Partnering with Faith Communities to End Religious Child Maltreatment

It was an honor to speak at this year’s International Cultic Studies Association conference on June 27 in Stockholm, Sweden. I was one of some 100 speakers that included researchers, mental health professionals, former cult members, and loved ones of survivors. I was particularly excited about the fact that the focus of this year’s event was children in cults and high-control groups.

“The breadth of perspectives presented at the conference was exciting and thought-provoking,” ICSA Executive Director Michael Langone wrote to me in an email.  “More and more, we are hearing from adults who experienced high-control, oppressive groups as children. Their stories are moving and the resilience they have shown in making new lives for themselves is inspirational.”

Given the knowledge base of this audience, I decided to switch gears from my usual “religious child maltreatment 101” talk, as I call it. Instead, I addressed the topic of “Working with Faith Communities to End Religious Child Maltreatment.” My objective was to convince these experts that we have to move away from traditional ways of trying to protect children from religious child maltreatment (RCM) and look at a different approach—one that has been proven to be successful in the past.

TRADITIONAL MEANS TO PROTECTING CHILDREN IN PROBLEMATIC FAITH COMMUNITIES

Until now, we have largely depended on the law to devise ways to protect children. The problem is, authoritarian religious communities—those that pose the greatest risk to children—operate under their own self-imposed laws. Many don’t trust anyone related to government, and some members of these communities don’t even know what social services are available. For these reasons, it can be extremely difficult for authorities, such as law enforcement and Child Protective Services, to find out that maltreatment is going on. Furthermore, once they do, members often refuse to cooperate with investigations.

More importantly, individuals like social workers and police officers are usually trained to take a reactionary, and often severe, approach—to conduct a raid and perhaps arrest members and remove children in harm’s way. While raids are necessary when crises arise, they rarely offer a longterm solution.

The Child-Friendly Faith Project (CFFP) believes it has a more effective way to protect children from RCM now and for many years to come. Our goal is to partner with faith communities that are ready to learn about RCM and join a movement to end it. In addition, these religious organizations are willing to look at their own faith teachings and practices to be assured that they are nurturing for children and in line with current child development models. This collaborative approach offers many benefits to participants, including the chance to expand attract new members who are looking for faith communities that go that extra step to learn about children’s needs.

Can such a movement actually take place, and can it be effective in improving children’s lives in faith communities in the United States and elsewhere? We believe it can, because it has worked before. When I was speaking at the conference, I described one grass roots movement that helped bring an end one of the most abusive, cultural childrearing practices in history—the Chinese foot-binding of girls. Despite the fact that parents were binding their young daughters’ feet for nearly a millennium, the practice came to an end within one generation. The change came about not because the practice was banned, but because outsiders got involved and partnered with key individuals and groups in China to form a powerful, grass-roots movement very similar to what the CFFP aims to do.

AN ABUSIVE PRACTICE COMES TO A RELATIVELY QUICK END

The practice of Chinese foot-binding started around the 10th century. Despite the fact that it caused young girls excruciating pain, led to longterm health problems and sometimes death, and oppressed females in all classes of society, it was well ingrained in Chinese culture, particularly in the middle and upper classes.

Families bound the feet of their daughters for social gain, as girls with bound feet were more eligible for marriage than those whose feet had been left natural. In fact, the smaller the feet, the better chances were that a girl could marry into a prominent family. Girls took pride in their meticulously embroidered “lotus shoes,” whose quality was scrutinized by the mothers of men girls hoped to marry.

Girls as young as three-years-old were forced to undergo the excruciatingly painful procedure. The goal was to make the feet as small as possible—the ideal length being three inches. To accomplish this, each foot was wrapped in such a way that it was made into a sort of fist. Multiple bones were broken as the foot was forced to form a high, unnatural arch. With the feet folded into themselves, they were impossible to keep clean and smelled terrible. Girls suffered ulcerations, gangrene, loss of toes, and death due to infection. Walking on bound feet was extremely difficult and led to longterm back problems.

In the mid-1800s, China was opening its borders to international trade which introduced the Chinese to stylish, Western customs. In addition, Christian missionaries were permitted to enter the country.  Some missionaries from the UK, which included women, were appalled at the practice of foot-binding and how it immobilized women, both socially and literally.

One notable missionary was Rev. John Mcgowan of the non-denominational Protestant London Missionary Society. In 1875, Macgowan and his wife called a meeting of women in China and convinced nine of them to sign a pledge opposing foot-binding. The gathering marked the beginning of what would become the Quit-Foot-binding Society, an organization largely made up of mothers who committed to allowing their daughters to go unbound.

