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The Project

Project dldl/ድልድል: Bridging religious studies, gender & development and public health to address domestic violence in religious communities 

ድልድል is a research and innovation project dedicated to the development and strengthening of religio-culturally sensitive, domestic violence alleviation systems in Ethiopia, Eritrea and the UK. The word dldl means ‘bridge’ in Tigrigna, a term that reflects the project’s aim of bridging different disciplines, sectors and stakeholders in order to achieve a more reflexive, decolonial and integrated approach to addressing domestic violence in faith communities.

The project is dedicated to generating new research and evidence on the ways in which religious beliefs, theology and the clergy can contribute to the deterrence of domestic violence, and to raising awareness about the religio-cultural parameters of domestic violence among practitioners within government and non-governmental sectors, with the overall objective of building better-integrated domestic violence support-systems. 

The project is hosted at the School of History, Religions and Philosophies at SOAS University of London and is led by UKRI Future Leaders Fellow Dr Romina Istratii. It involves numerous collaborators, partners and team members in the project countries, including Aksum University (Aksum, Ethiopia), the St Frumentius Abba Selama Kessate Berhan Theological College (Mekelle, Ethiopia), the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia), the Ethiopian Orthodox Church Development and Inter-Church Aid Commission (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia), Diversity Resource International (Brighton, UK) and its sister-branch Waniney (Asmara, Eritrea), the University of Bristol (Bristol, UK) and the University of Sheffield (Sheffield, UK). It is funded initially for four years by UK Research and Innovation (Grant Ref: MR/T043350/1) and is supported with additional funding from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation (Distinguished Scholars Award 2019).

This project emerges from the commitment to promote a decolonisation of domestic violence research and practice in low and middle-income societies by being grounded in the conceptual repertoires and the lived experiences of the communities themselves. Historically, public health and gender and development approaches have neglected, appraised monolithically or engaged limitedly with religious beliefs and faith-based worldviews. While increasing attention has been given to issues around ethnicity and race, and numerous initiatives now engage faith actors in their work, current approaches still lack a substantive engagement with religio-cultural worldviews and context-specific understanding about how these intertwine with collective histories, gender norms and individual psychologies to affect attitudes towards and responses to domestic violence in communities of distinct religio-cultural traditions. Moreover, western conceptualisations of ‘religion’ that reflect the particularity of these societies’ experience with secularism persist to obscure distinct local religious experiences.

The project is informed by and builds upon previous ethnographic research with Ethiopian Orthodox Täwahәdo communities in Northern Ethiopia. It is guided by findings that showed both a prevalence of religious language in how the clergy and the laity understood and experienced domestic violence in rural and urban communities in the northern region of Tigray, and also the crucial role of the clergy in teaching about marriage and in mediating situations of conflict and abuse. While some clergy seemed to lack the preparedness to respond with awareness of the complex psychology of victims and perpetrators and of the potential risks involved, others used theological language resourcefully and in ways that seemed to reverse rigid or pernicious attitudes associated with some forms of conjugal abuse or its implicit tolerance (a presentation of this research can be watched on the YouTube channel of Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide).

The project includes research activities in Ethiopia carried out to develop more concrete evidence on how religious beliefs, theology and the clergy can serve as a deterrence mechanism, and also on the role of faith in victim/survivor and perpetrator behaviour and its potential resourcefulness in victim/survivor psychosocial support and perpetrator treatment programmes. It combines research with intervention activities, including discussion-based workshops with clergy across the country to improve their theological acumen in being able to address matters of marriage and domestic violence confidently, and their preparedness to support victims and perpetrators in ways that minimise safety risks for victims. The overall aim of the project is to bring together stakeholders from Ethiopia’s state-led and non-governmental domestic violence sector and religious leadership in order to consolidate more collaborative approaches that integrate the clergy in ongoing efforts to establish domestic violence referral systems in Ethiopia.

The project extends to Eritrea, a country with a variegated religio-cultural and linguistic landscape that includes also a Tigrigna-speaking Orthodox Täwahәdo population. Eritrea has a long history of women’s activism on numerous social fronts, which has received limited scholarly attention. Like Ethiopia, Eritrea has experienced wars and foreign invasions, and while it has shown admirable resilience, the numerous consequences of conflict need to be considered when researching domestic violence in present times. The project is keen to shed more light on the relationships between war history, trauma and domestic violence, as well as to develop new research evidence in order to contextualise domestic violence within local religio-cultural and gender normative systems and in Eritrea’s particular political history. The project works with religious, state-led and NGO stakeholders with the aim of developing stronger domestic violence support-systems that can serve the particular needs of the Eritrean people.

The research, intervention and knowledge-exchange activities in Ethiopia and Eritrea are designed to inform efforts for improving religio-cultural sensitivity in the UK’s domestic violence sector, which is increasingly called upon to cater to multi-ethnic religious groups, including Eritrean and Ethiopian migrants and refugees. There is evidence that migrant or refugee communities are often disproportionately affected by domestic violence; however, their needs are often not met by the mainstream domestic violence sector. The project includes extensive activities in the UK in order to assess current levels of religio-cultural sensitivity and competence in the sector, to understand how religious stakeholders can be integrated more effectively within existing referral systems and domestic violence support-services, and, ultimately, to improve services for religio-culturally diverse ethnic minority, migrant and refugee groups.

The project aims to develop impact-oriented interventions on the basis of rigorous, locally grounded research, and commits to a humble, reflexive and dialogical collaborative approach in order to redress in a substantive manner historical asymmetries in development-oriented research and practice, and to rectify unhelpful and hierarchical knowledge transfer patterns from Northern societies to Southern counterparts. These principles constitute the foundations of the bridge the project aims to serve as.

Our main strategy is to function as a bridge and to facilitate learning and new collaborations through knowledge exchange activities across disciplines, sectors and theoretical paradigms in domestic violence research and practice. More specifically, we aim to pursue the project’s objectives by:

  1. Working dialogically with partners, stakeholders and communities and employing people-centred research methodologies and practices;
  2. Building on context-specific knowledge and developing new rigorous evidence;
  3. Connecting with existing domestic violence infrastructure and initiatives to achieve integration and to avoid duplication;
  4. Brokering cross-sectoral learning, partnerships and awareness through knowledge exchange activities and public engagement.

The project is anticipated to result in numerous outputs and overall outcomes including: 

  1. New practice bridging religious studies, development and public health to address domestic violence in religious communities;
  2. Bespoke curricula for seminarians and multilingual training platform for clergy, domestic violence providers and researchers in the area of domestic violence studies;
  3. New multi-stakeholder knowledge exchange platform to promote integrated approaches to addressing domestic violence in faith communities;
  4. A pilot programme leveraging religious and spiritual language for perpetrator and victim support.

The project is impact-driven and aims to achieve substantive effects for the stakeholder groups, the project team members and communities affected by domestic violence. These include:

  1. Better preparedness among clergy and seminarians to respond to domestic violence victims and perpetrators in their communities;
  2. Increased religio-cultural sensitivity in governmental and nongovernmental domestic violence sectors in the project countries;
  3. More integrated domestic violence systems and, thus, better served affected populations; 
  4. Mutually beneficial partnerships and professional development for the different team members regardless of their level of involvement.

If you would like to find out more about the project, please contact the Principal Investigator Dr Romina Istratii (ri5@soas.ac.uk) or the dedicated project email (soasflf@soas.ac.uk).