Faith Leaders prepare to become Agents Of Gender Transformation to bring an end to Gender-Based Violence: Kwanele!!!!

By Zama Dlamini

A new and innovative Faith Leaders Gender Transformation Programme fondly referred to as the FLGTP, opened its doors for the second cycle this year. In response to mandates from their churches and organisations to guide them to end gender-based violence, a diverse community of 26 faith leaders gathered at eBandla hotel in Ballito from 28 February until 2 March 2022 together with 11 mentors and facilitators for 3 foundational days.

The FLGTP is an intensive 10-month programme being collaboratively developed by almost 20 partners under the umbrella of a national Faith Action to End GBV Collective. Some who are taking the lead in developing Pilot 2 include the We Will Speak Out South Africa (WWWSA), UNISA’s Institute for Gender Studies (IGS), Ujamaa Centre, University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Gender and Religion Programme, Side by Side Global Faith Network for Gender Justice, Uthingo Network and Heartlines, endorsed by partners like UN Women, ACT Ubumbano and several Southern African Churches. Under the strategic leadership of Ms. Daniela Gennrich (Coordinator of WWSOSA and a Lay Canon within the Anglican Church of Southern Africa [ACSA]), the aim is to assist the faith sector to become effective and credible contributors to the National Strategic Plan on GBV and Femicide.

The programme aims to guide participants through theory, theology, personal reflection and action pertaining to sexual and gender-based violence from faith perspectives through engagement with faith- and other resources as well as deeply engaging diverse viewpoints amongst the participants to stimulate impactful and survivor-centred strategies for whole-institutional change.

The programme is led by a team of capable facilitators and mentors who have dedicated their time, expertise and experience to stimulate impactful and survivor-centred strategies for whole-institutional change in the faith sector. The second pilot of the FLGTP programme has attracted faith leaders from diverse Christian churches and organisations from different parts of South Africa, including pastors, lay priests, leaders of women’s and men’s organisations/ministries and youth pastors. After the first of the 10 monthly cycles, there is already a palpable sense among the participants of a shared passion for gender justice, enthusiasm and readiness to undertake new learnings as the group has begun forming a diverse but safe Learning Community that will ultimately support participants on their lifelong journeys of personal and institutional transformation.

The innovative holistic learning approach encourages participants to constantly reflect, unlearn and re-learn long-held conceptual understandings and theological assumptions related to gender inequality, gender stereotyping, and some of the cultural and religious norms that are co-drivers of GBV. This online action-learning programme intends equipping the faith sector to fulfil its mission to bring healing, hope and wholeness to its members and bring about a just society free from violence and oppression and where abundant life is the norm. It does so through creating safe spaces for critical engagement regarding the intersections of culture, gender and religion that influence GBV and accompanying participants as they plan and reflect on practical interventions in their faith institutions. The programme is not afraid to tackle controversial topics such as homophobic hate crimes through engaging faith leaders on the realities and vulnerabilities of the LGTBIQ+ community who daily face prejudice, discrimination and hate crimes in South Africa, with killings increasing at an alarming rate.

Participants in the programme are offered a short stand-alone course on different approaches to studying the Bible, including the Contextual Bible study approach (CBS).

The 3-day face-to-face session was a beautiful encounter of bonding, connecting, re-membering, truth-telling and memory-making.

Each day began with profound and deep devotions by Dr Nontando Hadebe (Side by Side International Coordinator), which gently but rigorously challenged participants to re-imagine worship, catch glimpses of God’s views of humankind and the healing roles of the Church. The praise and worship enveloped every participant’s heart, held by Seth who played guitar to songs and psalms of traditional and contemporary worship.

Day 1, facilitated by Merrishia Singh-Naicker and Seth Naicker (Heartlines partners), was ground-breaking. The session was game-driven with an intent to foster a cohesive learning community. It tackled realities of diversity and transformation which are so critical in a learning space with diverse race groups, gender expressions, ethnic backgrounds and of course theological backgrounds and expressions. One profound element of this foundational day was the RIVER OF LIFE activity, popularly used as a resource by Heartlines to prompt storytelling, building deeper self-awareness and strong and healthier connections. Each participant spent approximately ten minutes to draw their River of Life story and what emerged were shared stories of courage, resilience and courage.

Day 2 laid the foundation and participants were introduced to the core tenets of the FLGTP by Daniela Gennrich (WWSOSA) and the highly participatory, self-reflective and collaborative learning culture by Hanzline Davids (UNISA’s Gender Studies Institute). The second session challenged participants to begin to address the relationships between people’s lived experiences and traditional church teachings and practices. It was ably co-facilitated by Tracy Sibisi (Uthingo Network) and Charlene Van der Walt (Professor and Head of Gender and Religion and a Deputy Director for uJamaa Centre, University of KwaZulu-Natal). This proved to be an intense and challenging session as the participants grappled with contextual terminology and were faced with their own blind spots. To ease the day, after supper participants gathered around a bonfire where they sang, prayed and reflected gently on the day.

Day 3 began with a trip to the beach in Ballito in the early hours of the morning where participants greeted the day with heartwarming devotions at the sound of the beautiful waves. Each opportunity was used to cement connections and was also recognized as a unique learning and reflection space. This fun morning ushered everyone to a beautiful small group space where participants were accompanied by their group mentors to discuss the envisioned process of accompanying one anothers’ learning journeys. Then Charlene vd Walt and Zama Dlamini opened space for the vital conversation about the complexities underlying the prevalence of gender-based violence in our churches, our society and the world. These include the influence of South Africa’s twin legacy of the normalization of violence and the assumption of God-ordained male dominance in a context where oppression, prejudice and violence on the basis of personal characteristics has become commonplace. Participants were then prepared to transition into the virtual space where interactive online sessions will be facilitated by experienced facilitation teams comprising ordained and lay ministers, scholars and academics.

Everyone went away charged and ready to learn more. In an online review, participants shared diverse feedback and experience on this course:

Natalie Abrahams, the founder of a gender organization, shared what she has learnt that she will integrate into her women’s empowerment conferences and publications, 1-day events, children’s life skills workshops and coaching she offers to men, women and children:
“I need to be inclusive of men and include the LGBTQI+ community. We need to host round tables to hear the stories of our community and churches and look at how we use the Word to break people down and focus on rebuilding and restoring dignity.”

The ultimate goal of this programme is that faith leaders go back to their communities and implement what they are learning as they become change agents:

A youth pastor, Tebogo Monyepao said:
“By implementing what I have learnt, I will also do a motivation night
for the youth to learn what I have learnt”.

• Similarly, Casevin Billilie from Kimberley said:
“I see myself doing more groundwork and outreach programs but also to do
more suicide counselling for youth”.

Thubelihle Manqele from Molweni in Durban mentioned that
“We are already planning to host a service focusing on Gender-Based Violence. We are hoping to create a safe space for people to be able to speak out about what they have been through and are going through.
We plan to be the change the community needs”.

It was exciting to hear that, despite some parts of the programme being deeply challenging, participants were awakened and energized and ready for this to continue on their transformational journey!