New Research on Responses to Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

September 28, 2015
Cover of research report
The report will be publicly released on October 1.

Religious leaders "have little support and little training in dealing with issues related to sexual and gender-based violence" (SGBV), concludes the new "Interrogating the Silence" report from the Science, Religion, and Culture Program at Harvard Divinity School.

The report is the culmination of a year-long qualitative study, titled, "Religious Leaders' Attitudes towards Sexual and Gender-based Violence" (RLA-SGBV), of seven Boston-area congregations and three chaplains from two local universities. According to the report, its purpose is to "shine a theoretical light on the untapped potential, challenges, and opportunities of faith communities" to prevent and respond to this violence.

The research confirmed that in many cases, religious leaders have access to weak systems and procedures—when they exist at all—to aid their thinking and decision-making, and they are generally ill-informed about available resources, to both their and their congregants' detriment. The report noted, "…many congregants found it difficult to be open about such questions with [religious leaders] and were reluctant to approach their religious leaders for help and support."

The report concludes that religious leaders are a powerful resource for victims and survivors of SGBV, and more work is needed to adequately train them on the available tools, gender relations, and the social mechanisms that contribute to violence. 

Commissioned by IMA World Health on behalf of the WeWillSpeakOut.US coalition, the report will be publicly released and discussed at a launch event at HDS on Thursday, October 1, at 7 pm.

Kera Street, assistant director for Academic Affairs at SRC, will provide an overview of the research findings. Responding panelists will include Rick Santos, president and CEO of IMA World Health; Marie Fortune, founder and senior analyst at FaithTrust Institute; and Shavonne Moore, Clinical Psychologist at Massachusetts Mental Health Center and the chair of the Shatter the Silence Initiative at Bethel AME Church in Boston.

Panelists as well as representatives from SRC and IMA will be available for interviews prior to and following the event.

The RLA-SGBV study expands on the "Broken Silence" survey report, released in June 2014 by IMA World Health and Sojourners, which revealed that an overwhelming majority (74 percent) of the 1,000 Protestant pastors surveyed underestimated the level of sexual and domestic violence experienced within their congregations, while only 56 percent were adequately familiar with local resources that specifically address this violence.

Dr. Ahmed Ragab, Richard T. Watson Assistant Professor of Science and Religion at Harvard Divinity School and director of the SRC Program, stated: "This study reveals important details about how religious leaders understand and deal with instances of sexual and gender-based violence, and provides important knowledge-based interventions that could help prevent such instances and support victims and survivors."

Santos added, "The presentation of these new research findings on the first day of October, Domestic Violence Awareness Month, was very intentional. The roles, preparedness, and practices of faith leaders are important topics to discuss as we kick off a month of focused attention on an issue that is usually ignored. We are pleased that this research gives us a better understanding of how we can work to better equip and empower faith and lay leaders for prevention and response."


IMA World Health is a non-profit international health and development organization dedicated to health, healing and well-being for all. Learn more at

We Will Speak Out is a movement of diverse faith groups from across the U.S. joining together with other leaders for action and advocacy to end the silence around sexual and gender based violence (SGBV). WeWillSpeakOut.US is hosted by IMA World Health. Learn more on the We Will Speak Out website.

The Science, Religion, and Culture Program at Harvard Divinity School opens space for the study of how science and religion become enmeshed with, distinct from, and implicated in broader social, political, and cultural structures, and examines the ways in which these topics interact to shape and structure knowledge, social practice, and everyday life.