help to end violence against women?

Elaine: I think there are three things. Firstly, I think changing economic practices helps. When women are given grants and funds, they can start to support themselves, and many become entrepreneurs. This increases their confidence and their expectations of themselves. It raises their profile, which makes them less vulnerable. It can also spur them on to seek education, to become literate and to campaign for equality and empowerment.

Secondly, I think education is important. This includes the education of young women so they are able to be independent of men who might be violent towards them. It also involves teaching both men and women about the value of educating and protecting women.

Thirdly, I think the church has been important. In some places, local churches woke up to the situation and realised that they did not want to live in the kind of society where violence against women would happen. They started to support and empower women – and that has made a real difference.

Hannah: So how can churches make this change?

Elaine: It is essential that the Bible lies behind this work of the church. We have to recognise that there is no justification in the world or in the Bible for violence against women. Once that is preached in churches, it starts to enter into people’s lives and homes, and then culture will change.

I think a key step is for the church to question its own assumptions about men and women and how they should behave. I have found Christian men very open to doing this, including those I met on that trip to the DRC in 2005.

Asking those questions leads these men to turn to the Bible. It encourages them to start to combine their theology with love. They can then put this new understanding into practice in their attitudes to and relationships with women.

Finally, I think the church has to have no tolerance for violence against women. Churches must make no excuses for men who violate women, and should advocate for laws against rape and violence. Sometimes the church can think that it is above human law, as it belongs to the Kingdom of God. If this idea is combined with patriarchal understandings of gender, it can be very dangerous.

But the church can change its own behaviour, especially in discipling its men. It can also advocate for just laws to be made and pursued, and see this as part of its witness. When churches take that lead, that can be very powerful.

Elaine’s book, Scars Across Humanity, was published on 25 November 2015.

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Elaine Storkey

Academic, author and broadcaster Dr Elaine Storkey was President of Tearfund between 1997 and 2013.