I woke up today in pain. My chest hurt from the first kick I’d gotten. My arms were blue-black. My leg was throbbing where he’d kicked me repeatedly as I lay curled on the floor. I no longer tried to ward off the blows as he attacked me with his hands and feet. Sometimes the licks would simply continue from the day before, like a blind date. He was striving to make me understand that he was in charge and all I had to do was obey. I was beginning to feel like I was going insane! As if I no longer existed, no longer had a say in my own life or the lives of my children.
My Skin, My Tears by Tricia St John (Creative Nonfiction excerpt, 2016)
A battered body. A bruised mind. A feeling of invisibility. A submission brutalised into silence. These are some effects of Domestic Violence on the Body of Christ.
On June 16, during the Corpus Christi holiday, the Holy Faith Sisters and their Nation Building team asked, “How can we build our nation when women and girls are repeatedly battered and bruised? Isn’t the violence against them an attack on the Body of Christ?”
Dr Karene Nathaniel-DeCaires who attempted to answer those questions in her address, ‘The Development and Protection of Women and Girls in Trinidad and Tobago’, first outlined the general situation of women and girls in the Caribbean, assessed the responses of church communities to these members and offered recommendations to alleviate gender violence.
Gender-based violence is on the rise. Physical, sexual, emotional or financial forms of abusive behaviours is reflected through dating violence, intimate partner violence, violence against women and violence between women and girls. It appears in image-based sexual abuse, it is perpetuated through pornography, and it is often manifested in child sexploitation.
Nathaniel-DeCaires cited the report, Twenty-one lessons: preventing domestic violence in the Caribbean, which drew on the 2016 research undertaken by the None in Three (Ni3) team involving participants from Barbados and Grenada. It highlighted that the universal problem that domestic violence affects all parts of the social fabric and transcends ethnic, gender, religious, generational, and economic lines. While women are subject to violence in ways that men are not, men too are sometimes victims of abuse by women, but they are less likely to be seriously injured, maimed, or killed by their partners.
According to Nathaniel-DeCaires, the research highlighted battered women and girls had little confidence in institutions and professionals like the police and social workers who were supposed to assist them. More disturbingly, these females also had very little confidence in faith-based organisations to render any true assistance.
Church Communities and Women
How do faith-based communities respond to women who experience domestic violence?
Apart from telling women to “pray about it,” and reminding them of their marriage vows, church communities minimise the seriousness of domestic violence and often place the responsibility of domestic violence on the woman. Members often imply that the woman made the wrong choice in selecting a partner and they expect her to avoid or reduce her own abuse, “if only” she obeys, listens, cooks, submits, not talk-back etc.
The patriarchal structure of religious organisations continues to perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes by upholding certain beliefs and expectations about the required behaviour and roles of men and women. As such, women are shamed and blamed from the pulpit regarding their behaviour or their dress and made the perpetrators of their own violence. As religious institutions continue to protect male privilege and sense of entitlement, they create a culture in which violence flourishes.
Additionally, as church communities sanitise the language surrounding domestic violence, they create a culture of silence, which contributes to complicity and the perpetuation of that violence.
First, our attitude towards women and girls, deeply entrenched in our cultural and behavioural norms, reflects a flaw in our nation’s social armour. This must be rectified.
Second, Dr Nathaniel-DeCaires suggested that despite the Church’s hesitance to address domestic violence, such violence can be reduced if safe spaces are created and institutions become characterised by honesty, inclusivity, adaptability, freedom to share without being silenced and freedom to speak without fear of judgment. An ‘open-door policy’ that encourages free and open dialogue, together with sensitivity training for clerics and seminarians is necessary.
Third, the elimination of gender violence must also include men and boys. As such, Principal David Simon of Queen’s Royal College (QRC) who is involved in creating awareness for his charges through their ongoing ‘She’s Royal’ programme and filmmaker Oyetayo Ojoade, who advocates for the elimination of domestic violence through public education in his documentary film, My Skin, My Tears, currently available on Vimeo, are both on the right path in achieving this aim.
Fourth, women themselves must become advocates and confront the culture of silence. They must speak on the issue and encourage leaders to do the same. Their failure to support other women in violent situations does not augur well for their development.
Shame. Blame. Shush. Church communities can no longer take these approaches to reduce violence. Empathy. Inclusivity. Sensitivity. These are far more effective deterrents.
On a national level, combatting our culture of violence demands legislation that is not punitive to the woman, forcing her out of her home. Education, prosecution, and rehabilitation of perpetrators are far more effective in healing the hurt of violence that continues to throb violently within this Body of Christ.