‘One victim is too many’: Reporting on domestic violence and religion

In the context of domestic violence, religion can both help and harm — but it is never neutral.

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month

Every day, millions of people are directly impacted by domestic violence.

According to the United Nations, domestic abuse — or “intimate partner violence” — is defined as “a pattern of behavior in any relationship that is used to gain or maintain power and control over an intimate partner.” This can be physical, sexual, emotional, economic, psychological or spiritual actions or threats of actions used to “frighten, intimidate, terrorize, manipulate, hurt, humiliate, blame, injure, or wound someone.” 

Domestic abuse can happen to anyone of any race, age, sexual orientation, gender or religion.

In the context of domestic violence, religious actors and institutions can both help and harm — but they are not neutral.

On the one hand, studies have shown how religion can be, and often is, used to condone, excuse or enact abuse. On the other hand, religious teachings and communities can provide significant resources for victims as they address abuse. Within religious communities, victims find support or counseling relationships as well as texts, teachings and rituals that provide protection, guidance or succor in the process of healing.

In this updated edition of ReligionLink, we provide resources, links, tips and potential sources to help inform your reporting on religion and domestic abuse. 

Background and helpful resources

Writing about American Muslim efforts against domestic violence, religion scholar Juliane Hammer commented that abuse is often made invisible in public discourse. Though it occasionally becomes big news through exceptional cases or campaigns to raise awareness, domestic abuse can often go unreported or unnoticed. 

Even so, there is a stunning amount of quantitative and qualitative research on the prevalence and dynamics of domestic violence in the U.S., including its root causes and ruinous effects. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence:

  • Nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States, equating to more than 10 million women and men annually.
  • Based on reported cases, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men have experienced severe intimate partner physical violence and 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner, including slapping, shoving and pushing, which in some cases might not be considered “domestic violence.”
  • About 4,000 women die each year due to domestic abuse.
  • From that total,  75% of the victims were killed attempting to leave the relationship or after the relationship ended.

There are no data to show how many victims and survivors are religious or if their abuse was directly related to religion. However, the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence reported that across traditions, “issues of religious faith, or the belief in a specific system of principles and practices that give reverence to a higher power, are often central to the experiences of many victims and survivors of domestic violence.”

Over the last two decades, various faiths have started to track the prevalence of domestic violence within their own communities and develop resources accordingly. For example, an estimate by Jewish Women International indicates that 15% to 25% of all Jewish households worldwide experience domestic violence. Muslim activists in the U.S. figure that approximately 10% of Muslim women are abused emotionally, psychologically and/or physically by their husbands.

Despite these efforts, religious communities can still struggle to provide “shelter, acknowledgment, legal services and support” according to JWI.

When it comes to reporting, victims’ and survivors’ stories should be centered above all else. While statistics are helpful, they “should not overshadow the fact that every single woman who is assaulted and abused is one woman too many,” wrote Hammer. Therefore, the National Network to End Domestic Violence encourages reporters to: 

use storytelling, story-collecting strategies, imagery, and headlines that are trauma-informed and do not cause harm. Sensationalizing trauma or perpetuating victim-blaming narratives do more harm to survivors and their families.

Doing so helps humanize a story and contributes to better understanding domestic violences’ impact and broader context — including religious motivations, coping mechanisms, or responses.

But, as any journalist who has reported on such stories knows, navigating the complexities of trauma-informed reporting and delivering a story that is balanced, accurate and insightful is complex and fraught with difficulties, especially when religious institutions may seek to protect the powerful rather than help the victim.  

There are a range of explanatory resources and primers on how to report on domestic violence, some with a particular focus on religious communities and the particulars of reporting in such a context:

Related stories, commentary and analysis

Experts and potential sources

General organizations

Religious organizations

Christian

  • Christian Coalition Against Domestic Abuse

    The Christian Coalition Against Domestic Abuse is dedicated to providing leadership programs in communities to prevent domestic violence and to support those who have encountered the abuse.

  • Freely in Hope

    Freely in Hope is an international, Christian nonprofit dedicated to equipping survivors and advocates to lead in ending the cycle of sexual violence. Nikole Lim founded the nonprofit and serves as international director.

  • Speak Your Truth

    Speak Your Truth is a Christian nonprofit dedicated to the education and prevention of domestic violence. The nonprofit was founded by Hannah Hollander and provides abuse education, resources and emotional support to victims and survivors.

