As we reflect on the realities of the ongoing struggle for gender equality in South Africa, we cannot help but pause and acknowledge those courageous women who started and led the march which took place on 9th August 1956 in Pretoria, South Africa. The marchers’ aims were to protest the introduction of the Apartheid pass laws for black women. As we commemorate Women’s Month in South Africa in 2019, we reflect on events and activities that women and other activists are engaged in as part of the ongoing struggle for gender justice.
On the 5th August 2019, religious leaders, clergy, biblical scholars, activists, GBV survivor group leaders, and students and staff from the UKZN School of Theology participated in a 4-day engagement at UKZN Pietermaritzburg Campus, hosted by UKZN, UJAMAA Centre, AIDS Healthcare Foundation, ACT Ubumbano and We Will Speak Out South Africa. The week comprised of a Silent Protest as well as a praxis reflection on GBV, HIV and Faith under the theme #Unsilencing the Silence. The aim was to break the silence around sexual and gender-based violence and HIV. It highlighted the stigma faced by survivors of rape and other forms of abuse as well as HIV positive people within places of worship and in society. Participants committed to confronting toxic theology and listening to the voices of survivors. This was expressed in an embodied way on Day 3 when participants’ mouths were taped shut, and they were silenced (by survivors) so that they could experience how it feels to be unable to speak about what is in your heart.
#UNSILENCING THE SILENCE
The event started with participants being given the privilege of jotting down their intentions and expectations of the event as a way to co-determine the agenda of the event with the organisers. Then a panel of speakers reflected on our current state and experiences of Gender-Based Violence in South (ern) Africa. The panellists were Dr Selina Palm, from the Unit for Religious and Development Research at the University of Stellenbosch, Rev Dumi Mmualefe, from the World Council of Churches and Rev Michelle Boonzaier from Inclusive and Affirming Ministries. The panellists also shared their lived experiences of gender-based violence. Their presentations demonstrated that the church is still silent, and has not yet found appropriate methods of responding to survivors of GBV. Even faith leaders have not yet found a common voice to speak when coming to issues of GBV.
The second day included reflections and analysis on issues informing sexual and gender injustice. A group of survivors from Phephisa Survivor’s Movement shared their narratives and challenges followed by an open conversation between survivors on the panel and some among participants, as well as other participants. It was heartbreaking to hear them reliving their experiences of rape and other forms of abuse. As they were telling their narratives, one could witness the pain in their eyes and how their bodies moved uneasily. Witnessing this reminded me why one should never be silent and not report incidents of abuse- that my silence about this makes me part of those violating the marginalised, including these women.
Prof Gerald West and the team from Ujamaa engaged the participants in a Contextual Bible Study about the story of Tamar. Participants were given a chance to reflect on this Biblical story and relate it to their day-to-day experiences. The bible study helped to map out traces of patriarchal systems in the Old Testament that were used to condone violating women, thus protecting men from being called to account for their wrongdoings. The day ended with participants attending a performance by the UKZN drama department of The Vagina Monologues.
The whole of the third day was the Silent Protest, which symbolised collective embodied resistance against Gender-Based Violence in faith communities and wider society. All participants were masked, excluding survivors. Participants were given time to engage in activities and spaces of creative expression such as prayer and meditation, including counselling, yoga, and creating a solidarity quilt. In between these activities, other participants got involved in a Theological Café, which was presented by Nicky Simpson, the author of Nicky Laid Bare.Thereafter participants formed a River of Death– a ‘horizontal’ demonstration where protesters lay on a busy university path to symbolise the dead bodies of the many who have fallen victim to gender-based violence.
The day was concluded by a Silent Protest walk to Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary (SMMS) where an #Unsilencing Liturgical Ritual was held. I am unable to comment on it as I could not bring myself to join that session because of my personal challenges with the church. Even though I am a pastor myself, I still believe that the church is a key part of the problem that gives fertile ground to toxic theologies that promotes abuse of women, and so it was difficult for me to go to this service as if the church would be a safe space just this once. The kind of language that is used in the church when referring to the marginalised still promotes the “them” and “us”, those that know God and the “others” that still need to be “saved” and “converted”.
The last day involved talks and engagements, which focused on action to be followed after this event. Participants formed talking groups where they shared immediate, short term and long term action to be followed. In their engagements, participants suggested some life-affirming theologies which can be used by faith communities to address GBV.
This event offered a platform for women and others who are survivors of abuse to break the silence about their experiences and an opportunity to have their voices heard. It was a moving and touching space to be in. The challenge now is what do we do from here? What do we with their stories? We don’t actually have an idea of the kind of environments they are coming from – is there a possibility that some of them went back home to be further violated and victimised?
The church and religious leaders were challenged on their silence on issues of GBV. What are we going home to? Will the church start taking conscious action towards addressing Gender injustices? Will the church finally take a conscious step and take sides, decide whether we will continue being perpetrators of GBV either through our actions or our silence?
How I wished that such a gathering had an immediate action towards stopping gender-based violence and also action towards gender justice. However, I understand that even if it is just a drop in the ocean, it is a significant drop that is causing movement in the ocean.
The sad thing is that many go home to their abusers because some of those abusers are breadwinners and the ones that put food on their plates. Some of them don’t know where to run to that’s why they go back to the same situations
Maybe, maybe someday we would offer more than listening to their stories!
For now, we continue to engage in talks; we continue to assist survivors all over the world and in our close circles and our churches to remove their masks and expose perpetrators of violence; to narrate their stories to empower other survivors of abuse. We might not reach Canaan now, but at least there’s movement, we continue Unsilencing the silence one day at a time.
Hang in there AMAMBOKODO, let’s hold each other’s hands as we journey together.