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South African President and Catholic Bishops address war against women and children

Following the killings of several women and children in South Africa in the past week, President Cyril Ramaphosa and the Southern African Bishops’ Conference’s Justice and Peace Commission issued strong statements calling for an end to the “war” against gender-based violence. Ricardo da Silva reports.

Tshegofatso Pule, Naledi Phangindawo, Nompumelelo Tshaka, Nomfazi Gabada, Nwabisa Mgwandela, Altecia Kortjie and Lindelwa Peni — these are the names of seven women murdered in the past week alone in South Africa.

In what was expected to be a nationwide address on the COVID-19 outbreak in South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa also addressed South Africans last night about what he called, “another pandemic that is raging in our country”. Since relaxing the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown, the president announced that 21 women and children had been murdered in what appears to be a rising trend in gender-based violence in South Africa — a country with an already appalling track record that sets it among the most violent in the world.

The president’s latest address, on national television, comes after his statement this weekend on gender-based violence. Earlier this week, the Justice and Peace Commission of Southern Africa’s Catholic bishops also weighed in, issuing a statement in which it “condemns the mindless and callous killings of innocent women and girls which amounts to a civil war”. The statement goes on to say that “God grieves deeply when we inflict gender-based violence on anyone” and “all violence inflicted on women is a desecration of God”.

“All violence inflicted on women is a desecration of God”.

SACBC Justice and Peace Commission

Ramaphosa’s call on Wednesday night was personal, he expressed, “as a man, as a husband and as a father”. The president spoke in words that echoed those of the bishops’ commission two days earlier. “I am appalled at what is no less than a war being waged against the women and children of our country”.

While Ramaphosa and the region’s Catholic bishops recognise that much has been done at the level of the government to address the scourge of gender-based violence and that the issue is on the agenda of national priorities, they acknowledged that even more needed to be done.

On 13 June — less than a week after Tshegofatso Pule, a 28-year-old eight-month pregnant woman from Dobsonville, Soweto, was found hanging from a tree with stab wounds to her chest — Ramaphosa condemned the violence visited on women and children in South Africa. He cited chilling statistics, noting that 51 percent of women in South Africa had suffered violence at the hands of their intimate partners, a statistic that places the country among the highest hit nations for physical and sexual intimate partner violence worldwide.

This is not the first time that Ramaphosa has raised the issue of gender-based violence.

Last September, he addressed parliament on the issue citing the names of three women murdered in that month and speaking in words, in part, almost identical to those he spoke on national television this past week. “Violence against women has become more than a national crisis”, he told members of parliament. “It is a crime against our common humanity”.

Then, the president’s resolve for change was sternly conveyed and he promised concrete actions to address the history of violence suffered by our country’s women and children.  In his most recent address, the president suggested he had made good on some of these promises, attesting to reforms in the judiciary and prosecutorial process and to the implementation of greater support services, in the form of a dedicated gender-based violence hotline, safe shelters and centres for women and children, especially for victims of sexual violence.

“I am appalled at what is no less than a war being waged against the women and children of our country”.

President Cyril Ramaphosa

“I want to assure the women and children of South Africa that our criminal justice system will remain focused on gender-based violence cases”, the president said. He added that “the perpetrators of violence against women and children must receive sentences that fit the horrific crimes they commit”.

Championing the South African government’s rapid response to COVID-19 “in their efforts to flatten the infection curve”, the bishops’ commission called for a similar “process of rethinking the approach to gender-based violence and femicide”. The same means needs to be used to fight the gender-based violence pandemic plaguing the nation’s women, the bishops’ commission wrote, calling on the government to enlist “the involvement of government departments, business sector, civil society and ordinary citizens”.

The bishops’ commission called the government “to eradicate the scourge through legislation, tough police action and hefty court sentences to perpetrators”. But, while the commission called for further structural changes on the part of the government, it recognised also the Catholic church’s own role in the scourge befalling the women and children of South Africa.

“We as Church have contributed to this scourge through our denial, our silence, our resistance and our lack of preparation”, the statement read. “Forgive us”.

“We as Church have contributed to this scourge through our denial, our silence, our resistance and our lack of preparation.”

SACBC Justice and Peace Commission

The commission committed itself to “continue to work for the prevention and restoration of social fabric, which include pushing for change in toxic masculinities and social norms that drive gender-based violence perpetration”, it expressed in its statement. “The culture of bystanderism needs to be eradicated from our midst as gender-based violence thrives in a climate of silence.

Like the commission, the president recognised that urgent change is needed at the individual level, by the citizens of the country.

“We cannot remain silent any longer”, Ramaphosa implored South Africans. “These perpetrators are known to us and our communities.

“We cannot remain silent any longer”

President Cyril Ramaphosa

“By looking away, by discouraging victims from laying charges, by shaming women for their lifestyle choices or their style of dress, we become complicit in these crimes.

“I once again call on every single South African listening this evening to consider the consequence of their silence”.

* 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.