  • YWCA

    YWCA is a nonprofit, global membership association run by and for women and their families that advocates peace, justice, human rights, environmental awareness and the rights of women.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

  • Cherish Families

    Cherish Families is a nonprofit founded and largely staffed by people from polygamist backgrounds. According to the organization’s website, Cherish Families aims to “connect individuals and families, primarily those from polygamist cultures, with tools and resources for generational success.” Alina Darger is executive director and Shirlee Draper is director of operations.

    Contact: 928-875-0969.
  • The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

    Headquartered in Salt Lake City, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a presence in several countries.

    Contact: 801-240-1670.

Jewish

Muslim

  • Manavi

    Manavi is a domestic abuse center for South Asian women in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Many of the women who come through the center are Muslim, and coordinators recognize religion as a major factor in battling domestic abuse. Navneet is the executive director.

  • Nour

    Nour is a UK-based non-profit working to prevent abuse, particularly in minoritized communities and Muslim communities. They offer trauma-informed and culturally competent responsive services for survivors of abuse.  

  • Peaceful Families Project

    The Peaceful Families Project produces workshops nationwide on domestic violence from a Muslim perspective. The organization is based in Great Falls, Virginia. Lina Hashem is president.

  • Project Sakinah

    Project Sakinah is a Muslim organization dedicated to stopping domestic abuse of all kinds in the family unit.

Multifaith

  • Faith Trust Institute

    Faith Trust Institute works to educate different types of faith communities about domestic and sexual violence. Contact board President Amy Gopp.

  • Sakhi for South Asian Women

    Sakhi for South Asian Women is a community-based organization in the New York metropolitan area committed to ending violence against women of South Asian origin. Contact executive director Kavita Mehra.

Nonreligious

National and international sources

Legal

Christian

  • Pamela Cooper-White

    Pamela Cooper-White is the Christiane Brooks Johnson Professor of Psychology & Religion at Union Theological Seminary at New York City. She is the author of The Cry of Tamar: Violence Against Women and the Church’s Response and Gender, Violence and Justice: Collected Essays on Violence Against Women.

  • Sharon Ellis Davis

    The Rev. Sharon Ellis Davis is a United Church of Christ pastor who teaches seminary classes on sexual and domestic violence. She is co-founder and pastor emeritus of God Can Ministries as well as a retired Chicago police officer and police chaplain.

  • Hannah Hollander

    Hannah Hollander is a domestic violence advocate and founder of Speak Your Truth Today, a global Facebook support group for domestic violence survivors.

  • J. Merritt Johnston

    J. Merritt Johnston is Executive Director of Baptist World Alliance Women, which connects Baptist women in 145 countries. Associated with the Baptist World Alliance, BWAW aims to help women thrive through connections and resourcing like the Stand Against Domestic Violence initiative.

     

     

  • Al Miles

    Al Miles is the author of Domestic Violence: What Every Pastor Needs to Know and Violence in Families: What Every Christian Needs to Know. He lives in Honolulu and is a chaplain at The Queen’s Medical Center.

    Contact: 808-691-1000.
  • Allison Moder

    Allison Moder is a survivor of domestic violence and adjunct professor in practical theology at Azusa Pacific University in Los Angeles. She is also a Ph.D. student at Claremont School of Theology, where she researches in the fields of theology, neuroscience, psychology and women’s studies to create resources for women to heal from relationship abuse.

Jewish

  • Carol Goodman Kaufman

    Carol Goodman Kaufman is a psychologist and author of Sins of Omission: The Jewish Community’s Reaction to Domestic Violence. She was the founding chair of the Domestic Violence Task Force for the Jewish Community of Central Mass. She is based at the Haddassah Institute at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts.

  • Keshet Starr

    Keshet Starr is a writer, speaker and CEO of the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, which seeks to eliminate abuse from the Jewish divorce process.

Muslim

  • Juliane Hammer

    Juliane Hammer is an associate professor of Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina. Her research interests include American Muslims, marriage and family, women’s rights and food. She is the author of Peaceful Families:American Muslim Efforts against Domestic Violence.

  • Nada Ibrahim

    Nada Ibrahim is a criminologist, counseling psychologist and domestic violence expert — including intimate partner violence in Muslim communities — at the University of South Australia, in Adelaide.

Other

  • Jenevieve Mannell

    Jenevieve Mannell is an associate professor in the University College London’s Institute for Global Health, specializing in the prevention of violence among women in places such as Afghanistan, India, Peru, Samoa and South Africa.

