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Penn Law doctoral candidate’s study exposes domestic violence in religious communities

February 24, 2014

A paper by a Penn Law SJD candidate that has attracted significant attention on the Social Science Research Network maintains that women in devout religious communities are especially vulnerable to domestic violence.

The paper, “In God’s Shadow: Unveiling the Hidden World of Domestic Violence Victims in Religious Communities” by Michal Gilad L’16, surveys an extensive literature on the relationship between religion and domestic violence.  While no compelling evidence points to religious families being more prone to domestic violence, Gilad writes, the scholarship demonstrates that religious women are more vulnerable when abused.

The article was ranked #1 on CrimProf Blog’s list of most downloaded papers in criminal law and procedure soon after it was posted on SSRN.

Gilad argues that the fear, vulnerability, and isolation experienced by abused women are especially acute in “closely knit and conservative religious communities” because they are strongly reinforced by theological beliefs, cultural traditions, and communal norms.

Summing up the social science literature, she writes: “Studies conclude that as a result of these social and cultural forces, abuse victims in religious communities are less likely to leave the abusive relationship, more likely to believe the abuser’s promise to change his violent ways, more reluctant to seek community-based resources or shelters, and more commonly express guilt that they have failed their families and God in not being able to make the marriage work and to stop the abuse.”

Gilad acknowledges that the relationship between religion and domestic violence is complex and multidimensional. “On the one hand, religion can empower and comfort victims through spiritual inspiration and community support,” she writes. “On the other hand, religious issues and consideration which surface in the midst of crisis are primary issues critical width in situations of domestic abuse. If not addressed, they will inevitably become roadblocks to the victim’s path towards safety, and the public battle against domestic violence.”

“The idea to write about the challenges of domestic violence victims in religious communities stemmed from my constant quest to integrate my past experience in legal practice and my research interests, to produce scholarship that has practical relevance beyond the pages of law reviews,” she said. “In this case I was fortunate to have the opportunity to collaborate with a range of top-notch practitioners from Israel and the US to create a comprehensive body of knowledge that can help improve legal policies and practices, enhance our ability to protect this vulnerable group of victims, and inspire new research directions.”

In addition to legal scholars, the paper’s intended audience includes policymakers, prosecutors, judges, law enforcement authorities, victim advocates, case workers, and social service providers.

Gilad, who interviewed numerous practitioners in the course of her research, makes a number of recommendations ranging from policy proposals to procedures for best practice. She notes, for instance, that mandatory arrest of the suspect in early stages of the investigation, a procedure currently in place in some jurisdictions, is likely to disclose the fact that the victim has complained to the authorities, which can have a devastating effect and “may irreversibly affect her children and her entire family.”

Gilad emphasizes the importance of adopting an “interdisciplinary approach” that combines legal expertise with cultural sensitivity and integrates legal agencies with social services. She notes approvingly, for instance, that an innovative cross-disciplinary project founded by the King’s County District Attorney Special Victim’s Unit in Brooklyn, NY, offers a “one stop shop” where an abuse victim can access an interdisciplinary and inter-organizational team, providing services ranging from legal support, shelter, and assistance with public benefits, to counseling and vocational training.

Absent such an interdisciplinary approach, Gilad writes, “our legal expertise risks becoming ineffectual … and futile in providing effective protection.”

Other recommendations include:

  • Formulating guidelines and best practices for legal professionals, criminal justice practitioners and service providers.
  • Establishing community outreach and public education programs to enhance the efficacy of anti-domestic-violence policies.
  • Mandating educational programs and training for clergy on domestic violence and the importance of prioritizing the victim’s safety.
  • Developing lines of open communication and efficient referral systems among secular and religious entities.
  • Establishing community-based services that accommodate victims’ needs, such as shelters for Jewish or Muslim women that have the capacity to accommodate their multiple children and that allow them to observe religious traditions and dietary customs.

“It is unusual for a young scholar to draw substantial professional interest in an early work, but Michal has done that,” said Penn Law professor David Rudovsky, a leading civil rights lawyer and Gilad’s dissertation adviser. “She has focused much needed attention on the severity and complexity of sexual assaults in religious communities.  While the media has reported on this phenomenon in different contexts, Michal has broadened the scope of inquiry beyond reported scandals to help understand the difficulties in addressing these sometimes pervasive offenses.  Her recommendation for an inter-disciplinary approach holds significant promise for both dealing with endemic violence and codes of silence and promoting change with measures beyond the criminal law.”

Gilad, who is pursuing her SJD degree at the Law School, holds a Master’s in Law and Master’s in Criminology from Penn and has a law degree from Tel-Aviv University. She wrote the article in collaboration with AEquitas, a Washington, DC, based nonprofit established by the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and the Battered Women’s Justice Project, which provides prosecutors with resources to evaluate and refine their approach to cases involving violence against women.