This report describes the results of a yearlong qualitative study on religious leaders’ understandings and responses to issues of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). Conducted by the Science, Religion, and Culture Program (SRC) at Harvard Divinity School with the support of IMA World Health and WeWillSpeakOut.Us, this study was designed to address knowledge gaps in the broader literature on religion and sexual and domestic violence. This project originated from a survey IMA World Health and Sojourners conducted on behalf of We Will Speak Out US in 2014 (see here)

The goal of this project was not only to illuminate the relationship between religious practice and gendered and sexual violence, but to also interrogate this relationship from the various perspectives and dynamics that capture its true complexity.

To attend to these goals, the research for this project was conducted in two clusters between fall 2014 and summer 2015, and involved integrative, ethnographic engagement at several faith communities in the Boston metropolitan area. This qualitative investigation, including interviews, focus groups and participant observation, provided access to a range of attitudes and perceptions from members of these communities, as well as the backdrop on which a number of important and compelling stories emerged. All together, 7 religious communities and 3 university chaplains participated in the study.

The findings from this research coalesce around three distinct themes: (1) understandings of sexual and gendered-based violence; (2) how this understanding is reflected in conduct; and (3) perceived needs by communities dealing with sexual and gender-based violence. The findings’ themes reveal surprising diversity in attitudes toward sexual and gender-based violence, despite each site’s apparent fit within the general category of a “progressive” religious community.

honest dialogue around the state of religion and sexual and gender-based violence, its conclusions should be read as a starting point for future practical and theoretical work at this nexus. In particular, some of this work should include

(1) sustained attention to the important role religious leaders play in dealing with issues of sexual and gender-based violence;

(2) equipping religious leaders with the knowledge and resources necessary to support victims and survivors;

(3) pushing religious leaders to think more critically about the structural, societal, and cultural systems that undergird how incidents of violence take place;

(4) training religious leaders to be mindful of the gender relations and gender roles that play a significant part in instances of violence;

(5) meaningful production and sustained engagement with theological resources that adequately address issues of sexual and gender-based violence; and

(6) maintaining prevention as the chief concern for religious leaders and faith communities.

For this study, these concluding points offer a viable way forward in shifting perceptions and perspectives on faith and sexual and gender-based violence.

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