In societies such as South Africa, where religion predominates, it is pivotal that faith-based organisations play their part in eradicating gender-based violence and femicide, writes Joanne Joseph.
I distinctly remember sitting in our Anglican church on a Sunday morning in the 1990s when the call was made for congregants to vote as to whether women ought to be allowed to be ordained as priests in our denomination of the church.
I was just a teenager, but I felt secretly outraged as to why this even had to be put to a vote when the church leadership could simply have made a decisive call on it. It was, after all, all there in the Bible that lay on that pew—the story of a revolutionary who had related to women in ways that the customs of his time did not often allow for and who saw their value through the veil of patriarchy that dominated his times.
Yet, my conversations with women of different faiths and religious leanings over the years have revealed the same disillusionment:
Faith-based organisations must play their part
So many of us raised in the context of faith-based environments have encountered patriarchy in one way or another—some violently, others more covertly. Religious institutions the world over, with only a few exceptions, have become bastions of the male exercise of power, harbors of toxic masculinity and discrimination, and, at their most extreme, perpetrators of sexual violence.
In its exploration of societies with high gender-based violence and femicide (GBVF) rates, knowledge-sharing research portal SaferSpaces links “the culture of violence” and male superiority manifesting as the norm so that men “feel entitled to sex with women [through] strict reinforcement of gender roles and hierarchy”, and associate “masculinity with control of women”.
In societies where religion predominates (as in ours, where close to 85% of South Africans subscribe to one religious ideology or another), it is therefore pivotal that faith-based organizations play their part in eradicating GBVF.
At the 2019 Presidential Summit on Gender-Based Violence and Femicide, faith-based organizations were accused of perpetuating the cycle of violence in South African society. It was a shameful truth that has led to increased internal scrutiny within the religious sector.
Social and gender activist Daniela Gennrich was on hand to receive this criticism and publicly apologized on behalf of the faith sector for all the damage done in its name. She also suggested that a new trajectory had already begun to be imagined for the sector’s role in addressing issues of GBVF.
Additionally, a sectoral action caucus took place at the summit, facilitated by leaders of the Faith Action Collective. At this meeting of about 25 people from diverse faith backgrounds, there was a clear admission that the faith sector is culpable for its role in the pandemic of GBVF.
Out of this, a summit resolution on the faith sector emerged. The current campaign has, in part, been motivated by this resolution.
Of course, religious followers or not, we as a populace are primarily dependent on the work of government arms, legislators, the police and the justice system to prevent gender-based crime and bring convicted perpetrators to book. But no amount of legislation or policing can penetrate the very fabric of societal religious and cultural customs, which have become so interwoven with identity and praxis over the centuries that it is near impossible to root them out using the tools of secularist governance alone.
The advantage that religious and cultural leaders enjoy (as these two facets often intersect) is that they hold the key to the hearts and minds of millions of religious followers. Using these powerful platforms, it is imperative for them to advocate for the rights and safety of women and other vulnerable groups and so begin the complex work of penetrating the intimate spaces in which much of the domestic violence in this country rears its head.
In recent years, such initiatives have quietly been gaining momentum. In 2013, Anglican Archbishop Thabo Makgoba launched the We Will Speak Out SA (WWSOSA) coalition as a collective of more than 100 members. It was formalized in 2017, having doubled its members.
In 2020, a group of largely Christian faith leaders began to organize themselves into a loose collective in response to the dramatic spike in femicide cases that had emerged during the COVID-19 hard lockdown. They have come to be known as the Faith Action to End GBV Collective. They facilitate collaborative actions and jointly advocate for the faith sector to take GBV seriously, both within its ranks and within wider society.
In recent years, the collective’s leadership has realized that little can be achieved if members of only one faith-based group are leading the charge. To succeed, there is a need to broaden collaboration between existing multiple faith initiatives and amplify a united voice to challenge and transform the key underlying drivers of GBV, such as patriarchal norms and structures and the misinterpretations or misuse of religious texts.
In this way, the collective can begin to transform sacred spaces for millions of South Africans who embrace a range of religious ideologies but who are united in the goal of tackling the GBVF dilemma.
The Faith Action Collective has held several online discussions on what is required of the faith sector and what real accountability means within its ranks. These conversations continue through monthly forum meetings and webinars hosted collaboratively with campaigns such as Side by Side and other partners.
With WWSOSA acting as its secretariat, the Faith Action Collective has begun to emerge as a leading light and faith sector voice in the context of the runaway GBV and femicide pandemic, with a view to entrenching a more unified and effective response to South Africa’s spiralling GBVF rates.
Challenge from within
Having agreed on a joint interfaith vision of “an inclusive and harmonious South Africa free from gender-based violence and femicide”, the Faith Action Collective will launch a campaign in Benoni, Ekurhuleni, on November 16 to share its vision with the nation.
In this unprecedented multifaith mobilization against GBVF, we expect to hear what has emanated from intense and robust discussions among scholars, leaders, activists, and members of African traditional religions and the Baha’i Faith, Buddhists, Brahma Kumaris, Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Muslims.
The interfaith organizing team has been careful to lead a research-based approach guided by mutual learning that centers on survivor-led proposals and action, although it has no illusions that the diversity of beliefs among participants will likely lead to fierce debate and divergence of opinion.
Ultimately, the hope is that bringing the faith sector together on this occasion will elicit honest responses to tackling the dichotomy of faith and gender that is widely encountered in religious spaces.
For many, this will be a tall order. It will require individuals committed to the cause to bravely and vociferously challenge their religious institutions from within. They will face resistance, opposition, and possibly alienation in response to the call for gender equality that will threaten to shake the foundations of patriarchal religious traditions and require significant shifts in power sharing, which patricentric leadership structures may well reject.
But if not now, then when? Is it so crazy to shoot for the sky when horrific rates of violence continue to ravage the land below? Now is as good a time as any in history to start turning the toxic tide of GBVF.
Joanne Joseph is a respected broadcaster with 26 years of experience in media. She is the author of Drug Muled: Sixteen Years in a Thai Prison (non-fiction) and the historical fiction novel Children of Sugarcane.
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