International Day to eliminate violence against women, November 2005
As International Day to eliminate Violence Against Women, 25th November marks the start of sixteen days of activism around the world to end all forms of violence against women and girls. The sixteen days end on Human Rights Day, December 10 th . 10 th December marks the anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations in 1948. It is not just one more treaty among others, not simply another piece of paper beloved of governments and diplomats and there to gather dust. It enshrines in International Law the duty of governments to protect the lives and safety of all citizens.
Today we are focusing on millions of women and girls who are living in fear. Across the world, women and girls live in fear of all forms of violence, from armed conflict, to violence within their own homes. In the words of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan:
Violence against women is perhaps the most shameful human rights violation, and it is perhaps the most pervasive. It knows no boundaries of geography, culture or wealth. As long as it continues, we cannot claim to be making real progress towards equality, development, and peace.
Just in case you think this is the problem only found in other countries and not the UK.
The 2003 British Crime Survey estimated that one in two women has experienced some form of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking. Women are more likely to be victims of sustained violence especially when the number of incidents a victim experiences increases. Some forms of violence are specific to women, such as female genital mutilation, and in others such as rape, forced marriage or honour killings, sexual assault, trafficking and physical abuse women are predominantly the victims.
Later we will hear that in the UK on average two women a week are killed by a male partner or former partner. Every minute of the day one incident of domestic violence is reported to the police.
All this must change. But the task is not straightforward. Some of this violence is deeply engrained in our societies, cultures and even religions and faith traditions. And let me as an Archbishop admit that Christians throughout the ages have denigrated women and often used the Bible to do so – and let me apologise for that. It has to be realised that the Bible was written in patriarchal times and that colours the way women were regarded. Every religious tradition has in fact denigrated women and seen them as second-class citizens in the past. Little wonder then that violence has been committed against them when you can back it up with religious justification. Here is Tertlullian, a second century Christina apologist saying "You woman destroyed God’s image, Man" and St Jerome "when a woman wishes to serve Christ more than the world then she will cease to be a woman and be called a man". St Paul has negative views of women. For him man was made in God’s image and woman was designed to be a helpmate not an independent person.
And let us also remember and repent that the Christian Church has invariably been on the wrong side of the debate when it came to the emancipation of women – such things as giving them the vote, opening up the professions to them and so on. Institutional Christianity has undergirded and enforced a patriarchal mindset and we ought to repent and remember the words of St Paul at his very best "In Christ there is neither male nor female" and the most faithful followers of Jesus and the first witnesses to his resurrection were women.
In society at large women still do not have an equal voice. Too often women are treated as second class citizens with the result that issues which affect women are not addressed and discrimination, violence and abuse are ignored. And too often, even those initiatives, which seek to deal with these problems, are poorly funded or handled by those who do not really understand the issues involved. Legislation can only go so far in achieving fundamental changes and often seeks only to deal with these matters in a punitive rather than constructive way.
There is much work to do, which is why this day, organised by the Wales Women’s National Coalition, working with the Women’s National Commission is so important. But the day is not an end in itself. We gather here to be challenged to go from here, determined to do all that we can, at every level of society, to address these problems. This Cathedral is a living witness to the fact that because both men and women are made in the image of God, to mar that is to mar that divine image and is therefore an offence against both humanity and God.
But every one of us, whatever our philosophy of life, whether we come from a faith tradition, or not, whatever our vision for this world, must begin with the belief that the dignity and worth of every human being is paramount. And if we believe that we have to act on it and by doing so diminish the violence of our world. we need to make a difference.