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Faith leaders can be game-changers on gender violence

TMA speaks with the diocese's new Prevention of Violence against Women program manager

The diocese's new Prevention of Violence against Women program manager, Robyn Boosey

By Emma Halgren

August 7 2018 

Faith leaders can play a vital role in bringing about change, says the diocese’s first Prevention of Violence against Women program manager, Robyn Boosey, who hopes that clergy and other leaders in the diocese will feel equipped and empowered to lead change in the area of gender-based violence.

Ms Boosey, who came to Melbourne from London to take up her role with the diocese, said that Australia, and Victoria in particular, was doing “ground-breaking” work and providing global leadership in the area of preventing gender-based violence.

“A lot of work on violence against women around the world mainly focuses on response or early intervention or prosecution of perpetrators,” she said. “In Victoria, the government is really invested heavily in this and has made it quite mainstream to… talk about prevention and say we want to stop this from happening in the future and we really want to grapple with this problem and understand what’s causing it and seek to change that.”

She said she was excited to see the church taking up the opportunity to be part of driving change.

She said: “My vision is for the church to be able to play its part in preventing violence against women more fully, and I’d love for leaders to feel equipped to lead change in this space, and for churches to become safe places for those who are experiencing or have experienced violence, and for people who are connected with local churches to also feel equipped to bring about the change they want to see.”

Since starting in her role in April, Ms Boosey has been focusing on getting to know the diocese and the context it is operating in.

“I’ve been taking a lot of time to listen to church leaders, parishioners and experts in family violence across the diocese and to understand the challenges that people are facing and the opportunities for us to work together to see change,” she said.

“And one of the keys that will help to bring about changes is leaders. For a long-term, deep change we need church leaders to really… capture the vision and run with it. Leaders are really well placed to bring people on board and create an enabling environment for transformation… and my role is about helping to ensure that they feel equipped to play their part in preventing violence against women.”

Ms Boosey has set up a taskforce of church and lay leaders which will help to shape her work. She is also guided by a Committee of Management which is chaired by Bishop Genieve Blackwell and has representatives from Anglicare Victoria, the Brotherhood of St Laurence, Lifeworks, Our Watch and ANSVAR.

Ms Boosey, whose background is in international development, gender equality, tackling violence against women, and human rights, said that she had seen “time and time again” the critical role faith leaders could play in driving change.

For example, before joining the diocese, Ms Boosey worked in policy and advocacy for the UK faith-based international relief and development agency Tearfund, which was involved in the response to the West African ebola virus epidemic. Some people in communities affected by the virus had, for deeply-rooted cultural reasons, not been following some of the health protocols that would have helped reduce rates of infection. Often they were not even aware of the health practices to follow.

Ms Boosey said: “The humanitarian sector was excluding faith leaders – it just wasn’t considering them in the response, even though they’re such a key part of society and they have such influence on people’s behaviours. There was a lot of advocacy from faith-based organisations like Tearfund to say that they should be included, and when they were and they were trained up, it was remarkable the change in communities and how people’s practices and behaviours and attitudes changed really quickly. “It had life-saving consequences and that was recognised by a lot of decision makers higher up in government.

“Faith leaders can often be overlooked, but when they’re included then it makes such a dramatic difference in turning situations around. It can be an absolute game-changer.”

She said that the same was absolutely true in Australia as well. “As parishioners we go to listen to [faith leaders] and learn from them on a Sunday and whether we realise it or not, we are looking at the example that they’re role-modelling.”

She said: “Church leaders can start conversations in their church through sermons, Bible studies, and by inviting in local experts on family violence. They can also ensure their church has best practice policies and procedures in place to make it a safe and supportive environment for those experiencing or who have experienced violence. With the taskforce, we will be looking to develop resources to help them take action.”

Alongside her paid work at Tearfund, Ms Boosey also co-founded in 2014 the volunteer-led campaign IC Change, which is urging the UK government to ratify the Istanbul Convention on violence against women, which it had signed but not yet made a full legal commitment to through ratification.

The campaigning work – which involved bringing together an alliance of organisations, building cross-party support in parliament, mobilising supporters to write to MPs, creating engaging resources for churches and community groups, talking to the media, and working with a “brilliant” social media team – resulted in a private member’s bill on the Istanbul Convention being passed in parliament.

“Despite all the odds, with a great team, dedicated volunteers, an unexpected coalition and, if you ask me personally, through the power of prayer, the Bill ended up being passed,” said Ms Boosey. The UK government is now legally required to report annually on its progress towards ratification.