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Why didn’t St Rita’s day pack a punch?

As the Catholic Church celebrated St Rita’s feast day this week, it missed an opportunity to meaningfully touch women suffering domestic violence in silence and in the open, says Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya

What do Babes Wodumo and St Rita have in common?

Here is a clue: One is a young Durban-based pop music sensation known for her sexiness and the other is a 14th century widow turned nun.

At face value, nothing, right? The answer, however, is domestic violence at the hands of a life partner.

St Rita was born Margherita Lotti in Roccaporena, Italy in 1381. At an early age, she begged her parents to allow her to enter a convent but was instead married off in an arranged marriage to a cruel man named Paolo Mancini.

She became a wife and mother at only twelve years of age.  Her husband was a man who had a violent temper. In anger, he often mistreated Rita verbally and physically. He was also known to pursue other women and he had many enemies.

The Catholic Church recognises St Rita, whose feast day is on 22 May, as the patroness of abuse victims, including spousal abuse, and of impossible causes among other things.

Babes Wodumo (real name Bongekile Simelane) on the other hand is a self-proclaimed Queen of Gqom, a sub-genre of township pop.

She is currently making headlines after a radio talk show cornered her into confirming that she was in a physically abusive relationship with her partner, fellow musician Mampintsha, whose real name is Mandla Maphumulo.

Mampintsha has not admitted or dismissed the allegation, saying that he might have “overreacted in a couple of incidents” during their relationship. He has also declared his undying love for Babes.

St Rita and Babes Wodumo’s stories tell of a long lineage of male privilege over women’s bodies and of the universality of violence against women, including by their life partners.

In an era where violence against women has moved from the margins and whispers to the main dinner table, the Church missed an opportunity by not making more of St Rita’s feast day.

Violence against women is such a societal scourge. It goes without saying that some of its victims and perpetrators are to be found in the pews.

Even more scarily, this happens at the altar and in the convent. A case in Lesotho late last week reveals this. A Catholic priest allegedly shot and killed a nun—details are still sketchy at the time of writing.

St Rita’s feast day, therefore, becomes an opportunity for the church community, including the clergy, the religious and laity, to find ways at a local level to address the scourge of violence against women by men.

It is an opportunity for the church to create a safe space for women who stay in violent and loveless marriages on the understanding that such situations are “God’s will,” which is not the case.

According to church history, Rita was eventually able to make her husband see the error of his ways and he withdrew from what had been a long-standing feud between him and a rival family.

This, however, did not prevent the rivals from murdering him.

Church history also claims that Rita gave his murderers a public pardon. However, Paolo's brother, Bernardo, was still angry and encouraged Rita's two sons, Giovanni Antonio and Paulo Maria, to join the feud.

Under their uncle's leadership, each boy became more and more like their father had been before Rita married him, and they wanted to avenge their father's murder.

The sons were later also murdered, paving the way for Rita to pursue her lifelong calling to be a nun.

The influence the uncle had on his nephews and the result thereof is summed up today by the phrase “toxic masculinity”.

St Rita’s feast day should, therefore, be a day to address this type of masculinity in the church and in society.

Lastly, it is probably disheartening to note that despite all the media attention and the obvious unacceptability of gender-based violence, it persists. It is tempting to conclude that, as with the poor, the violent will always be with us.

When we come to this hopeless conclusion, it might help to remember that St Rita is also the patroness of impossible causes.

Image: Meme from Project YM: Equipping Catholic Youth Ministers

World Health Organisation's Violence against women key facts:

  • Violence against women – particularly intimate partner violence and sexual violence – is a major public health problem and a violation of women's human rights.
  • Global estimates published by WHO indicate that about 1 in 3 (35%) of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.
  • Most of this violence is intimate partner violence. Worldwide, almost one third (30%) of women who have been in a relationship report that they have experienced some form of physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner in their lifetime.
  • Globally, as many as 38% of murders of women are committed by a male intimate partner.
  • Violence can negatively affect women’s physical, mental, sexual, and reproductive health, and may increase the risk of acquiring HIV in some settings.
  • Men are more likely to perpetrate violence if they have low education, a history of child maltreatment, exposure to domestic violence against their mothers, harmful use of alcohol, unequal gender norms including attitudes accepting of violence, and a sense of entitlement over women.
  • Women are more likely to experience intimate partner violence if they have low education, exposure to mothers being abused by a partner, abuse during childhood, and attitudes accepting violence, male privilege, and women’s subordinate status.
  • There is evidence that advocacy and empowerment counselling interventions, as well as home visitations, are promising in preventing or reducing intimate partner violence against women.
  • Situations of conflict, post-conflict and displacement may exacerbate existing violence, such as by intimate partners, as well as and non-partner sexual violence, and may also lead to new forms of violence against women.

Source: World Health Organisation

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.