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Church and civil society need collaboration to end gender-based violence

August is Women’s Month in South Africa. Mahadi Buthelezi says that it is impossible to speak about freedom for women without first eradicating the scourge of gender-based violence and femicide (GBVF). She speaks with Phumla Dladla who shares her story of abuse by her husband to gain an inside perspective into the effects of violence against women.

August is supposed to celebrate women. But do we really have anything to celebrate amid the scourge of gender-based violence and femicide, which is on the increase and seems to have spun out of control? GBVF is, more often than not, committed by an intimate partner who is loved and should be trusted. It is also a very difficult topic to speak about because of the intimate nature of the crime and relationship between the parties involved. It is often kept secret in the hope that it will eventually end or the perpetrator will stop what he is doing.

It is difficult to imagine what it feels like to be abused by the person who is supposed to be the love your life and the father of your children. A man who is supposed to protect his family becomes the one who brings fear and abuse into the home. It is hurtful and embarrassing to admit that one is a victim of GBV. Furthermore, we live in a society in which the victim is often blamed, and the perpetrators do not receive the punishment they deserve.

Phumla’s story

I spoke to Phumla Dladla who courageously shared her story. It sheds light on the many injustices she experienced beyond the GBV to which she was subjected. Her story hurts me deeply because I know her well and she is like a family member to me. But it should touch all of us because her story is not unique, and it highlights many of South Africa’s failures to deal with and overcome GBVF.

Phumla explains that “at first, as a victim you believe that it’s ok to be abused, or that abuse is a form of love. I have been a victim for the past 8 years. The abuse was physical and emotional.”

Now I understand why victims don’t report these cases.”

Her suffering did not end there. When she approached the authorities, the police refused to arrest the perpetrator. Phumla finally managed to get her case to court, but experienced further frustration. She explained:

“I don’t even want to mention the torture you go through when you go to court to report the matter, where there is no privacy. What really broke my heart was when I was in tears and the court clerks made fun of me. Now I understand why victims don’t report these cases.”

Phumla lost her case, which incidentally was presided over by a female judge and she was very disappointed.

South Africa’s GBV statistics

South Africa is one of the most violent places in the world, ranked 123 out of 163, according to the Global Peace Index for 2020. Femicide in SA is 5 times higher than the global average. In South Africa, one woman is killed every three hours. A 2018 report noted that about 360 women are sexually or physically abused daily in South Africa.

The media has repeatedly lamented that the justice system fails GBVF victims, from the police officers who tell the victim to go back home and mend things with a partner who continuously beat her and her children to the courts that fail to punish the perpetrators. In Umlazi in Kwazulu-Natal, a female magistrate delivered several “shockingly inappropriate” sentences that left rape suspects unpunished. Magistrates Courts often give minimum sentences to GBV perpetrators.

The fight against GBV cannot be won with so many cracks in the legal system that fail to arrest and convict perpetrators and protect the victims. Due to its complexity and sensitivity, several interventions are necessary to eradicate GBVF or at least reduce it as a first step.

The fight against GBV cannot be won with so many cracks in the legal system that fail to arrest and convict perpetrators and protect the victims.

The system didn’t just let down Phumla and thousands of women like her. It also fails households and the entire community. Violence beget violence. We know that many of the perpetrators were once victims. Unless systems are put in place to rehabilitate perpetrators, it creates a vicious generational cycle of abuse and violence.

The Church as an important stakeholder in the fight against GBV

The Church needs to actively address GBVF internally and in society so that it can contribute meaningfully to the National Strategic Plan for GBVF. It needs to develop effective messaging and pastoral solutions to end GBVF. It also needs to join forces with civil society to eradicate the conditions that allow GBVF to continue unabated. The Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference acknowledged the need to engage all social stakeholders to begin a “process of rethinking the approach” to GBV.

The Church and laity have no proper training on how to deal with victims of GBV and are not yet fully equipped to deal with the scourge of femicide. Sometimes, pastoral workers advise the victim to make amends with the perpetrator, which can potentially endanger the victim’s life.

The Church needs to actively address GBVF internally and in society.

All citizens are required to become involved: faith-based organizations, the justice and legal systems should all have one aim: to eradicate GBVF in our land.

Gender-based violence and femicide, perpetrated through toxic masculinity and instances of sexual harassment in faith institutions, have taken root and threaten the very fabric of our diverse communities. The failure of some of our leaders has also prevented South Africa from making significant advances to protect the nation’s women and children.

We cannot speak about the emancipation of women or truly celebrate women’s month until we can eliminate all forms of violence that prevent them from truly being free.

Not yet Uhuru!

* 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.