Violence against women: will it ever end?

Sarah by Gareth Barton for Flame International

Today I’m wearing black because black is the colour of protest.

I’m at the World Council of Churches assembly in Busan, South Korea. And with many other delegates here today – both male and female – I am ditching my usual preferred brightly-coloured attire to don black to protest in solidarity with the many victims of gender-based violence around the world.

Violence against women is a scourge on all societies. In times of conflict, the rape of women is used as a weapon of war.

The beauty myth – in which women are told they must look a certain way – addressed in my book Am I Beautiful? is just one symptom of a society which sees a woman’s body as its property. Gender-based violence, primarily against women, says it is ok for a woman’s body to be controlled, manipulated and violated.

I’m wearing black today because I say it is not.

Hundreds of the 5,000 gathered at the World Council of Churches assembly today are wearing black as a symbol of the Church’s commitment to ending violence against women across the globe.

As the assembly focuses on the theme “God of life, lead us to justice and peace”, the WCC is reviving its Thursdays in Black campaign.

Thursdays in Black began in the 1980s as a form of peaceful protest against rape and violence often exacerbated during times of war and conflict including in countries such as Syria, Palestine and Israel, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Egypt.

Several ecumenical and church initiatives have been influenced by the Thursdays in Black campaign including the Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women and the Women in Black campaign which was started during the Balkan war in the 1990s. There, Serbian women called for solidarity in speaking out against rape as a weapon in war.

Earlier this week, I was at a pre-meeting of the assembly with hundreds of other women from around the world to explore how we can make the world a more just place for all women.

I heard stories of women from villages in the Congo raped and pillaged. I heard the story of a blind woman from India gang raped by five men. I heard a woman from Latin America who brought us all to tears with her gut-wrenching lament to God for victims and the children of victims around the world.

I spoke to Dr Fulata Mbano-Moyo, WCC programme executive for women in church and society, who said: “Thursdays in Black is a united global expression of the desire for safe communities where we can all walk safely without fear of being raped, shot at, beaten up, verbally abused and discriminated against due to one’s gender or sexual orientation.”

“Through this campaign we want to accompany our sisters, who bear the scars of violence, invisible and visible, in Syria, Palestine and Israel, Egypt, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan and the whole world, where women’s bodies remain a battlefield, whether in armed conflict or so-called ‘peaceful’ situations.”

I’m wearing black today because … it’s something. I feel helpless. I wonder whether wearing black and blogging about it will make any difference at all. The problem is huge. The statistics are heart-wrenching. Figures from the World Health Organization reveal that 35 per cent of women around the world have experienced either intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. This is not just a problem for women in those places.

Just a few months ago, I did a heartbreaking interview with a British woman as part of an article which showed that violence against women also takes place among Christians.

It takes place everywhere. And the frustrating thing is that it has taken place throughout the centuries. Every WCC assembly since it began has talked about the issue of gender-based violence. And still it seems that nothing has changed.

Women continue to be broken at the hands of cruel men. Will it ever end?

The amazing photo I’ve used to illustrate the blog is by Gareth Barton of Flame International, who won the Look Again competition by anti-violence against women charity Restored. The image is of Sarah, who was abducted from her village in South Sudan by the Lord’s Resistance Army. She was later rejected by the rebel group and has returned to her family, where she is slowly recovering from the horrors she witnessed and the fear that stays with her.

I can’t end violence against women by wearing black today. I can’t end the pain or heal the memories of those whose bodies have been used as weapons of war by wearing black today. I can’t protect any of the vulnerable by wearing black today.

But if it’s all I can do today to show them I care, then that’s what I’ll do.

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Why my book won’t change your life…

butterflyTonight, I’ll be standing in front of friends, family, colleagues, publishers and journalists at the launch party for my book Am I Beautiful? which was unleashed on the public a fortnight ago.

I’ll be standing in front of them and talking about the book: this book that is a rallying call for Christian women to wake up to society’s beauty myth, to think less about what they look like so that they can find freedom to be the women they were created to be.

I’m passionate about all this – that’s why I spent months obsessing over it and confronting some of my own body image baggage, spilling out some of my darkest, most private thoughts to give permission to other women to do the same. So that we can move past all this together.

Am I Beautiful? is very much a journey.

But here’s the thing: I’m still on it. The journey has only just begun.

Because as I stand there as the author of this book, they won’t know that I’m still struggling in this area. Big time. They won’t know that I’ve cut down on carbs in the weeks before my holiday. They won’t know that I’ve been waking up at silly o’clock to do a ridiculous US workout DVD. They won’t know that I’ve agonised over what to wear this evening.

I may be passionate about dispelling the beauty myth; but I still live in a world where I’m bombarded by images of outstandingly beautiful women, where both online and offline I’m forever seeing advertising aimed at making me feel bad about the way I look and offering a solution.

Writing this book has not instantly changed my life and the way I see myself. When I look in the mirror, I’ve not yet got to the point of always being completely content with what I see. Because I’ve lived in this looks-obsessed world for 29 years and been smothered by it. I haven’t been transported out and I haven’t instantly unlearnt all society’s beauty messages. But it’s only through having written the book that I’ve become aware of just how much – and how deeply – all this has affected my life and the lives of the women around me.

I’m committed to the eventual eradication of these negative thought patterns, but it’s very much a process – a continual, minute-by-minute choice to work on the complete renewal of my mind (Romans 12:2).

When I started the journey, I was one of the 96 per cent of British women, according to a Dove survey, who was not able to bring myself to believe and say that I was beautiful. But when I ask the question ‘am I beautiful?’ now, I know the answer is absolutely, yes. But this beauty isn’t necessarily anything to do with looking hot. I’m convinced of my beauty because I was created in the image of the one in whom the essence of beauty is found.

Writing the book was not like some magic, instant solution to the body image thing. So reading it won’t  be. But I know that reading it will mean you’re joining me on that journey towards recognising our true beauty and being content in it; of being more aware that inner beauty is far more important than the outer; and of recognising that the ultimate essence of beauty lies far outside any arbitrary, man-made societal standards.

Reading this book won’t change your life instantly…

… but it will start the process. 

Am I Beautiful?, published by Authentic, is out now priced at £7.99.