The role of faith in ending violence against women and girls in Liberia: Interview with Ernest Cajuste at Episcopal Relief & Development
Nearly half of all women and girls in Liberia have experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence at least once.
Episcopal Relief & Development, a global relief and development organization, together with its Liberian implementing partner, Episcopal Church of Liberia Relief & Development (ECLRD), had previously implemented a project with the support of the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women (UN Trust Fund), which showed great potential for faith leaders to leverage their influence to challenge harmful norms and practices that condone or perpetuate violence against women and girls. Based on the success and learning of this previous project, they are now implementing a UN Trust Fund-supported project in Liberia to reduce such violence and increase access to services for survivors through a proven faith-based methodology.
We spoke with Ernest Cajuste, Senior Program Officer at Episcopal Relief & Development, about the project.
How did Episcopal Relief & Development’s previous UN Trust Fund-supported project inform the current project?
Through an experiential learning model, we learnt the importance of interfaith collaboration as we engaged Christian and Muslim faith leaders to speak out against violence against women and girls and provide appropriate support to survivors. This learner-centered approach was a major success as it strengthened social cohesion and fostered trust and collaboration between faith leaders in preventing and responding to violence.
We also realized that communicating in a common language is important: faith leaders benefit from tools grounded in sacred texts to speak out on issues of violence against women and girls. We updated our Faith Leader Gender-Based Violence Prevention and Response Toolkit by exploring the retelling of sacred stories through a gender equity lens, while educating faith leaders to amplify the voices of women in religious texts and traditions, and exploring their cultural entanglement.
Why is engaging traditional and faith leaders crucial to changing attitudes and behaviours about violence against women and girls?
Faith leaders are key to preventing and responding to violence against women and girls, as respected members of society, especially in rural communities. Their deep roots and influence in the community mean they are uniquely positioned to champion the empowerment of marginalized individuals and groups and drive social change.
We recognize, however, that fostering change in attitudes and behaviour starts with the faith leaders themselves. The project provides space for these leaders to reflect on their role and moral responsibility in preventing and responding to violence against women and girls, as well as confronting their own — sometimes harmful — views on gender roles, relationships and power.
Faith leaders are now creating safe spaces and facilitating meaningful dialogue amongst their congregants about violence. Women faith leaders in particular are increasingly taking a leading role in engaging and empowering women and girls, by sharing their own experience and reflecting on the underlying causes of violence against women and girls.
Your project also works with young leaders to drive social change. How does your work with youth leaders complement your work with faith leaders?
In Liberia, the Christian and Muslim youth movements are very strong and active. Episcopal Relief & Development recognizes that young people can be catalysts in building agency to advocate for change in schools, in their communities and beyond, with the power to engender trust and influence with their peers and younger generations. By engaging them, we can reinforce the messages conveyed by faith leaders while expanding the project’s reach — across age, social groups and communities. Youth leaders use creative mediums such as radio shows, storytelling and drama skits in public spaces to engage the younger congregants in meaningful ways, and raise awareness on intimate partner violence, economic violence and other forms of violence against women and girls.
The project has already engaged over 330 youth leaders and reached more than 20,000 students. Eighty-five radio programmes reached over 40,000 listeners.
How did support from the EU/UN Spotlight Initiative during COVID-19 contribute to achieving your goals?
It allowed us to make meaningful investments in strengthening ECLRD’s internal systems, project management skills, infrastructure and overall capacity to deliver within a highly challenging context. For instance, with these additional funds, we were able to increase internet bandwidth to facilitate greater collaboration amongst ECLRD staff and faith leaders, with regular online meetings. Additionally, we enhanced ECLRD’s accounting, monitoring and evaluation systems, helped to set up mobile cash transfers, and provided mobile phones and tablets to faith leaders to improve support for women and girl survivors.
In addition, the UN Trust Fund’s funding policy that enables staff self-care and well-being activities contributed to a more resilient working environment and a renewed sense of social cohesion.