Religious Leaders must raise their Voices against Sexual Violence!

Basita Michael

Due to lack of research and constraints in surveys, the true extent of sexual and gender-based violence is not readily known, but according to police statistics in early 2019, reported cases of sexual and gender-based violence nearly doubled in 2018 to over 8,500, a third of which involved a minor. As the magnitude was felt among Sierra Leoneans, the First Lady Madam Fatima Bio launched the Hands Off our Girl Campaign in December 2018, to advocate against early marriage and rape. The black Tuesday movement, an initiative by Asmaa James was also launched, to raise awareness on issues of rape and sexual violence. These initiatives coupled with the public outcry urged the President to declare rape a National Emergency in February 2019. Civil society and activists also campaigned and advocated for reforms that led to the amendment of the Sexual Offences Act 2012 in 2019.

Despite the enormous strides made by key national and international bodies as well as the government, reports of rape and sexual penetration of minors have steadily increased according to Daniel Kettor Executive Director Rainbow Initiative, an organization responsible for providing free medical counseling to victims of sexual and gender-based violence. Figures collated by the centre show that in 2018 there were 3,137 reported cases of sexual abuse in their 5 operating centres, 76 percent of rape victims were below the age of 15 including babies and the remaining victims between the ages of 16 and 20. In Freetown alone, there were 1,491 cases of sexual abuse reported between January and October 2018, with the youngest victim just seven months old and the oldest aged 85. At a recent press briefing jointly held by FSU of the Sierra Leone Police Force and the Rainbow Center, the FSU reported that for the year they had received 12,314 cases of sexual and gender based violence and the Rainbow Center for the same period reported receiving 3,070 of sexual and gender based violence.

In all the efforts made to battle sexual violence against women, what remains prominently and conspicuously absent is the powerful voice of religious leaders. All forms of abuse of women go against religious teachings, yet all too often our religious leaders have been silent in the face of sexual violence against women and children. The Sierra Leone inter-religious council as an organization is itself also quiet on the issue.

With Muslims making up an estimated sixty percent of Sierra Leone’s seven million population  and Christians another fifteen to twenty per cent, the recognition of the roles of the mosques, churches and their agencies in the spiritual, cultural and socio-economic development of Sierra Leone before and after independence is well documented. The Inter Religious Council of Sierra Leone was established in April 1997. Its members include the Supreme Islamic Council, the Sierra Leone Muslim Congress, the Federation of Muslim Women Associations in Sierra Leone, the Council of Imams, the Sierra Leone Islamic Missionary Union, the Roman Catholic Church, the Pentecostal Churches Council and the Council of Churches in Sierra Leone (an umbrella for eighteen Protestant denominations). The IRCSL is a very powerful and influential institution. The role of IRCSL in the peace process and its once powerful voice are also well documented.  

In an article written by Thomas Mark Turay in September 2000 in the Accord, Issue 9, he examined the inception, growing influence and the contribution to peace talks of the Inter-Religious Council of Sierra Leone. According to Thomas Mark Turay, “the Council was inspired primarily by religious beliefs in the promotion of social justice…”

Among Sierra Leone’s civil society groups, he wrote “the IRCSL showed great initiative and played a significant role in facilitating dialogue and building confidence among the different parties to the conflict, both prior to and after the Lomé peace talks. The IRCSL earned the respect of civil society, the parties to the conflict and the international community. The Council achieved this status through a variety of actions such as consultative meetings with all the key players in the crisis, press releases, communiqués, experience sharing, prayers, and the preaching of God’s message of repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation.”

The writer observed that “Among the numerous players involved in shaping the Lomé Peace Agreement, the Inter-Religious Council of Sierra Leone (IRCSL) stands out as the most highly visible and effective non-governmental bridge builder between the warring factions and a population devastated and divided by more than eight years of violence.”

Not too long ago in an another article in Agence de Press Africaine (APA News) Feb 2019, Reverend Osman Jesse Fornah, Secretary General of IRC, was quoted saying “Today, we have a new government that we are calling on to please work with the Inter Religious Council because this council is recognized and we are more than willing to support programs and policies of the government of the day,” he added. It was reported that Mr. Fornah’s appeal came as international partners sought to enlist religious leaders in efforts to tackle rising political tension stemming from the 2018 general election.

