An open letter to the Archbishop and the Cardinal about sexual violence

Argus title : Silence on Violence to women

Dear Cardinal and Archbishop,

As the two most prominent leaders of the Christian faith in this country, you have made recent public statements that have challenged the actions of many women you do not know.

I trust you will accept this approach by a woman whom you have never met, but who claims the right to comment on your actions.

You have chosen to intervene in the debate about abortion and have asked that it become an electoral issue. Matters of morality, you have said, have an important role when citizens decide how to vote.I do not share your views on abortion, but I believe you are right to suggest that ethics should drive political decision-making.

Every politically significant decision that Jesus took was made on the basis of moral and religious beliefs. But if we too are to ground our actions in our beliefs we need to understand what Christian principles are.

In this pre-election Holy Week an observer could be forgiven for thinking that the central precept of Christianity is to be opposed to abortion. And yet Jesus said nothing about it.

What he did say was that the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love our neighbour. When asked by the lawyer “Who is my neighbour?” he told the story of a man attacked violently and left for dead at the side of the road. He was saved by his ‘neighbour’, the Good Samaritan.

Jesus provided other examples of acting as a neighbour. The most powerful and unusual for the time was his action to prevent the stoning of an adulterous woman. It would now be called an ‘honour killing’. He had the courage to confront a mob of men, which probably included the women’s own relations, and in so doing defied all the conventions of the day.

The question “Who is our neighbour?” continues to be a crucial one. You have shown that you consider the unborn to be your neighbours. But how, I wonder, do you view women and girls?

Desmond Tutu, former Archbishop of Cape Town, was the spiritual leader of South Africans as they fought racism and Apartheid. Yet now he uses his prophetic power to speak out against violence against women and children. He criticises the South African state for failing them, and has said that the violence and oppression they experience is equal to the suffering experienced by Black people under Apartheid.

Elderly as he is, I could imagine Archbishop Tutu stopping an honour killing, reproving violent men and sending them away ashamed. I can envisage him comforting the woman, making her laugh through tears.

I regret that I could not imagine either of you doing likewise.

Neither of you has spoken out against violence against women. Or if you have it has been muted and infrequent – not in any way that has had significance or impact.

You have not called upon the Labour government and leaders of other political parties to make the eradication of violence against women (and their children) a central issue in this election.

Yet in the last few weeks there have been several reports about the terrible risks faced by women and girls in our society.

Last month Amnesty International (AI) and the Women’s National Commission called on the government to develop a strategy to end all forms of violence against women. It published a report about violence against women, which revealed that many European countries are outperforming Britain in confronting domestic and sexual violence. Despite the current UK government’s commitment to combat such crimes, numbers of reported incidents continue to rise, while conviction rates fall.

Kate Allen, AI UK Director, said: “The UK has international human rights obligations to protect women from all forms of violence.” She quoted the British Crime Survey which reveals that “almost 1 in 2 women in Britain will experience domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking during their lives”.

I have not heard you pray for these women. Nor unequivocally condemn misogyny or the actions of perpetrators. Neither have I heard you tell the people of our country that violence against women flies in the face of Jesus’ teaching.

Yet the victims are your neighbours. They work with you and prepare food you eat, serve you in shops and pass you in the street. They study in the schools you visit and sit in the pews of your churches. They are everywhere.

One month ago, the government issued a report on rape, revealing that while reported rapes had increased, convictions had fallen to an all time low (5.6%). In 2002 11,700 rapes were reported to the police. By 2003 this had increased to 14,000.

The British Crime Survey suggests that as many as 1 in 20 adult women have suffered at least one incident of rape since they turned 16. But only 1 in 5 is reported. Women are still most likely to be raped by men they know and 50% have suffered repeated attacks by the same man, often in a context of domestic violence.

In the UK, 1 in 4 women experience domestic violence and 1 in 7 are victims of sexual assault in marriage. Emergency services receive one call a minute reporting domestic violence.

Two women die each week at the hands of existing or former partners. This is a death rate roughly equal to loss of life during the troubles in Northern Ireland. But no government has even considered allocating comparable resources to ending the carnage.

Will you speak out for them? And for the women and girls whose lives are ended by ‘honour killing’ or ruined by forced marriage, genital mutilation or sexual trafficking?

A conference has recently taken place in the UK about ‘honour killing’ – usually murders by men of female relations whose conduct they consider has dishonoured their family. Often women have done no more than resist violence or forced marriage.

Four months ago the Crown Prosecution Service announced it was re-examining 117 suspicious deaths in the UK including suicides and disappearances, now believed to be possible ‘honour killings’. There were 12 prosecutions for such killings in the London area alone last year.

Southall Black Sisters (SBS) assists women at risk of forced marriage, domestic violence and honour killing. Their spokesperson, Hannana Siddiqui, says that the suicide rate amongst British Asian females aged between 16 and 24 is nearly 3 times above the national average.

Ms Siddiqui complains that women at risk have been denied protection because agencies and institutions fear they may be “accused of racism” if they confront male violence. They have found it easier to abandon the women.

In the last few days, the teen magazine “Sugar” published a survey of 2000 young girls (13-19). This revealed that 1 in 6 had been hit by boyfriends, 4% of them regularly. Another 15% had been “pushed”. A third had experienced violence at home. The survey revealed an alarming acceptance of male violence.

A similar magazine “Bliss” reported this week that its survey of 2000 readers revealed that 22% of 14 year olds had had sexual intercourse. Of these a third said they did not like their ‘partner’ and 1 in 4 said they had been forced.

I have a 12 year old daughter. She belongs to a generation of girls which has grown up with sexual harassment in modern mixed gender schools. It is a generation haunted by well-publicised sexual murders, such as the sadistic strangulation of Brighton schoolteacher Jane Longhurst.

It remains scarred by the tragic deaths of schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, who had they lived, would have been almost old enough to complete the sad little surveys in “Sugar” and “Bliss”.

I fear for my daughter and her friends. I look to political leaders to protect them, but I see little hope of that.

Therefore, I ask you as Christian leaders, will you defend these girls? Will you speak out against the misogyny and sexual violence which threatens them? Will you bring pressure to bear on the media to respect them and on the government to protect them?

You should. They are your neighbours.

Yours sincerely,

Jean Calder.

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