In the past decade, the role of religious leaders has been publicly challenged by human rights and international development organizations for supporting unrealistic views of gender relationships, family and societal models. Indeed, for centuries, particular interpretations of religious scriptures have been fuelling patriarchy and as a consequence sexual and gender based violence. The main question posed to these interpretations points to the fact that scriptures have been developed thousands of years ago as universal codes of conduct and morality and cannot be translated to our times without a careful reflexion. In other words, faith leaders in the twenty-first century can’t respond to sexual and gender based violence in their communities by simply reproducing perspectives from centuries ago.
Yet, in most countries of the global south – as well as in some of the most powerful economies the global north – religion and spirituality are integral parts of politics, economics and social life. On the African continent, faith doesn’t necessarily relate to religious institutions or set doctrines, but is deeply connected to day-to-day of individuals. The messages conveyed by bishops, imams, sangomas, pastors, help to shape gender roles and sexual practices, influence people’s choices on medical treatments, catalyze social conflicts and forge resilient responses to traumatic experiences of violence. According to a report from Pew Forum Research on Religion and Public Life, in 2009 an average of 86% (roughly nine in 10) people in sub-Saharan Africa declared that religion is a very important aspect of their lives.
For the past 6 years I’ve been studying the role of African faith leaders in contexts of social transformation and throughout the lives of those who follow them. In my recent research (2017-2019), I have been witnessing the work of African-based NGOs with gender equality aimed at faith leaders across southern African countries. This work consists in delivering workshops in which skills and knowledge on sexual and gender-based violence prevention can be replicated by faith leaders in their communities. As one would imagine, it’s not an easy job but faith leaders’ openness to the matter is greater than what most people would imagine.
Amongst faith leaders attending sexual and gender based violence prevention workshops last year, the majority recognised to have dealt with sexual and gender based violence in their communities and expressed that they would like to act to prevent or respond effectively to it. However, few admitted to speak up against this problem owing to the lack of support from their respective religious institutions, and, namely, their superiors or senior peers.
Here are some of the key findings of the research: 80% of faith leaders mentioned that they offered advice or counselling to either a victim or perpetrator of sexual and gender based violence; in 36% of these cases were about emotional abuse, 26% were related to rape and sexual assault, and 27% other kinds of physical violence. The average age of participants was 43 years old with 68% of participants being between 18 and 47 years old. 1% had no formal education, 6% Primary, 23% Secondary (complete or incomplete) and 70% University, college or more.
One male pastor, from a Pentecostal church in Pietermaritzburg in Kwazulu-Natal, responded on why he attended the meeting: “We (Pastors) are quick to go to the bible to look for solutions to people’s problems, not actually knowing what really the problem is. I’ve been hearing about gender, but I didn’t know the depth of gender issues. When I saw this workshop I saw as a good opportunity to go and learn.” Post-workshop, he added: “We have to decolonise our messages because the messages brought to us before were about the salvation of humanity, or, that you have to pray so you don’t go to hell because you need to go to heaven. But our contexts have changed significantly and we need to watch what we preach to be relevant. How will Jesus Christ be relevant to the life of somebody that is raped and is not getting any help?”
In addition to that, male faith leaders admitted that the fear to engage in the struggle against sexual and gender based violence and equal rights is related to the fear of being ridiculed by other men or having their authority questioned. Similarly, female leaders were afraid of being labelled as “feminists”, an expression used in derogatory way. At the same time, those who have been and speaking up against sexual and gender based violence, complain about the lack of networks of support either from religious or secular organisations. They also remarked the limited information available on how to respond and prevent such cases in their communities. This lack of information becomes even more problematic when they mention that churches are often the first place where victims look for help and try to find support and advice, coming mainly from leading figures. All this shows that we must go beyond the general notion of religion equating fundamentalism if we want to truly reach everyone in the quest for gender justice.
There have been significant advances in the last 20 years to make gender and gender inequalities visible in terms of the lives of women and girls in South Africa and across the African continent. It has also been throughout these past years that the role religious communities have been targeted as a player in the formation and entrenching of harmful social norms in the quest for gender equality. But this role can either be a force for positive social change or a barrier to the quest for gender equality and end of gender based violence and injustices. What I came to understand is that faith leaders are often looking at where their communities should go but seldom approaching their current struggles, and spend even less time looking at their own interaction with violence throughout life.
Indeed the strategy employed in the interventions that I have analysed acknowledges that some of the key drivers of gender inequalities and injustices are embedded in religious practice and thought. Yet, with evidence pointing that faith leaders are willing to make a positive contribution to current struggles of society, development agencies and human rights organizations must see religion and spirituality as collaborative agents in the quest for gender justice.