Religion Plays Dual Role In IPV


Spirituality and religion can have a dual role in intimate partner violence, being both a coping mechanism for victim-survivors and a tool used to abuse, control or erode confidence, according to a new report from the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS).

Spiritual and religious abuse includes using religious teachings or traditions to minimise, deny or justify acts of abuse and violence; ridiculing someone for their beliefs to undermine their identity or self-confidence; isolating them from communal worship or limiting religious activities; or forcing someone to convert to a religion.

Report co-author and Research Fellow at AIFS, Dr Mandy Truong, said evidence of coercive and controlling behaviours can be found across a range of religions, including Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

‘Perpetrators can use religious texts or ideologies to manipulate and control their victim, to justify or excuse what they do, or to keep their victim in an abusive relationship.’ Dr Truong said.

‘Meanwhile faith and prayer can be used as a source of comfort and healing when facing adverse events, making religion a double-edged sword for some victim-survivors.’

Dr Truong said people who work with women, including psychologists, social workers and faith leaders, should be aware of the signs, actively listen, and be equipped to provide support.

‘The abuse may be subtle and go unnoticed unless it’s paired with other types of violence such as physical violence – making it difficult in some cases for even the victim to recognise that they are being subjected to abuse,’ Dr Truong said.

‘When they are aware, seeking support can be a huge challenge for many victim-survivors – particularly where there is a real or perceived threat of ostracism from their faith community.’

Dr Truong said while religious leaders can be a powerful influence against abuse, research shows some are inadequately equipped to respond effectively to intimate partner violence, and some may operate within a culture of denial and defensiveness.

‘Research shows that some faith leaders may minimise and ignore abuse, instead focussing on relationship counselling, regular prayer and attending their place of worship rather than victim-survivor safety,’ Dr Truong said.

Based on a review of Australian and international research, the AIFS policy and practice paper is designed to support practitioners and professionals working with faith-based communities to identify, respond to, and support victims of spiritual and religious abuse.

Like all forms of intimate partner violence, the impacts of spiritual and religious abuse can be severe. It is linked to emotional and psychological distress, social isolation, and negative feelings about one’s faith and identity.

Minister for Social Services, Amanda Rishworth, said this research confirmed the need for the Government’s recently announced Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) Communities and Faith Leaders Program, which increases training about the indicators of family, domestic and sexual violence.

‘We are aware that there are a number of people that may feel isolated or are unable to access already existing family, domestic and sexual violence services. This training makes information and support available through another avenue,’ Minister Rishworth said.

‘Our CALD Communities and Faith Leaders Program will empower community and faith leaders with greater knowledge about the intervention and support strategies that will help them to improve awareness and attitudes in their communities and respond to disclosures of abuse.

‘The program also recognises that community and faith leaders can play a powerful role in challenging the attitudes and behaviours that cause and condone violence against women and children,’ Minister Rishworth said.

The 2021 Australian Census found more than 50% of Australians had a religious affiliation, with Christianity being the most common (43.9%), followed by Islam (3.2%) and Hinduism (2.7%).

Of all Australian adults, 11.3% (2.2 million) had experienced violence from a partner and 5.9% (1.1 million) had experienced violence from a boyfriend, girlfriend or date in the past 12 months.

The prevalence of spiritual and religious abuse in Australia is unknown at this stage, and there is no evidence to suggest that it is higher in any particular religious or faith communities.

AIFS conducts original research to increase understanding of Australian families and the issues that affect them; see

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