Church Groups Focus on Gender-Based Violence at IAC

Becky Johnson

Is the focus on gender-based violence at the Ecumenical Pre-Conference an encouraging sign that churches are moving past patriarchy and coming to term with a reality that affects an estimated 1 in 3 women worldwide?

Herlyn Uiras was 16
years old when she and a friend were hitchhiking with a group of men in their
native Namibia.
Persuaded to go to South
Africa because of the wealth and opportunities
that the country offered, Uiras and her friend were blindfolded at the border,
transported to the community of Potchefstroom, and raped. Urging the rapist to
use a condom, he complied, but later laughed when the condom broke. Later,
Uiras found herself in Johannesburg,
where she again tried to negotiate condom use during sex, but was unsuccessful.
After becoming sick and being hospitalized, Uiras learned of her HIV-positive

Now 23 years old, Uiras
shared her story in front of nearly 500 Christian religious leaders and
delegates during the Ecumenical
to the XVII
International AIDS Conference
in Mexico
City. Not commonly a topic of discussion in religious
circles, gender-based violence and human trafficking was given its own plenary
session and six workshop slots during the three-day event leading up to the
world’s largest conference on a single health issue.

"Many faith-based
organizations are ill-prepared to deal with gender based violence and HIV and
AIDS," stated Pauline Muchina, Senior Women and AIDS Advocacy Officer at UNAIDS, and member of the Anglican Church
in Kenya.
She noted that religion has often been used to perpetuate gender based
violence, promote patriarchal views, and that churches have too often remained
silent on the issue. In a workshop earlier in the pre-conference Muchina said
that the church needs to re-educate its members, rethink its teachings on
gender, and involve men, boys and male religious leaders in its response to
gender based violence.

However, Muchina noted,
there are already some faith-based organizations involved in addressing gender
based violence. She cited the Malawi
Ecumenical Counseling
Center, which has created
a manual on gender based violence for religious leaders, and the Salvation Army,
which offers advocacy and a rehabilitative program for trafficking survivors.
Uiras herself is now working with Churches
United Against HIV and AIDS in Southern and Eastern Africa (CUAHA)
, a
network of churches that has pledged to target human trafficking into South Africa in
light of that country hosting the 2010 FIFA World Cup by helping victims,
training counselors, and educating police about the dangers and potentials of

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Reflecting on her own
experience of being molested as a child, Kay Warren, Executive Director of the HIV/AIDS Initiative at
Saddleback Church
, a mega-church in Lake Forest,
California, said she felt like her church couldn’t
help her deal with her experience. Today her church has raised the issue of
sexual, physical and emotional violence during church services, organized
support groups for survivors, and created a resources page on its website.

Is the focus on gender
based violence in this Christian conference, and the handful of churches
already addressing it an encouraging sign that churches are moving past
patriarchy and coming to term with a reality that affects an estimated 1 in 3
women worldwide
? A packed session room for a workshop on addressing
sexuality and masculinity in the church, and research presented by an evangelical Christian
that presented a program that was successful in changing
gender attitudes and cultural norms among churchgoers in two African countries
show signs of hope.

With 500 Christians
attending the pre-conference, and an estimated 1.5 billion followers worldwide,
the true test will come over time. Creating a fora for dialogue on gender based
violence and human trafficking amongst religious leaders and people of faith
involved in the global response to HIV is just the beginning, but sends a clear
message to churches that it is time to stop the silence and inaction surrounding
these issues.

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