Religious Freedom and Preventing Sexual Violence

Elder Holland highlights the tragic reality of sexual violence in war, dating back centuries, and stresses the need for action and compassion towards survivors. Holland advocates for religious freedom as a means to prevent conflict and violence, emphasizing the vital role of empowered women in fostering peace.

I want to thank Baroness Nicholson for the invitation to speak today. We are all indebted to Emma for her tremendous work ethic and boundless energy, including her service as chair of the House of Lords Select Committee on Sexual Violence in Conflict.  This committee’s recent report sheds light on a tragic problem that has for a very long time been a largely invisible part of war and conflict. As early as the beginning of the fifth century A.D., rape in wartime was considered an “ancient and customary evil,” according to Saint Augustine.  In the intervening centuries, such “customary evil” has only grown more familiar and prevalent.  As the report notes:

“The brutality of the crime is staggering. . . .  [It includes] severe physical and psychological trauma, HIV infection . . . and [too often] death. Women and children are at particular risk of further harm through displacement, pregnancy, forced marriage or ‘honour killing.’ . . . Survivors may be cast out by their families, they rarely receive justice and it is believed that most victims do not report attacks.” 1

The crime of sexual violence is compounded by the other violations victims suffer during war. They lose homes, healthcare, income, husbands, children, and hope. 2 Their very identity becomes as tattered as the landscape around them.  Yet, I emphasize at the outset of these remarks Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh’s observation that women may be “victimized and yet remain active agents deserving of respect, and not simply pity.” 3  In that spirit I make these remarks with the utmost respect for the women who have or will yet suffer such atrocities.

Additional attention is being paid to this matter.  To its credit, the United Nations in 2008 recognized that sexual violence has been used as “a tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instill fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community.” 4 That body’s security council went on to say that in times of armed conflict there must be an “immediate and complete cessation by all parties . . . of all acts of sexual violence against civilians,” noting that “rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity or a constitutive act with respect to genocide.”  5

Yet they continue.  In Sierra Leone’s decade-long conflict, it is estimated that people committed between 50,000 and 64,000 incidents of war-related sexual violence against internally-displaced women.  6

In Rwanda’s ethnic conflict between 1990 - 1994, it was estimated that the number of female rape victims totaled somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000, 7 with most victims being between 16 - 26 years old, although there were girls as young as two who also suffered abuse. 8 It is now estimated that 70 percent of the surviving women are HIV positive with little or no access to adequate medical assistance. 9

Unfortunately, violence toward women is not limited to times of war. Instances of female genital mutilation, 10 removal of bodily appendages, and honor killings persist during times of “peace.” 11 Women also are exploited by pornography, sex trafficking, baby farming, and slavery operations.  Figures by the United States Department of State from 2003 suggest that between 800,000 - 900,000 people are trafficked across international borders annually. 12 More than 49 million people are now forcibly displaced as a result of conflict and persecution. 13 About half of whom are women, two-thirds of which have been in exile for more than five years.  14

Statistics like these give only numbers and cannot tell of the shattered lives, broken health, and fractured families of the individuals affected.  Surely God knows of their suffering and weeps with them.  As Isaiah lamented: “Therefore said I, Look away from me; I will weep bitterly, labour not to comfort me, because of the spoiling of the daughter of my people.” 15  I bear witness of God’s love for those who suffer some of the worst that this world has to offer.  

As religious communities and individuals, we need to demonstrate God’s love for them by reaching out with compassion, sensitivity, and understanding to women who have endured so much.  Even as I say that we all realize that some religious communities and congregations have themselves been a potent source of misogyny and have allowed or even sometimes perpetuated tragic examples of abuse, including sexual abuse. As a man of faith, I do not stand with those who say God sanctions violence against and subjugation of women.Fortunately, those who do believe that are an exception and not the rule among most faith-based groups and their leaders. 

