Religious leaders standing up to violence against women
13 July 2022
Time for daily and weekly prayers, religious classes and gatherings, can become an important space to strengthen the community resistance to violent behavior.
Because of the local community's trust and daily communication with citizens, religious leaders in Bosnia and Herzegovina can contribute significantly to the fight against various forms of violence. This has been confirmed by a project aimed at the prevention of violence against women and peer violence, which is being implemented for the sixth year by the Institute for Population and Development in Sarajevo (IPD) and the Center for Peacebuilding in Sanski Most, with financial support from Sweden and in cooperation with UN Women Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The time for daily and weekly prayers, religious classes in schools, as well as religious gatherings, can become an important space to strengthen the community's resistance to violent behavior. In order to achieve this, religious leaders can acquire the necessary knowledge to recognize domestic and peer violence. The IPD and the Peacebuilding Center have been working since 2016 to develop educational and advocacy programs for imams, Orthodox and Catholic priests and teachers of religious education. The project "Community involvement in reducing gender stereotypes and eliminating violence against women and girls" gathered more than 60 religious leaders who have already gone through the education program, and in the new phase they will be joined by about 20 representatives of local interreligious committees from all over BiH.
All of them will acquire knowledge through the program about different types of violence, existing institutions that provide assistance to survivors, and become empowered to transfer their knowledge to other religious leaders, as well as members of their religious communities. This is important because they are often the first citizens turn to when they have a problem, including domestic violence, as explained by Vahidin Omanović, manager of the Peacebuilding Center. The imams and priests involved in the project used to feel helpless in situations where women who were exposed to domestic violence would turn to them for help.
“Now they tell us they know where to direct the victim, and they don't feel helpless. They empower a woman so she can anonymously call the SOS phone, so she can contact the police, the social services center, or the mental health center. Now they know what the procedures are, and, for the most part, they advise victims to turn to state institutions that are responsible for fighting violence," Omanović said.
Last year, religious leaders, along with educators, developed manuals for prevention and response to violence. The manuals provide a number of recommendations on how to make prevention of violence an indispensable topics in various areas of religious activity, such as lectures in places of worship or in religious school classes. Thus, for example, it is planned in the future to revise the existing curriculum for religious education and to further strengthen teachers to contribute to prevention and adequate response to violence. It is also planned for the Interreligious Council of BiH toadopt and recommend these operating manuals. The manuals also highlight the importance of cooperation between religious communities and other organisations and institutions.
"Models which are almost identical have been defined through all three frameworks for prevention and response to violence, for the Orthodox and Catholic churches and the Islamic community. They imply cooperation with multisectoral teams, health ministries, social work centers, safe houses and associations that coordinate their work, organizations involved in prevention, the media, etc.”, explained Feđa Mehmedović, IPD program manager.
The author of the manual is Selmir Hurić, who works in one of the Islamic religious community majlises from Sanski Most. At the current stage of the project he encourages new leaders to commit to advocacy for a society free from violence through their work. Hurić has been working as an imam for 23 years, and he did not hesitate to join the project when he received an invitation from the Peacebuilding Center.
“I had no doubt about this. I have always been open about this topic and I know that every religion will say this and help with any form of violence," says Hurić.
Due to the nature of his work, he available to the citizens of Sanski Most on a daily basis. He is used to their calls at any time of the day and shares with them the happy moments such as birth of a child or marriage, but also tragic losses. He's used to being trusted with their hardships in life and being asked for advice, and sometimes the problem is domestic violence. He pointed out that it was particularly important for him to learn how to recognize different forms of violence in the process of learning about this topic.
All interlocutors agreed that, because of the trust that religious citizens place in the religious communities in BiH and their prevalence, they can make an important contribution to preventing and responding to violence. So far, however, their role has not been sufficiently recognized, and they hope that this will soon change.
“Maybe we're not competent sometimes, maybe we don't have ways to help, but we are learning. I believe that religious communities have the capacity to be at disposal and help organizations that deal with these things concretely," Hurić concluded.
UN entities involved in this initiative
United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women