McGowan and other missionaries also appealed to China’s elite, scholars known as the literati, to publicly oppose foot-binding. The missionaries’ justification—that foot-binding made China appear backward in the eyes of the rest of the world—resonated with the literati who wrote essays that described the practice as shameful and cruel. One of those scholars was Kang Youwei who had been distressed by the pain his female relatives had underwent when their feet were bound. He allowed his own daughters’ feet to be left natural and, in 1898, sent a memorandum to the Chinese emperor in which he tried to shame the leader into opposing the practice. Kang wrote, “There is nothing which makes us objects of ridicule so much as foot-binding.”

Meanwhile, organizations like the Quit-Foot-Binding Society helped shift public opinion by establishing a justification for allowing girls’ feet to be left natural. These women not only pledged not to bind their daughters’ feet, they also forbade their sons to marry women with bound feet. The end result was that families who didn’t bind their daughters’ feet had a better chance of marrying them into good families than those who went the traditional route and bound their daughters’ feet.

Therefore, foot-binding no longer brought families status but stigma. Cultural events such as “small foot” contests that glorified foot-binding were replaced with those that mocked it, such as public rallies in which women burned their foot wrappings and sang “letting-feet-out” songs. By the time the Chinese Nationalist Government banned the practice in 1911, most families had already stopped binding their daughters’ feet.

LEARNING FROM A PREVIOUS SUCCESS

The approach adopted by the anti-foot-binding advocates can be summarized as having three key components:

  • The movement was catalyzed by advocates (missionaries) who came from outside China.
  • The advocates partnered with powerful leaders (literati) and role models (mothers) who became the “face” of the anti-foot-binding effort.
  • The culture was motivated to give up the practice of foot-binding as families understood that the practice was stigmatizing while allowing girls’ feet to be natural brought them status.

Despite the cultural differences, the CFFP believes that a similar approach can be implemented to curtail religious child maltreatment in the United States and elsewhere. That is, child advocates outside of problematic faith communities can educate and partner with churches, synagogues, and mosques that become part of our Child-Friendly Faith movement. Joining the movement involves participating in a rigorous training program developed by the CFFP and being designated as a Child-Friendly Faith Community.

Participating organizations receive many benefits from participating in the program, including the opportunity to grow their memberships. More specifically, they can

  • be assured that their teachings are aligned with current child development models;
  • learn how to respond correctly to cases of maltreatment should they arise;
  • develop or improve child abuse prevention policies and procedures;
  • develop or improve programs designed to improve children’s lives;
  • be promoted as role models in child protection; and
  • attract new members who are looking for faith communities that understand children’s needs.

Working off the same anti-foot-binding movement, a child-friendly faith movement would consist of these three components:

  • The movement is catalyzed by child advocates who come from outside problematic faith communities.
  • The advocates partner with powerful leaders (clergy) and role models (parents) who become the “face” of the Child-Friendly Faith effort.
  • Faith communities are motivated to learn about RCM and improve child-related practices because doing so improves their public image and promises to increase the size of their congregations; on the other hand, not making such changes will result in being stigmatized and possibly lose members.

Those who heard about this approach at the ICSA conference were highly supportive. (To read my paper that was discussed at the ICSA Conference, please go to this link.) During the Q&A, a number of audience members said they believed that many faith communities would see the “child-friendly” approach as a helpful way to avoid lawsuits related to child abuse issues and improve their public image.

The advocates who opposed Chinese foot-binding did not single-handedly bring about the end of this practice. Other factors, such as economic and cultural globalism also contributed. In other words, the time was right for China to make a change. In the same way, religious organizations in the United States are ready to make a change and be designated as Child-Friendly Faith Communities.

Adults, particularly parents, are more attuned than ever to the importance of joining a faith community that has taken important steps to expand its understanding of children’s needs. At the same time, religious organizations are seeking to improve their their teachings and practices, as well as their image, so that they are recognized as role models in child protection.

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To learn more about the Child-Friendly Faith Communities Designation Program, click here or send an email to info@childfriendlyfaith.org. You can also make a donation that would go directly toward funding the Designation Program by clicking here.

To learn more about religious child maltreatment and Chinese foot-binding, please refer to these sources:

Appiah, Kwame Anthony, “The Art of Social Change,” The New York Times Magazine, October 22, 2010.

Appiah, Kwame Anthony, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen (W. W. Norton & Company, New York, New York, 1996).

Foreman, Amanda, “Why foot-binding persisted in China for a millennium,” Smithsonian Magazine, February, 2012.

Heimlich, Janet, Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment (Prometheus Books: Amherst, New York, 2011).

Montlake, Simon, “Bound by History,” The Wall Street Journal, November 13, 2009.

© 2015 Child-Friendly Faith Project. All rights reserved.