Their perceived silence in the face of the spread of sexual violence in Sierra Leone when contrasted to their once active and proactive role in the peace process and the call for calm after the last general elections combined with a clear misunderstanding of religious texts by some followers who erroneously believe those texts justify the abuse of women and girls puts the ICRSL in an uncomplimentary light.

Just as the rebel war affected Peace and stability, Sexual Violence of women and children threatens peace and stability as it affects the lives and wellbeing of not just the victims but their communities too. With the figures on the rise, sexual violence against women and children must no longer be ignored by our religious leaders. They are morally obligated to speak against it. More than any civil society, religious leaders are better suited to lead the fight from the very front. As highly respected figures within their communities by virtue of their spiritual standing, they can play an unparalleled role in educating, preventing and advocating against sexual violence.

But what does the public think of religious leaders with regards their role in the fight against sexual violence? People spoken to by SierraEye Magazine agreed that religious leaders should take a much more active role in the fight against rape or sexual penetration in Sierra Leone. Although they are making some efforts, according to Clara Carlton-Hanciles, “they could talk about it more in church and really help sensitization.”

For Desmonda Dennicia Rennise Thomas “there should be a general assembly for both Pastors and Imams to discuss ways to help fight against rape and sexual violence” further suggesting that “Religious leaders should start preaching against rape to their congregation and also the consequences of such act.”  It is also essential that the government engages religious leaders in a bid to spur them to take the lead in the fight against sexual offences, suggested Nyakeh Stephen Joseph Gomeh of Evangel Assembly Of God Church, Murray Town.

His Grace the Very Reverend Tamba Charles, Arch Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Freetown, is President of the Inter-Religious Council. He acknowledged the roles they have played in the restoration of peace, their role in prevailing on President Ernest Bai Koroma not to sing into law the Abortion Bill. He argued that they have been preaching against sexual violence because the act of rape and sexual violence contravene the teachings of morality.

But it should go beyond that. Through their various existing structures such as leadership bodies, local congregations, women’s groups, youth groups and other relevant groups, religious leaders hold the power to break the culture of silence and become a key player in the fight against sexual violence. We therefore call upon the Inter Religious Council to direct Churches and Mosques to take a firm stand against sexual violence of women through the following steps:

Include Violence Against Women Into Religious Sermons: Putting violence against women on the agenda during Sermons and other religious gatherings and speaking clearly and precisely against such acts of violence and emphasizing spiritual teachings of equality and the respectful treatment of women and girls will go a long way.

Setting the Record Straight about Religious Texts: Unfortunately, many inaccurate interpretations of the Quran and the Bible about Women are taken as truths. Religious leaders can help set the record straight by rejecting such misinterpretations especially those that shift the blame from the perpetrator to the victim. Ways in which this can be done include regularly holding workshops, seminars and conferences to examine texts that are misinterpreted or manipulated to justify the abuse of women and girls and counter such negative interpretations with other interpretations that protect the dignity and integrity of every human being.

Desist From Victim Blaming: In the very few if not rare instances where religious leaders dwell into the subject it is not a secret that while they speak against rape and sexual violence in the process they engage in victim blaming. They blame women and girls for dressing and acting in ways that trigger rape and sexual assault. The Inter- Religious Council should therefore issue a directive, explaining to religious figures that giving such explanation serves no good purpose and serves to wrongly dilute the responsibility of perpetrators and serves to exonerate them. The way a person looks or dresses must never be a reason to justify or dilute an act of violence against women and children.

Provide a Safe Haven: Support the fight by providing a safe space for women and girls to come forward and seek refuge. Health and legal services, as well as educational, economic and other supports can be provided. Such compassionate approach will go a long way.

For too long, religious leaders have been silent on violence against women. It is about time they break the silence and act. We therefore urge the Sierra Leone Inter Religious Council and religious leaders across Sierra Leone to harness their untapped power and join the efforts in preventing Sexual violence of Women and Children by taking the above steps. You cannot afford to remain silent when so many girls and women are suffering from the scourge of Sexual Violence. You have the moral responsibility to speak up and act. 

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