GBV a sickness of soul

First published in an edition of The Star dated Monday, June 26 2020, p10.

THE SCOURGE of gender-based violence has once again reared its ugly head in South Africa.

Words of condemnation from public figures and threats of more stringent sentences and incarceration are not going to end what President Cyril Ramaphosa called “a pandemic”. All the measures might have some impact, but there is a deeper problem.

Gender-based violence is a soul-sickness. It infects the very soul of men.

Gender matters in South Africa. If you are not a straight man, you are less likely to be treated as the Constitution outlines. If you are a woman, it is not just dignity and equality you worry about but your very life.

It is a problem men have to face.

This is the first difficulty. For the most part, we, men, don’t know what we are talking about and don’t know how to talk about it. Male attitudes towards women have become so ingrained that we do not – and cannot – identify the subtle ways gender violence is at work.

Not all men, you might argue, are violent. True. But this does not excuse all men. Lacking any first-hand experience of gender-based violence does not absolve men. We participate in a culture, daily, where women are treated differently.

Often men seek to minimise the reality of gender-based violence.

“Most men don’t beat women,” we argue. Although that may be true, it is immoral to downplay it in this way.

Women may be blamed or excuses made for the male perpetrator. “He is a good guy deep down. She just irritated him that day.”

Many men lack awareness of how they benefit. It upholds the status quo and culture that advocates the strong straight male as normative. The result is an unwillingness to redress the system.

Men are inhibited when it comes to talking about it. We are products of our collective culture in which it is anathema for men to talk about their inner world. And so the culture of gender-based violence is transmitted.

It infects the souls of men in the dark places where we will not and do not venture.

While criminal measures must be put in place to halt this pandemic, it will not go away until we are willing to call gender-based violence what it is: a soul-sickness. Policing and punitive measures are not a vaccine. We need to struggle together against an evil that harms us all.

The struggle begins when men acknowledge we have a problem.

We do this when we start to become aware of how ingrained this culture is in all of us. When we begin to talk about this openly among ourselves and with our sons, when we confront this sickness in our own families and among our friends – we cannot say “it is not my business”.

We must confront this in our religious communities too. In many faith-based traditions we have transmitted a message that says being male is prized over being female.

Men interpret sacred texts in ways that legitimise the exercise of male power over women. The religious beliefs feed into the culture of gender-based violence.

We, men, have to be generous enough to interrogate the systemic causes of this soul-sickness. Despite all the bravado, we are infected by a killer pandemic. If we struggle together, honestly facing the sickness, in solidarity, we will begin to see the systemic root of this pandemic.

Then, and only then, will we find ways of healing this soul-sickness.

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ is the Director of the Jesuit Institute and is interested in the impact that communications technology has on society and spirituality. He regularly comments on South African Politics and various issues in the Catholic Church. @rpollittsj
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