Asian charities reveal challenges of protecting children

OBSTACLES: Southall Black Sisters
said religious communities saw it
as a threat to their status quo  (Photo credit: Facebook)
OBSTACLES: Southall Black Sisters said religious communities saw it as a threat to their status quo (Photo credit: Facebook)

by LAUREN CODLING

CHARITIES have revealed the resistance they have encountered when engaging some religious organisations in the Asian community, claiming many act to “hide abuse” and stop victims from speaking out.

An inquiry on Child Protection in Religious Organisations and Settings earlier this month heard evidence from representatives of faith groups.

Among them were three organisations which primarily focus on victims of abuse within south Asian communities – Southall Black Sisters, Karma Nirvana, and Gloucestershire Sisters.

Speaking in court, Southall Black Sisters director Pragna Patel claimed the campaign group operated in conditions of “immense hostility”. According to her, Southall Black Sisters was shunned by some religious communities, who saw it as a “threat to the political, religious and cultural status quo”.

For instance, Southall Black Sisters recently asked a mosque to erect posters relating to domestic and child abuse. However, the leaders there were reluctant to engage and did not want to put up the posters in prominent places in the building.

“Their argument was, ‘We can’t put up these posters because it would prevent our congregation from coming to us,’” Patel recalled. “What I take away from that is the fact that they show no leadership at all on these issues of child protection, or on the issue of protection of adult vulnerable people.

“(They) should be leading and setting the moral standards that are required, and instead they were putting up the fact that their congregation might not like it as a barrier to doing anything.”

Karma Nirvana’s executive director Natasha Rattu agreed they had also attempted to engage with religious organisations and communities – but had been met with resistance. However, she noted that male employees from Karma Nirvana seemed to be more persuasive while engaging religious organisations.

“They have got a lot further along the lines than some of the women in our organisation,” she said. “So that’s an interesting observation.”

Karma Nirvana had been approached by a number of victims who had revealed their experiences to faith leaders – but had been told to keep silent.

“In terms of some of the religious institutions, they’re not necessarily gate openers for children to openly disclose and talk about abuse,” Rattu said. “They are gatekeepers to hide the abuse, keep it under the carpet, so as to not affect the reputation and status of a family, an individual or a community.”

Sadia Hameed, director of Gloucestershire Sisters, noted that working with religious organisations could sometimes make it harder for victims to come forward. Typically, religious communities are tight-knit and some may be perceived to be talking to one another on sensitive issues.

“Everything is intertwined,” Hameed explained.” So the imam might also be working with local businesses or tied in the local community in other ways.

“That is guaranteed to be happening, in fact, so there is no protection of that victim or survivor that is reporting.”

Although Gloucestershire Sisters offer client confidentiality, Hameed admitted some victims may still feel unable to speak out in fear that their community could discover their experiences of abuse.

“If we engage with religious organisations, victims and survivors are watching, within those organisations,” she said. “What we have are very, very tight-knit communities that will be speaking to each other. So for us to have relationships with these faith leaders within the community, it will make (victims and survivors) very uncomfortable (and) they wouldn’t want to engage with us.”

Asked if religious organisations perceived campaign groups such as Southall Black Sisters as wanting to “tear them down”, Patel argued that it was an “unfair characterisation”.

“We need to see change (and) we need to see progress in areas in our communities, in relation to violence against women, cruelty against children and LGBT groups,” she said. “We’ve not seen that progress.”

She claimed the lack of progress was down to institutional and community obstacles, which endorse and create climates conducive to abuse and violence and injustice.

Rattu believed the reluctance to engage originates from the taboo surrounding abuse. She also believes some religious communities fear that women and girls will become empowered to make decisions to leave communities or break away – therefore they disengage with charities such as Karma Nirvana.

She said: “Those fears (from some religious leaders) are real.”