By Sara Speicher*
On 26 July at the International AIDS Conference in Amsterdam, there was a marked change in colour at the Interfaith Networking Zone. It was Thursday, and from morning prayers to the evening informal networking, the theme was “black”.
People passing by the zone in the large exhibition and networking space of the Global Village slowed noticeably, perhaps wondering whether there was a particular event with the black theme. “Thursdays in Black” participants shared about this movement against attitudes and practices that permit rape and violence. And with an audience that is often skeptical of religion and faith responses on HIV, dealing so often with issues of sex and sexuality, it seemed “Thursdays in Black” is a place where all can agree.
HIV and gender-based violence are linked in tragic ways. Numerous studies have clearly shown that violent sexual assault increases the risk of sexually-transmitted diseases, including HIV. But even the fear of violence contributes to increased vulnerability of women, as women are less able to negotiate safer sex, to seek counseling and testing for HIV, and to disclose an HIV positive status.
It has also been documented that men who commit violence against women tend to have multiple sexual partners – and boys who witness such violence are more likely to replicate that behaviour when they are older.
In the face of the global tragedy where one in three women experience some form of physical or sexual violence, what difference does dressing in black one day a week make?
Making a difference one person at a time
Father Rick Bauer oversees extensive health services offered to people living in the slums in Nairobi. His challenge is not only identifying people who need treatment and support, but knowing how help can be offered. A woman’s sole support may come from the man who is abusing her, disclosing may jeopardize her family, and there are larger issues about what men and boys feel is “acceptable” treatment of women and girls, he noted.
“At the very least,” he said, “Thursdays in Black can create space for conversations.”
In addition to dressing in black – or even when they can’t, participants can wear a badge proclaiming “Thursdays in Black – towards a world without rape and violence.” This is how the conversations start.
“It doesn’t matter what badge you use,” said Lyn van Rooyen, “This is a way to show solidarity and our commitment to creating a different world. “
In her morning reflection at the International AIDS Conference, van Rooyen quoted a senior general in the Australian army who said at the 2010 summit on gender-based violence in conflict in London, "the standard you walk past is the standard you uphold."
“This means, if we allow something to happen, without speaking out, we are in fact saying that it is okay,” she said.
Participants were quick to note that gender-based violence is not limited to high-HIV prevalence countries.
Carol Finlay from the Church of Scotland stated, “The number of people who are affected by abuse and violence in all parts of the world is shocking. It's not just poor people who suffer abuse. “
In her faith community, one particular project has made a difference. Bible study groups are having joint reflections with churches in another part of the world, linked via Skype for instance.
“It is really enlightening when it is shared,“ she said. “People say, “I never thought about that, because people are talking about what a Bible passage means in their own context.”
Contextual Bible study is indeed a key way in which Christian communities can engage and challenge their own perceptions of gender norms. Stephanie Jane Purcell Gilpin, a lay chaplain with the University of Nottingham described contextual bible study as “taking a bible passage and looking at it in our own situation, and in what we encounter.“
Van Rooyen then shared instances when participants realized that Jesus himself broke gender stereotypes. “When a young man realized that Jesus wept, he himself started weeping.”
“This is a form of activism we can all be part of,” she continued. “When people say, 'I’ve never heard about it,' my answer is 'start sharing it with others. That is the whole power of the movement.'“
But it doesn’t have to be in a group that changes in attitudes happen.
Van Rooyen shared that, for her, Thursdays in Black is also a meditation.
“Every Thursday morning as I get dressed I think of a person or group specifically and then I pray for them, and through the day I am reminded of the vulnerability of women and children,” she said.
As one faith representative said, “I don’t know if dressing in black makes any difference to women’s situations. But it makes a difference to me.”
*Sara Speicher is communication officer for the World Council of Churches