The Cross and Gendercide: A Theological Response to Global Violence Against Women and Girls
Dr. Elizabeth Gerhardt’s new book addresses the historical, cultural, religious, and political context of global violence against women. Through the lens of theology she proposes how the Church can work together in raising awareness and aid in ending crimes towards women and girls. This passage from her book was taken from Chapter 1, “A Point of Departure: The Cross and Global Violence Against Women and Girls.”
Linda walked tentatively into my small basement office. She was a young woman with short cropped hair and a fresh, newly stitched wound that stretched from her temple, ran across her cheek and ended at her chin. Linda related her terrifying story with little affect and trembling hand gestures. “My husband chased me around the house with a butcher knife and caught up to me, slashing me in my arm and face.” She rolled up her sleeve to show me more stitches. “I ran out of the house screaming, and my neighbor called the police.” Linda’s face finally began to mirror the pain in her voice, and she began to sob. “The policeman walked across the lawn, looked down on me and asked me what I had done to deserve my husband’s abuse.” She pointed to her cheek, “I feel like I’ve been victimized twice, first by my husband and second by the police!” Linda was my first client and my first introduction to the shadow world of violence against women and girls. Over the years I heard hundreds of stories from battered women and girls. Through each story I learned more of the cultural, religious, historical and political supports for violence and the global scope of these heinous crimes.
Violence against women and girls is a human rights problem that impacts the lives of millions of families and communities. In the United States one out of every four women has experienced domestic violence and one out of six has experienced attempted or completed rape. Almost one and a half million women have been abused during the past year, and the health costs are an astounding 5.8 billion dollars. Violence against women has been identified as the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of fifteen and forty-nine and is one of the country’s most expensive health problems. Globally, it is a significant and complex human rights problem that exacerbates the problems of poverty, child abandonment, communicable diseases and homelessness. The perception of violence as a private, family problem has obscured efforts to increase the visibility of this dilemma as a public human rights issue that affects all members of society. Violence against women and girls crosses all borders, cultures and classes.
Statistics that provide a snapshot of the extent of this global problem are overwhelming. Although prohibited in most countries, violence continues and is permitted by political, social, and religious institutions and systems and remains the major cause of the most violent attacks on women and girls. Global violence against women and girls takes on many forms: widespread rape as a tool of war, gender-selective abortions, female genital mutilation, sexual trafficking, disfigurement and economic exploitation of women, among other horrific violent crimes. Maymuna, a fifteen-year-old Nigerian girl, was forced into marrying a sixty-five-year-old local man. She conceived three months later. Her labor lasted for days before she was taken to a hospital that was three hours away. By the time she arrived, her uterus had ruptured, and she struggled to survive. As a result of hemorrhaging, both she and her baby died. Maymuna’s tragic story is one among tens of thousands illustrating this one type of violence and exploitation.
In recent years nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), governmental bodies and other agencies have been effective in bringing attention to this critical problem. Christian churches also contribute in several ways to the prevention and elimination of “gendercide.” Efforts include identifying and describing the problem, working to educate Christians as to the extent of the problem, encouraging support to victims, and philanthropic efforts to aid women and girls in need. And yet, there is often a halting acknowledgment by churches to identify violence against women and girls as a theological and confessional issue that requires a unified, holistic church response. The underlying causes of global violence against women and girls are rooted deep in our cultures, and the scandal of this violence is symptomatic of a pervasive and deep misogyny. Millions of girls have undergone the brutal practice of female genital mutilation. Millions of women been forced to undergo sex-selective abortions. Millions more have experienced the horror of sex trafficking and have been imprisoned as slaves with no hope of escape. The list of reprehensible acts is long, and the targets are primarily girls and women. The stubborn pervasiveness of this violence and its deep rootedness in misogyny is best defined as a theological issue, rather than merely an ethical or moral issue. Christian confession concerns an orientation that begins with our understanding of the being of God and, subsequently, God’s mission in the world. By using this theological approach, the church can offer a broad, imaginative and effective response.
Learn more about The Cross and Gendercide at InterVarsity Press.
Elizabeth Gerhardt (Th.D., Boston University) is professor of theology and social ethics at Northeastern Seminary, Rochester, New York, and adjunct professor in the department of religion and humanities at Roberts Wesleyan College, Rochester.