“The silence has been broken.”

liberiaToday I find myself in Liberia where I am learning about Episcopal Relief & Development’s work to mobilize faith leaders in the effort to end violence against women and children.  It’s innovative and impressive work (and I’m not just saying that because I’m the president).

Often, approaches to working with faith leaders “instrumentalize” them.  That is to say, it uses faith leaders to deliver messages, usually created by outsiders, around good and bad behavior.  This approach has met with modest success.

Here in Liberia we are trying a new way.  

Rather than coming in with talking points and codes of conduct cooked up in the ivory towers of the NGO world, we have convened faith leaders at all levels — national, county, and district — and co-created with them a tool kit that reframes gender based violence using the local context and is grounded in reinterpreting theological justifications for violence and local cultural norms.  It’s been a long process, but the results are impressive.

On Monday I attended a community gathering of faith and community leaders to discuss the program and to hear about the change that has come about.  Of the dozen or so people that spoke, one woman put it most succinctly.  By forthrightly addressing the issue of violence against women and children, the “silence has been broken,” she said.

There is now mutual accountability in the community.  Reporting of incidents is up, as are prosecutions.  This in turn has acted as a deterrent.  

The initiative has a special focus on teenagers.  As a result the incidence of unwanted pregnancies in this age cohort has declined.  Furthermore, students, teachers, and school administrators have developed a code of conduct that explicitly prohibits the exchange of sexual favors for grades, something that has been a problem.

As a result of the reordering of gender relations in the communities, women now feel comfortable stepping into leadership roles.  Moreover, husbands are now supporting their wives in these roles.  

Sadly, men are more often than not the perpetrators of violence in their families and communities.  What struck me about listening to the men speak today was how relieved they were to be freed from the expectation that to be a man one had to be violent.  By using faith leaders (who are themselves mostly men) to reframe what it means to be a man, men were liberated to be the people they really wanted to be.

Finally, one of the unique features of this program is that it has engaged leaders across all faiths and in particular Christian and Muslim clergy.  To a person, everyone remarked on how good it was to be working together, Muslims and Christians, on a common problem.  By coming together around a common goal, both communities had come to understand and trust each other.

I leave filled with excitement and hope that what has been achieved here can be replicated elsewhere.

NOTE: To learn more about this work check out Episcopal Relief & Development’s website.

Published by Rob Radtke

President & CEO, Episcopal Relief & Development, husband, father, friend, traveler, reader, New Yorker.

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