SEXUAL violence is a crime. It is sinful, and injures the
creation in God's image. It violates human dignity, and diminishes
life. It should not be tolerated under any circumstance, even in
Sexual violence cuts across class, ethnicity, race, religion,
ability/disability, and age, but it disproportionately affects
girls and women. Sexual violence is, therefore, a gendered
phenomenon, because it is rooted in gender inequality and
It is a universal problem, but this article focuses on sexual
violence in sub-Saharan Africa. It is a region of enormous
resources and cultural diversity, but the subordination and
oppression of women is a common thread across many cultures. The
social organisation of the family unit is marked by the supremacy
of the male, and the legal dependence of children and wives.
In Christianity, this supremacy is emphasised through the
headship of the husband in marriage, and, consequently, some
Churches do not allow women in all ecclesiastical leadership
Sexual violence is especially prevalent in politically unstable
states. This indicates that, without the restraint of the law,
culture, patriarchy, politics, economics, and religion are
significant factors behind high rates of sexual violence. Therefore
power inequality between women and men - as dictated by tradition,
culture, religion, and economic status - gives rise to gendered
violence, including sexual violence. In some cultures, this
includes female genital mutilation, early marriage, sexual
trafficking, forced sterilisation, and abortions, and breast
ironing (in Cameroon).
Since most of African societies are patriarchal, women occupy an
in-ferior status, and their full potential is diminished. Many are
forced to depend economically on men.
But, over the decades, women have continuously resisted the
dehumanising nature of patriarchy and oppressive systems, thanks to
their God-given dignity, resilience, ingenuity, and power.
THE HIV pandemic in the female population in sub-Saharan Africa
has been a magnifying glass on gender inequality, as well as
endemic sexual and gender-based violence. Particularly at risk are
those in the extended family unit, which in many homes today
includes hired house- help or "maids". These are not spared sexual
harassment, abuse, and exploitation. Anecdotal evidence in HIV
workshops also suggests that incest is a commonly underreported
The World Council of Churches (WCC) scaled-up its ecumenical HIV
response in sub-Saharan Africa in the 1990s. Its approach was to
integrate gender inequality and violence in all its programmes by
examining how scripture and cultural practices helped to perpetuate
patriarchy and the inferiority of girls and women. In particular,
biblical scholars, gender activists, and women's groups embraced
liberating ways of reading the Bible by interrogating rape
narratives, in particular 2 Samuel 13, the rape of Tamar by her
half brother Ammon, the children of King David.
After many workshops, men found ways of asking hard questions
about violence, manhood, masculinity, and relationships in African
indigenous cultures, religions, and Christianity. As a result, many
HIV workshops target men's involvement in family hierarchies, how
gender norms are constructed, and how issues such as absent fathers
and sexual violence affect the Christian family and society at
In the light of this, the WCC is taking the debate on gender and
sexual violence into the churches and theological institutions,
through the Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiative in Africa (EHAIA).
For example, a transformative-masculinities curriculum has been
introduced in prisons in Lesotho. The initiative also includes
books and manuals, such as Redemptive Masculinities: Men, HIV
and religion (2012); Justice not Silence: Churches facing
sexual and gender-based violence (2013); and Contextual
Bible Study Manual on Transformative Masculinity (2013). In
these works, theologians, scholars, ecumenical leaders, pastors,
and activists have explored solutions within African indigenous
cultures, religions, and Christianity.
These scholars have benefited from data collected during
initiatives such as "Together for Girls"
(www.togetherforgirls.org), and from UNAIDS, the World Health
Organisation, the Population Council, etc., to accompany anecdotal
evidence that emerges from interviews and workshops.
In a more active mode, the WCC, working with the Christian AIDS
Bureau for Southern Africa, has rejuvenated the "Thursdays in Black
This campaign, a peaceful protest against rape and violence, has
ties to similar groups in Argentina, Bosnia, and Israel.
Churchgoers and students at theological institutions wear black on
Thursdays to indicate that they are tired of putting up with rape
and violence in their communities, and want a community where they
can walk safely without fear.
The response has been positive, and many people, both women and
men, have committed themselves to wearing black on Thursdays as an
outward sign of mourning, and of their solidarity with women who
have died at the hands of their partners.
The WCC and EHAIA activities promote zero tolerance for violence
in all its forms. They are inclusive of sexual minorities, sex
workers, and homosexuals. The object is to show that sexual
violence is a significant public-health problem, and requires
The Revd Dr Nyambura Njoroge has worked with WCC in two
capacities: from 1999-2007 as Global Co-ordinator for Ecumenical
Theological Education, and from 2007 to the present as the
Co-ordinator of the Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiative in Africa.
She has published extensively on sexual and gender-based-violence,
HIV, gender justice, and leadership.