Members of our faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, have been encouraged to assist refugees in their own communities, and collectively we have been working for decades to support refugees in any part of the world in which they are found. 16  One small example of this is when we partnered with the AMAR Foundation to provide sewing machines and fabric to camps in northern Iraq serving 16,000 internally displaced people, many of whom are Yazidis, about whose plight we have so movingly heard from [Yazidi Prince or representative speaking Saturday]. 17  These gifts made it possible for the Yazidi women in the camps to obtain clothing because the traditional design and religious significance of the dresses they wear made them impossible to obtain otherwise.  18

  1. Reducing Conflict through Religious Freedom

One of the many innovative ideas that Emma has put on display at this conference is the idea that religion, religious persecution and by implication religious freedom, need to be more closely examined in their relationship to all of the issues we will be discussing. This includes her crucial work on the topic of sexual violence in conflict. During a recent visit to the United States in which she spoke at the University of Virginia, Yale University, and Princeton University, she was, with two Commissioners of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, part of a public conversation on that subject.  That conversation examined and applauded AMAR’s important religious tolerance initiative. 19 We love you, Emma.

Allow me for a moment to discuss religious freedom as a means of preventing conflict and violence, especially to women.  First, we need to remember what religious belief is.  It answers the basic questions of the human experience: “Who am I?  Why am I here?  Where am I going?  What is required of me?”  These questions emanate from the human soul’s yearning desire to understand the purpose of one’s life.  That is why a religious right is a human right.  A human being must be permitted to find meaning in their life and for their life.  For the vast majority of individuals on the planet that involves searching out, investigating, adopting, and when necessary adapting religious beliefs. 

The freedom to search for meaning in life and to believe that a higher power has provided that meaning surely belongs to women as much as to men.  Indeed, this is one of the most important freedoms a woman can have in any society where cultural traditions might seek to impose upon her a lesser conception of her own value. Religious freedom is the very foundation of anything that could be called empowerment.  

Harvard Economist and Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has argued that societal development “requires the removal of sources of unfreedom.” 20 Recent research by Brian Grim and Roger Finke indicates that these impediments to and restrictions on religious freedom lead to increased social hostilities over religion. 21 Grim specifically describes what he calls “the religious violence cycle,” where societal restriction on religion leads to governmental restrictions on religion, which together increase social violence toward religions and from religious groups toward society, prompting in turn more restrictions on religious freedom. 22  Obviously “the religious violence cycle” is a vicious one as well—literally.

The counterpart to the cycle of religious violence is what these two scholars call “the religious freedom cycle”—that increased religious freedom results in increased participation by religions and religious individuals in society, which in turn leads to positive contributions to the community. 23 They note that religious communities are a bulwark of civil society, with high levels of religious freedom correlating in a statistically significant way with fewer incidents of armed conflict, high levels of health and earned income, and better educational opportunities for women, as well as with such foundational rights as civil liberty and freedom of the press.    24


Conversely, religious restrictions not only increase social violence and hostilities, but also have been demonstrated to increase forced migration.  This should be no surprise inasmuch as English Puritans, French Huguenots, and some European Jews if they had the freedom to do so (such as those in Russia), chose emigration over persecution generations ago, as have the Yazidi and other minorities surrounded by conflict areas of the Middle East currently.  We need to realize that reducing restrictions on religion, particularly when these restrictions are targeted against minorities, is one additional component in the solution to forced migrations.

  1. Women and Post-Conflict Societies: Hope for the future

In summary, religion, freed to contribute to community, can be a vital part of preventing conflict and the sexual violence that accompanies it.  As John Adams, one of the founding fathers of the United States stated, “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion.” 25  And it is women who all too often are the ones who suffer most from the unbridled human passions that run rampant in so many conflict situations.  For added measure, David Hollenbach offers yet other reasons why religion and religious freedom can and must be part of the solution to our current trauma:  

“Religion and spirituality help [women and men] cope with trauma . . . [by] providing meaning in the face of grave loss, helping reduce anxiety, connecting victims to social support, and, in a more explicitly religious way, enabling them to attain communion with the sacred.” 26

What does all of this tell us?  It tells us religion is a healing, hopeful, motivating influence, that religious rights are human rights, and that “human rights are women’s rights.” 27

  1. Conclusion

Obviously much remains to be done to reduce conflict and eradicate the sexual violence that accompanies it.  This is a work that will require our best efforts, our most thoughtful and coordinated responses, our most compassionate and open hearts, but we know that such efforts are strengthened by the determination of empowered women. Baroness Nicholson’s Select Committee report states: “If women are not involved directly in peace negotiations and in delivering the peace afterwards, such efforts will be far less likely to succeed.” 28 We need that powerful and unique female force for good.  Emma Nicholson is a magnificent example of the very empowerment of which we speak.  She has done a herculean work in advancing this cause, and we are all indebted to her. 

