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Teaching men all about women

11 April 2014

Nyambura Njoroge considers the factors that lead to gender-based violence


Speaking out: Somali refugees in Kenya last August, protesting at gender-based violence in their community

Speaking out: Somali refugees in Kenya last August, protesting at gender-based violence in their community

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 wartime.

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 injustice.

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 positions.

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 crime.

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 large.


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 campaign" (www.thursdaysinblack.co.za/partners/).

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 urgent attention.

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.

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