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New Study Highlights Support Needed For People To Escape Religious Conversion Practices

A new study sheds light on support needed by people wanting to escape religious conversion practices.

Lead author Dr Michael Roguski says most research in Aotearoa and internationally has focussed on the harms caused by conversion practices and estimates of its prevalence.

“We found that conversion practices in religious settings need to be viewed as spiritual abuse.

Defining such practices as abuse allows us to develop appropriate supports for survivors, such as a ‘pipeline to safety’ that provides support before, during and after people escape conversion practices,” says Dr Roguski.

Twenty-three survivors were interviewed for the study ‘Conversion Practices in Aotearoa New Zealand: Developing a holistic response to spiritual abuse’ by Kaitiaki Research and Evaluation in 2023 following the law banning conversion practices in Aotearoa from February 2022.

Conversion practices are deliberate actions to change or suppress a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. Such practices are ineffective and have been shown to cause serious harm. They often take place in faith-based settings.

The study was commissioned by Te Kāhui Tika Tangata Human Rights Commission to help identify the types of support survivors need. The Kaitiaki Research and Evaluation Ltd paper has been published today in the online journal The Public Library of Science ONE (PLOS ONE).

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Dr Roguski says survivors identified a need for an holistic array of interventions to ensure those experiencing religious conversion practices have a “pipeline to safety”.

That might include:

  • establishing a dedicated agency to support survivors
  • ensuring survivors’ basic needs are met (housing, financial support, education/training, therapy)
  • raising awareness and engaging survivors (e.g. information in schools)
  • establishing intervention pathways (e.g. training and awareness-raising among teachers, nurses, GPs, members of faith communities)
  • medical and psychotherapeutic support (and for those professionals to be trained in spiritual abuse)
  • establishing supportive communities (e.g. peer support networks)
  • preventing harm within faith-based organisations (e.g. dialogue with faith settings)

“Responses to this type of spiritual abuse must be informed by an understanding of spiritual entrapment, which includes social isolation, fear and coercion, an indifference of a powerful institution (the faith community), and the compounding of structural inequities experienced by sexual and gender diverse people.”

He says holistic responses should include pathways for extracting and supporting people in abusive settings, support immediately after leaving abusive environments, and then throughout survivors’ healing journeys.

Commissioner Prudence Walker, who holds the Rainbow rights portfolio at the Human Rights Commission, says the report findings will help develop the Commission’s guidance and encourages others to make use of the findings.

“We must listen to the voices of those directly affected by conversion practices to create safe, effective responses.”

The Commission is preparing to release another report mid-year into the support needed by conversion practices survivors in a range of settings.

The Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Act 2022 amended the Human Rights Act 1993 to make conversion practices unlawful. The amendment allows the Human Rights Commission to receive complaints for a civil pathway, to provide a dispute resolution service, and to refer complaints to the Human Rights Review Tribunal. Some complaints may be investigated by the Police.

The Commission has guidance about identifying and preventing conversion practices and support for survivors available on its website.

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