Tearfund's research into the faith of refugees is showing how religion is part of the solution, not just part of the problem

Research has revealed the vital importance of faith for people affected by conflict or displacement and shown how humanitarian organisations could build on existing social networks to strengthen community resilience in a crisis.

International development agency Tearfund and the Institute of Global Health and Development (IGHD) at Queen Margaret University led by Dr Alison Strang and Oonagh O'Brien, used an innovative social mapping tool developed at IGHD to identify key social connections within and between displaced populations and their host communities in the Kurdish Region of Iraq.

A displaced family in the Kurdish region of Iraq.Sara Guy/Tearfund

Maggie Sandilands, who leads Tearfund's work on gender-based violence in humanitarian contexts, says: 'This research highlights the importance of faith as a key source of support and personal resilience, for people affected by conflict and displacement.

'Better understanding of social norms and the way communities cope with emergencies – and how this impacts men and women differently– is vital to humanitarian agencies like Tearfund. We need to listen to those most affected. It helps us to respond more effectively to people's needs, in a way that is context appropriate and strengthens existing community resources.'

The Kurdish Region of Iraq has faced waves of violence and conflict, with many people forced to flee their homes. Across Iraq more than 3 million people have been displaced since the current conflict began in 2014, and 11 million are in need of humanitarian assistance. The recent fighting in Mosul alone has displaced 920,000 people.

People who are forced to flee their homes can often only take the clothes they are wearing and what little they are able to carry. Those living in temporary shelters or camps, or returning home after infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed, usually need support for basic necessities like food, water, clothes, medicines and hygiene items. Alongside these material needs, the experiences of violence, displacement, trauma and loss can mean that for many men, women and children, the psychological scars of the conflict are even graver, and harder to address.

But humanitarian agencies like Tearfund recognise that the affected communities also have their own strengths, capacities and ways of coping with the situation. Aid agencies can build on this to ensure a more sustainable response.

The research used a social mapping tool, designed by Dr Strang, among the displaced religious minority Yazidi and Muslim populations as well as a Yazidi settled population. It revealed where people placed their trust when dealing with issues ranging from meeting basic needs to resolving disputes and gender-based violence. It looked at how levels of trust and connections vary between men and women, and settled or displaced people.

The results showed that many Yazidi people who fled ISIS in Iraq found their personal relationship with God an important source of support. Conflict disrupts social connections and displaced populations were often reluctant to turn to traditional networks of wider family, friends or neighbours to ask for material help, because of concerns around honour, if they had no capacity to return the favour.

Yazidi people found it easier to trust family, friends or neighbours and local religious leaders than to go to support organisations when they needed help to resolve disputes, or for sensitive problems like gender-based violence. Women generally had fewer external connections than men, and if experiencing violence in the family, for example, were unlikely to go to agencies set up to support them, due to fear of stigma and the shame it would bring their family. As one woman said, 'I can only confide in God.'

However, many were prepared to turn to faith leaders. One Yazidi woman in the settled community, explained: 'If it is just verbal and daily arguments it is fine, but if it is serious and my family can't solve it then we go to the religious people... If my husband wanted to divorce because he wanted another wife, I would go to Baba Sheikh [Yazidi spiritual leader] and ask for help.'

Since 2014, Tearfund has been working in Iraq to respond to the physical and psychological needs of those whose lives have been devastated by the current crisis. Tearfund commissioned the research to better understand who people trust and turn to for support within conflict-affected communities. The findings are now being used to inform Tearfund's programming and shared with other organisations and policy makers involved in responding to the humanitarian crisis in Iraq.

This mapping tool can also be used in other settings of conflict and displacement around the world, to identify key local influencers and their importance in communities.

As a faith-based organisation, Tearfund recognises the value and importance of working with faith groups, and the vital role they can play in addressing harmful social norms which are at the root of gender violence, and which fuel stigma. In Iraq and many other countries where Tearfund works, this stigma is a significant barrier preventing people from accessing the care and support they need.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a majority Christian context, Tearfund has been training faith leaders in conflict-affected communities during the past two years, and has seen some of the impact that the Church can have in transforming these harmful gender norms.

In Ituri province of DRC, 40-year old Josephine is one of the local church volunteers trained by Tearfund, in a project funded by the UK Department for International Development under the What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women global programme. She explains how this has helped her to help others in her community. 'Before, someone who was raped felt ashamed, like she has to hide. Since we are trained, we can tell people how to help someone who is raped. We help them to get to the health centre to be treated. Now we welcome them in our church, we even take them into our own family.'

Josephine also describes how since local faith leaders began discussing gender equality, she has seen some changes in other areas of everyday life in her community. 'It is women who have to fetch water and collect firewood here, but now, since these trainings, even a man can fetch water. And even my husband, before he would say, "Huh, I cannot wash clothes, it is a woman's job," but then he went to the training for faith leaders, and now he does the washing, he even cooks for me sometimes. If you want other people to change, you have to change first.'

One of the faith leaders in Ituri trained by Tearfund explains: 'I am a pastor at the church here, and there was a woman in the village, her husband died, so then the family wanted to take everything, all the economic goods, as that is the culture. So I called everyone together, and I explained that this was a form of violence, and it is not right, because women and men are created equal by God. So in the end, they left everything in the house.'

As Maggie Sandilands says: 'Faith is sometimes seen as part of the problem, because faith teachings may be used to justify or condone gender inequality, which is a root cause of gender-based violence. So it is important that we can work with faith leaders to address this, and that faith can be part of the solution. Governments and NGOs can struggle to reach these remote and conflict affected populations, but the faith groups are already there, as an integral part of the community, and our research highlights the influence and respect that faith leaders have.

'This means that if you can encourage and equip these leaders, then they can become catalysts within their own community, to tackle some of these deep rooted issues. Tearfund's goal in this work is to see both women and men living with dignity, being equally valued and living free from violence and abuse.'

Louise Thomas is acting senior media officer for Tearfund.