  • Nancy Nason-Clark

    Nancy Nason-Clark is professor emerita of sociology at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, Canada. She has written about the interface between religion and domestic violence for the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion and is co-author of Refuge From Abuse: Healing and Hope for Abused Christian Women. She worked on a four-year project funded by the Lilly Endowment called RAVE, Religion and Violence e-Learning, a web-based system for assisting religious leaders in responding to domestic violence.

  • W. Bradford Wilcox

    W. Bradford Wilcox is director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. He is co-editor of When Marriage Disappears: The New Middle America and author of articles on domestic abuse in outlets such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

Sources by region

Northeast U.S.

  • Margaret Abraham

    Margaret Abraham is a sociology professor at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. She is the author of Speaking the Unspeakable: Marital Violence Among South Asian Immigrants in the United States.

  • Pamela Cooper-White

    Pamela Cooper-White is the Christiane Brooks Johnson Professor of Psychology & Religion at Union Theological Seminary at New York City. She is the author of The Cry of Tamar: Violence Against Women and the Church’s Response and Gender, Violence and Justice: Collected Essays on Violence Against Women.

  • Patricia A. Fersch

    Patricia A. Fersch is the founding partner of Fersch LLC, dealing with thousands of cases involving families caught in the turmoil of family law conflicts. She has published extensively on domestic violence, abuse and the courts.

  • Jewish Domestic Violence Coalition

    The Jewish Domestic Violence Coalition was created in 1994 to unite concerned organizations and individuals in an effective response to domestic abuse in the Jewish community.

  • Joint Urban Ministry Project

    The Joint Urban Ministry Project is a collaborative ministry between religious organizations in Burlington, Vermont. Among its clients are victims of domestic violence. Email through the website.

    Contact: 802-862-4501.
  • Manavi

    Manavi is a domestic abuse center for South Asian women in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Many of the women who come through the center are Muslim, and coordinators recognize religion as a major factor in battling domestic abuse. Navneet is the executive director.

  • Peaceful Families Project

    The Peaceful Families Project produces workshops nationwide on domestic violence from a Muslim perspective. The organization is based in Great Falls, Virginia. Lina Hashem is president.

  • Project Stop Abusive Relationships at Home

    Project Stop Abusive Relationships at Home (Project SARAH) is a program of the Jewish Family Services of Clifton-Passaic, New Jersey, that targets domestic violence in Jewish and Russian-speaking homes.

Southern U.S.

  • Ellen T. Armour

    Ellen T. Armour is E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Chair in Religion, Gender and Sexuality at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and a professor in the Divinity School. Her research interests include feminist theology; theories of sexuality, race, gender, disability and embodiment; and contemporary continental philosophy.

  • Patricia Castillo

    Patricia Castillo is executive director of PEACE Initiative, a San Antonio coalition of organizations committed to ending domestic violence. The group has held workshops for local faith leaders about responding to domestic violence.

  • Robin Griffeth

    The Rev. Robin Griffeth is a United Methodist pastor in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and has participated in conferences on the religious response to domestic violence. She has volunteered for Sistercare, a battered women’s shelter, and was a training coordinator for the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse.

  • Amanda Hendler-Voss

    The Rev. Amanda Hendler-Voss is senior pastor at First Congregational UCC in Washington, D.C., and a member of the Wellspring Clergywomen’s Alliance of the Black Church and Domestic Violence Institute.

  • Renita J. Weems

    The Rev. Renita J. Weems was the first African American woman to earn a doctorate in Old Testament studies. She taught at Vanderbilt Divinity School and Spielman College. She is one of the founding pastors and chief servants at the Ray of Hope Community Church in Nashville, Tennessee. Contact through website.

    Contact: 615-343-3987.

Midwest U.S.

  • Chuck Dahm

    The Rev. Chuck Dahm is a Dominican priest and directs the Domestic Violence Outreach program for the Archdiocese of Chicago. He is the author of Parish Ministry in a Hispanic Community, which includes a section on violence and machismo.

  • Rachel VerWys

    Rachel VerWys is executive director of Safe Haven Ministries, a Christian-based ministry for victims of domestic abuse in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The ministry has an informational outreach program for congregations called “Raise Hope.” Contact individual team members through the website.

    Contact: 616-452-6664.

Western U.S.

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