Pope Francis’ Prayer Intention for February: Violence Against Women – Let us pray for women who are victims of violence, that they may be protected by society and have their sufferings considered and heeded by all.
In recent years, Australians have recognised more fully the extent and harm of domestic violence. In earlier times, its signs in bruised faces and scared children were often overlooked or regarded as part of secret family business of no concern to outsiders. We recognise, too, that the victims of family violence are predominantly women and children. Our growing awareness is also reflected in changes to the law and to its enforcement. Penalties are heavier. Police now routinely bring charges against perpetrators and enforce the protection orders imposed on violent partners. Those found guilty are likely to be jailed. Alongside these changes to legal enforcement, public attitudes have also changed. It is no longer acceptable to blame women for bringing on violence, or to accept it as an inevitable aspect of relationships between men and women.
Reflection on the extent of violence against women has also focused attention on the reasons why men act violently towards women and on what must be done to nurture respectful relationships. Jesuit Social Services, which works with many young men suffering from disadvantage, has focused on exploring ways of helping men to develop respectful relationships with women and to learn non-violent ways of responding to frustration.
Pope Francis’ prayer intention calls on us to build change both in society and in our own attitudes. To protect women from domestic or casual violence requires the sustained support of society. Domestic violence must be made unlawful and the laws be enforced. Women escaping from abusive relationships must be found accommodation and other support for themselves and their family where they can live free from fear of violent partners.
The response of society to violence against women must go deeper still. Because the roots of men’s violent behaviour often lie in their own childhood experience of family violence, boys and their families need support to help them build mature relationships with women. Otherwise, they will learn a disrespect for women, which is likely to be intensified through peer group attitudes in their adolescence.
The protection from violence for which Pope Francis prays is far-reaching. He also asks that we consider and heed the suffering of women who are treated violently. To consider someone’s suffering means attending to it. We refuse to turn our faces away because it is too painful to consider or because we feel helpless when confronted with it. We allow ourselves to enter the pain, the shame, the helplessness, the anger and self-blame that people feel when they are subject to repeated violence. We do not keep ourselves at a distance from it, like detached observers, but are compassionate, letting our heart go out to women in their suffering. We think of them as our mothers, our sisters, our daughters.
Pope Francis also invites us to heed the suffering of women who are victims of violence. To heed is not to pass lightly on from this to our next prayer intention, but to make it our business to walk with women who suffer violence and to encourage respect for women in all the relationships of our domestic, social and public lives. Praying, protecting, considering and heeding go together.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.