by Annemarie Paulin-Campbell
A daring initiative is taking place. The Interfaith Movement for Sustained Action to End Gender-Based Violence and Femicide is launching an interfaith campaign. This is anchored by a “Joint Statement of Commitment” in which all people of faith will be invited to be signatories upholding their part in promoting respect and gender equality within their faith communities.
The statement emerged from a reflection process among faith communities and was launched at a Summit on 16 November. Faith communities represented include the Hindu, the Bahai, African Traditional Religions, and Christian Churches.
Gender-based violence and femicide are a pervasive scourge in South Africa. In a country where 85 % of the population are people of faith, this coming together of religious leaders to make a stand is, in my opinion, long overdue and a sign of hope.
The “Joint Statement of Commitment” acknowledges that faith communities “have not done enough to end this destruction and have sometimes, by our inaction, silence, misuse of sacred texts, or condoning GBVF (Gender-Based Violence and Femicide) thereby, consciously or unconsciously been complicit in the scourge of GBVF.”
Joanne Joseph, in an article published by News 24, highlights that the way that women are treated in many faith communities fuels attitudes which underpin gender-based violence. “Religious institutions the world over, with only a few exceptions, have become bastions of the male exercise of power; harbours of toxic masculinity and discrimination; and, at their most extreme, perpetrators of sexual violence.”
Within our Catholic faith tradition, there have been some significant shifts recently. These include women having voting rights for the first time in history at the Synod on Synodality in Rome. We do, however, still have a long way to go. In some communities, priests and ministers still encourage women to stay in abusive relationships and submit to their husbands as head of the household.
Many women feel a lack of recognition of their dignity in a church context which idealises them as ‘like Mary’ but will not recognise them as being able to image Christ in their humanity – as men are seen to be able to do.
Language shapes the way we see ourselves and God. When God is only ever described in masculine terms, this contributes, even if unconsciously, to a culture in which women are perceived as ‘less than.’
The last time I heard a sermon on gender-based violence was over a decade ago, yet women in our country face GBVF every day. We neglect to provide places of safety for women and access to counselling and material support – especially for those without financial resources – for those trying to leave abusive relationships.
As faith communities, we have an excellent opportunity to reach people. Victims and perpetrators sit in the pews. We cannot act in ways that could be construed as legitimating the ill-treatment of women and children. We can, together, create a culture in which the equality of men and women is visible and in which women and children feel safe. When church communities change, society will also be encouraged to begin changing.