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Women remain unheard

After a week that saw multiple violent crimes against women, Paulina French asks what the men in our churches are doing to change patriarchal ways of thinking and acting. She commends Bishop Phalana of Klerksdorp for starting a conversation about overcoming gender-based violence, but points out that the onus cannot be entirely on women to educate and protect girls. Men must change their behaviour.

Are there any real men in South Africa, in our churches, or our homes, who have been listening to us? Where were you when we told you that we need help because you are discriminating against us, raping us and killing us? Not always by strangers but those who know us intimately.

Have you heard the name Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo? What about Uyenene Mrwetyana? Leighandre Jegels? Meghan Cremer? Susan Rhode? Karabo Mokoena? Hannah Cornelius? Reeva Steenkamp? Lerato Moloi? Jayde Panayiotou?

The list goes on. Perhaps you have become immune to the news reports that come out at least once a week reporting yet another crime against a woman. A rape. A murder.  The violence against women in South Africa cuts cross age, socio-economic and educational backgrounds. According to South African Police Service data, a woman is killed every 3 hours in South Africa. Have those leading our church never read or heard of these statistics?

As a Catholic woman I am angry and very disappointed in the response to this scourge by the men leading the church in South Africa. There have been very few voices speaking out against the absolute horror that is happening in our society.

I am angry and very disappointed in the response to this scourge by the men leading the church in South Africa.

The first statement that I have seen coming from a cleric in a position of leadership this past week, has been from Bishop Victor Phalana, and only because I happened to come across it in an article in this week’s Southern Cross. It is commendable that the Bishop has issued a statement, but it gives me very little comfort as a woman and mother, that the church is actively responding to the plight of women in our society.

The language used and its approach is patriarchal and problematic for me. It starts off by instructing women to “stand up and speak out”. The statement goes on to ask God to “help men”. I find this to be problematic because no matter how much men ask God to help them; nothing will change in our churches or in our society, unless men change their behaviour and their attitudes towards women.

For many years women have been speaking out in the church but it seems the church has not heard us. We are told that we “must take girls with us and teach them to reject male domination and patriarchy in all its forms”. No. It is not for me to teach my girls to reject male domination. It is for men, including those in the church, whether they are consecrated or lay, to stop dominating us and to stop acting in ways that entrench patriarchy.

It is for men … to stop dominating us and to stop acting in ways that entrench patriarchy.

It is for men to treat women as their equals. No man has any right to use sexual violence to degrade, dominate or control me. Be it on the street, the workplace, my home or in my church. Please understand that if I speak out and you do not like what I say you, you have no right to abuse me verbally, physically or sexually.

Whilst I am relieved that there is some mention of men needing to take responsibility for the gender-based violence that is out of control, there is no reference to the church at all. Have the leaders of our church in South Africa not realised that the church also needs to change its patriarchal attitudes and behaviour?  It cannot only be the responsibility of women and men sitting in the church pews.

Pope Francis made it very clear in Amoris Laetitia that violence is not the way to display masculinity. “Can we really ignore or overlook the continuing forms of domination, arrogance, abuse, sexual perversion and violence that are the product of a warped understanding of sexuality?” (Amoris Laetitia No. 153)

Can we really ignore or overlook the continuing forms of domination, arrogance, abuse, sexual perversion and violence that are the product of a warped understanding of sexuality?

pope francis, amoris laetitia

Women and our girl children are the most vulnerable in our society. When our clerics remain silent on the role that the church has played in the patriarchy that continues in the church, our homes and workplaces, how can we as a nation expect any change from our men? What hope is there for our girl children in the church when church leaders in our country continue to be silent  and continue to tell them to “stand up and speak out” when they themselves are silent?

If I were to become a victim of abuse, either sexual or physical, and let’s face it, all women in this country are at risk, the last place I would go to for help is the church. I have very little faith that I would be heard.

* 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.

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Paulina French
Paulina is a Chartered Accountant who spent a number of years working for an international auditing firm and with a major retail bank. She is married with two daughters. On the birth of her second daughter she left the corporate world and became a full-time mom. She spent a few years doing some consulting work and previously worked at the Jesuit Institute.

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