by Russell Pollitt SJ

Last week a bold newspaper headline caught my attention: “Rape does not exist in Swazi Marriages”. The article went on to explain that Indigenous and Customary Law codified that a man cannot rape his wife, he can only rape a woman that he is not married too. I couldn’t help but wonder if the unspoken meaning was “a woman is her husband’s possession”.

At the beginning of August, Pope Francis announced the institution of a new commission for the study of women deacons. This is a question that women have been asking the Church to address for decades. Pope John Paul II said that women could never be priests and that this should not be discussed. Pope Francis has upheld his predecessor’s position.

Since he became Pope, Francis has often said that the Church needs a theology of women. In April, at a weekly audience, Francis said that “more weight and authority” must be given to the voice of women in the Church and in society. He praised the “feminine genius”, but has not really carried through on appointing women to leadership positions, as he suggested, is necessary.

In some parishes women are still not allowed to proclaim the Word of God or act as extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist. Have you ever noticed too that often, when dressing for mass is discussed, women are most frequently targeted for “inappropriate” dressing? Men too can dress inappropriately.

Just two weeks ago, when South Africa’s municipal election results were being announced, the world saw a silent protest unfold. A group of young women stood up – when President Jacob Zuma spoke – holding placards which said things like “Remember Khwezi”. This was a pseudonym given to the woman who accused him of raping her. The protestors were commemorating the trial in which Zuma was acquitted. This protest, symbolically, was a sobering reminder of the plight of many women in SA.

Accurate figures are difficult to come by because many incidents of women abuse go unreported. Many organisations report a high incidence of women abuse in SA. Studies suggest that 40%-50% of women in SA have experienced violence at the hand of an intimate partner. Approximately 55,000 rapes are reported annually. Violence against women is firmly entrenched in all strata of SA society. It is an accepted way of asserting (or reasserting) masculinity and domination.

Let’s face it: Women still struggle against a patriarchal social/cultural/religious system which favours men. This system still constructs men as more powerful than women and therefore gender inequality is facilitated, supported and reinforced.

August is “Women’s Month”. It was chosen to pay tribute to the women who marched to the Union Buildings in August 1956 to protest the extension of the “Pass Laws” to women. The march was historic because on that day women became equal partners, through their actions, in the struggle for a non-racial, non-sexist society. That struggle is far from over. Small steps have been taken, but many women still face untold suffering.

The lives of countless women, our society and the Church rely on prophetic voices to rise up and admit that we still have a long way to go. Equality is, sadly, still a distant hope.