Priests Are Responsible for Ending Violence Against Women, Says Ethiopian Church

UN Women – November 2013

“As a priest,  people listen to me and that gives me a position to speak out  against gender-based  violence,” says Melakesina, priest and head of the  Ethiopian Orthodox  Church in Kobo district in northern Ethiopia. He is one of  100 religious  leaders who participated in trainings on gender-based violence  and are now preaching  against violence. With 45 million members, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has powerful influence on Ethiopian  society. UN Women forged an initiative with the Church in two districts, Woldia  and Kobo, in the northern Amhara region. Aiming to reach a broad population, the  project involves in-depth training workshops that engage religious leaders to  take the lead to end violence against  women and girls. At the trainings, the religious leaders learn about the  causes and consequences of violence against women and strategies to prevent  violence.

There is an urgent need for these trainings. According to population surveys, 68.4 percent of Ethiopian  women think that wife-beating can be justified, and many women are unaware of  laws against gender-based violence. As a consequence, few women seek support  when facing violence.

“The training  and the project raised issues that have too long been  silenced. One of them is  harmful traditional practices,” says Melakesina. 

A harmful traditional practice common in Ethiopia is  female genital  mutilation (FGM). According  to Government surveys, around 23 percent of  young girls in the country undergo  this practice, but the figure varies from  region to region. In Amhara region, the  figure is a high 47 percent.

According to Melakesina,  a common belief is that harmful traditional  practices, such as FGM, are  justified by religion, and he challenges it.  “Harmful traditional practices are results of  customs and have nothing to do  with religion,” he states.

Through the project, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church   works to raise awareness on gender-based violence in communities. It supports   gender school clubs where students regularly come together to discuss how to   prevent violence against women in school communities. Female students at risk of  early marriage or those that have fled such a marriage receive financial   support to continue their studies.

Through permanent billboards, messages against  gender-based violence are  being widely spread in the two districts, including  in the schools.

“I didn’t dare  to tell anyone about the rape. To go to the police was not an option… but now  all the women here know. It has given me peace of mind to share with them,”   says Kebedech*, a rape survivor from Woldia and a beneficiary of the project.  Raped  when she was 14-years-old while selling snacks on the roadside,  Kebedech is now 28-years-old and a mother of a 13-year-old son as a result  of the rape.

Kebedech and 86 other survivors of violence have also  received vocational  training through the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. As many survivors  find it  difficult to gain paid employment, the training supports them and  reduces their  risk of poverty and further violence.

By adopting a holistic approach involving religious  leaders, survivors of  violence and students, the Church is working hard to  raise awareness and  prevent violence against women. Priest Melakesina is eager  to use the knowledge  he gained at the trainings and sees himself integral in  ending the cycle of  violence against women.

“Many members  of the congregation come to me when they have problems. With  knowledge on  gender-based violence, I intervene and try to prevent it from  happening,”  he says. “Priests have a major role to  play in ending gender-based  violence.