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SU builds bridges through research into faith and gender justice
Author: Dr. Selina Palm & Division for Social Impact
Published: 16/11/2018

​​​​The Unit for Religion and Development Research (URDR) is an interdisciplinary research unit based within the Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch University. It works with diverse clients and research collaborators around the world, partnering with various organisations and faith organisation to help them engage in sustainable development. With a particular focus on religion and violence, the URDR works with governmental and non-governmental organisations to develop interventions that tackle the root causes of violence and lead to longer-term, sustainable change. At the same time, it develops academic theory, acting as a bridge between academia and praxis.

The URDR was recently commissioned by Girls Not Brides to do a study on better understanding the role of resistant religious leaders from Christian, Muslim and Hindu traditions[1] in efforts to end child marriage and develop effective strategies for working with them for change.

Child marriage violates girls' rights to health, education and opportunity. It exposes girls to violence throughout their lives and traps them in a cycle of poverty. These are the facts:

  • Twelve million girls are married every year before they reach 18.
  • Almost one in three of these girls are now in sub-Saharan Africa – up from one in seven 25 years ago.
  • One in nine girls in the developing world are married by age 15.

Through Girls Not Brides the URDR research team had access to 1 000 partner organisations across multiple faiths and in more than 95 countries, enabling research findings to shape and inform the work being done by this global network of partners, presented at their Global Conference in Malaysia in June 2018.

The final research report, titled, “What lies beneath? Tackling the roots of religious resistance to ending child marriage", is in its final design stages and will be publicly released in December 2018.

Read the report here

“The research found that child marriage is sometimes seen or presented by certain religious leaders as a solution, prevention or protection against sexual activity and pregnancy outside of marriage" said Dr Selina Palm, researcher at the URDR.

While not all religious leaders oppose ending child marriage, this report focused on those who do to help support activists who are facing challenges in their attempts to work with religious leaders. The following seven overlapping drivers (or underlying roots) were identified as shaping the attitudes and practices seen to typically fuel religious resistance to ending child marriage:

  • Marriage viewed as a religious ritual
  • Lack of awareness of child marriage consequences
  • Child marriage seen as ordained by religion
  • Fear of premarital sex and pregnancy
  • Reinforcement of patriarchal power
  • Parental protection and power over children
  • Religious fundamentalism.

A number of strategies were therefore suggested in relation to understanding the particular drivers within a specific context and building on what is being seen to work in the field across multiple faiths.

Another key initiative underway is the work being done in partnership with Episcopal Relief & Development, the Zambian Anglican Church and the Zambian Anglican Mothers' Union regarding violence against women (VAW) and violence against children (VAC).

The research project is taking place over a period of eight months in Zambia with a local research team trained by the URDR as part of the ONE VOICE project, a movement working with women's groups and women leaders. Various qualitative methods are being used to collect data, including Photovoice, a process by which local research assistants take photos and make voice notes to describe what they are seeing in their local communities. These pictures identify the social and religious norms that underpin violence against women and children in their communities, with a special focus on how women may directly or indirectly condone or condemn VAW and VAC.

Rural Zambian women within the Mothers' Union were trained as research assistants and equipped with camera phones. These women take pictures of what they see within their communities and send the photos, along with a voice note, to the UDRD researchers on a weekly basis.

At the end of the project, URDR researchers will return to Zambia to interpret the photos together with the local Zambian research team (all women), which in turn will inform the dissemination of the results across wider Anglican structures to educate and stimulate discussion at both senior and community levels.  The research will also be used to inform longer-term interventions on VAW/VAC within the ONE VOICE work being developed by Episcopal Relief & Development and Zambian Anglican leaders, which also focuses on developing women's leadership.

“Our research begins and ends with the notion of collaboration for the purposes of knowledge production and dissemination. The URDR holds a commitment to scholarship that directly impacts the marginalised and disempowered and we work collaboratively for the purposes of improving practice. We can contribute to achieving best results for and with beneficiaries, in this case women and children who experience multiple forms of violence within their communities," said Dr Palm.

More information and research reports from the URDR's work across the globe can be found at Dr Selina Palm can be contacted at​.

[1] As per the major religion in the highest child marriage countries.