Our series of interviews with Thursdays in Black ambassadors highlights those who are playing a vital role in increasing the impact of our collective call for a world without rape and violence. Casey Harden is general secretary of the World YWCA.

 Photo: World YWCA

In the last few years, sexual abuse and violence against women and girls has been made much more visible in many parts of the world through high-profile cases and media attention. Yet we also see cases of violence rising dramatically in some countries due to COVID-related lockdowns. Where are we failing?

Harden: What we have seen with the COVID-19 pandemic is really very sobering, remarkable and unacceptable statistics and stories about an increase in violence against girls, young women and women, and that includes sexual assault and especially domestic violence. What that tells me is that although, for a number of decades, we have made progress in services for victims and survivors of such violence and although we have progressed in creating a mainstreamed conversation about gender-based violence – those manifestations of progress are small bits of healing to a scourge of violence, abuse, oppression and unjust systems.

The COVID pandemic shows us very clearly is that those points of progress are incredibly fragile, and when our systems are stressed, or when people or our communities are stressed, we see a resurgence to the past, or regression to a default mode, which is a manifestation of patriarchy - and that is violence against women and/or gender-based violence.

So I don’t know that we’re failing in a new way. I think what we are seeing is the reality that the progress that has been made is very fragile and can digress or be unwound very quickly.

World YWCA has inspiring examples over many years of the leadership of young women addressing serious societal obstacles to their rights and aspirations. Has there been a particular initiative that has inspired you in efforts to overcome violence against women, and what did you learn from it? What can churches and the wider ecumenical movement learn from these efforts?

Harden: In my experience within the YWCA movement, including when I was myself a young woman, I can’t point to one particular project or initiative that’s been led by young women that is more exceptional than another. They are all effective, remarkable and powerful when they come to life organically and by the leadership, thinking and great ideas of young women.

I have seen over the years, regardless of region, regardless of cultural identity, regardless of language spoken, that young women leaders tend to come right at a problem. Young women most often unequivocally call out sexual and other violence for what it is. There’s no softening of language or a kind of gracious or careful approach to protect the sensibilities of others. Young women, driven by their insights and conviction, call out rape and violence against women for what it is – a terror-inciting act against someone’s body, their spirit, their mind - creating trauma that is very difficult to heal and is only healed through the strength of the survivor and support that they might have.

For the actions of young women, I am always appreciative because honestly, to have been doing work on gender-based violence for more than twenty years, it can be very tiresome to hear the language in which we talk about such violence, the way it is watered down or really softened for the benefit of others’ comfort. I can always depend on the young women that I work with to use language that is very direct and very clear. And, I think that makes a difference in how a community, fellowship, a person responds. Similarly, when we name gender-based violence as it is, for what it is, from the pulpit, in fellowship opportunities, in communities—and don’t name it otherwise- we are following the model of Jesus.

For ecumenical communities or churches, perpetrators of violence must be addressed. It is often the victim, the survivor who ends up leaving their church or their spiritual home in order to be safe, or in order to unequivocally be believed and supported. I would ask all faith leaders - think very long and hard about where you’re putting your effort, who you’re putting your support behind and if you are really doing what needs to be done in your community to make it clear that there is no place for gender based violence. To use your influence and the teachings of your faith to not only support a survivor but hold a perpetrator accountable. Clearly communicate to the members of your community what’s going to happen when you discover a perpetrator within your community because there’s often not much clarity, and I think that in and of itself allows abuse and violence to be a norm.

For more than a century, YWCAs have worked with faith leaders, communities, and churches to provide support, serve as experts on the issue, provide guidance and as part of ecumenical and multi-faith or interfaith efforts to address gender based violence.

How does Thursdays in Black contribute to World YWCA's existing efforts to overcome violence against women and girls?

Harden: Most importantly, it’s a very specific, very purposeful, very intentional effort to really call to action the ecumenical and specific faith communities. I believe very deeply that the ecumenical community could actually be a leader in tending to, in eliminating, in changing the power structures, the patriarchy, the societal and cultural norms that led to the scourge of violence that is certainly gender-based and a symptom of ubiquitous patriarchy. Faith communities and especially leaders, must be decisive and not be complacent with words of support for survivors or words of condemnation for those that hurt others, but instead wholly transform their approach and ultimately liberate both men and women from the disease of gender based violence.