Perhaps Nelson Mandela was thinking of someone like Emma when he stated that “[a]s long as we take the view that these are problems for women alone to solve, we cannot expect to reverse the high incidence of rape and child abuse. Domestic violence will not be eradicated. We will not defeat this scourge that affects each and every one of us, until we succeed in mobilizing the whole of our society to fight it.” 29 That is what this conference is hoping to do. May God bless our effort. Thank you.

  1. House of Lords Select Committee on Sexual Violence in Conflict; Sexual Violence in Conflict: A War Crime; HL Paper 123; Chapter 1: Introduction; ¶ 13 (Apr. 12, 2016), (last visited August 17, 2016).

  2. UN Women, Women and Armed Conflict, Beijing 20, (last visited August 17, 2016).

  3. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh ,“Gender and Forced Migration” in The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies edited by Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Gil Loescher, Katy Long, and Nando Sigona, Oxford Handbooks Online ( accessed 24 July 2016.

  4. U.N. Security Council Resolution 1820 (2000), adopted June 19, 2008.

  5. Id.

  6. Physicians for Human Rights with the support of UNAMSIL, War-Related Sexual Violence in Sierra Leone, A Population Based Assessment, A Report (Washington DC, January 2002),, (accessed 8-2-16).

  7. Amnesty International, , (accessed 8-2-16).

  8. Human Rights Watch, Shattered Lives: Sexual Violence during the Rwandan Genocide and its Aftermath (New York, September 1996) at ) (accessed 8-2-16) 

  9.  Ibid.

  10. World Health Organization, Fact Sheet, Female genital mutilation, Feb. 2016, (last visited Aug. 17, 2016). 

  11. For example, an infertile husband cut his wife’s hands off for not giving him a child. Muktar, Irdis, CNN, Husband hacks off wife’s hands after saying she failed to have children, Aug. 5, 2016, (last visited Aug. 17, 2016). In another case, an employer cut a woman’s arm off when she tried to escape because she was being tortured. BBC News, India woman’s arm ‘cut off by employer in Saudi Arabia, Oct. 9, 2015, (last visited Aug. 17, 2016). 

  12. US department of State, Trafficking in Persons Report (Washington D.C., 2003).  European Commission, Preventing and Combating Trafficking in Women:  A Comprehensive European Strategy (Brussels, 2001).

  13. United Nations, UN Resources for Speakers on Global Issues, (accessed 8-2-16).

  14. Ibid.

  15. Isaiah 22:4.



  18. Id.

  19. James Madison Program, A Public Conversation on the State of International Religious Freedom (March 30, 2016),  

  20. Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom, 3, (1999).

  21. See Brian Grim & Roger Finke, The Price of Freedom Denied, pp. 22, 61-62.

  22. Brian Grim, Religious Freedom: Good For What Ails Us?, The Review of Faith and International Affairs pp. - 3-4.

  23. See Brian Grim, Religious Freedom: Good For What Ails Us?, The Review of Faith and International Affairs pp. - 3-4.

  24. Brian Grim & Roger Finke, The Price of Freedom Denied, pp. 210-212; See Brian Grim, Religious Freedom: Good For What Ails Us?, The Review of Faith and International Affairs, 2.

  25.  John Adams, “To the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts,” Oct. 11, 1798.

  26. David Hollenbach, “Religion and Forced Migration” in The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies, edited by Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Gil Loescher, Katy Long, and Nando Sigona, Oxford Handbooks Online ( ) accessed 24 July 2016.

  27. Chozick, Amy, Hillary Clinton’s Beijing Speech on Women Resonates 20 Years Later, NY Times (Sept. 5, 2013), (last visited August 17, 2016). 

  28. House of Lords Select Committee on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Sexual Violence in Conflict: A War Crime, HL Paper 123, ¶ 4.187 (Apr. 12, 2016), (last visited August 25, 2016). 

  29. Address by President Nelson Mandela at National Men's March, Pretoria 22 November 1997,