Gender based violence concerns everyone and the Church must play its part.

By Fr. Limukani Ndlovu

Mrs. Addis Hlomani, Chairperson, Catholic Nurses Guild

The Catholic Nurses’ Guild of the Archdiocese of Bulawayo reminded participants during a virtual seminar held on 14 October 2021 that violence against women is a sin against humanity and a sin against God. The Chairperson of the guild, Mrs. Addis Hlomani said GBV is a major public health problem, it violates human rights and that it is against the plan of God for humanity. She said Gender-based violence concerns everyone and that there is a strong relationship between culture and GBV.

In her opening remarks, Mrs Hlomani stated that gender issues have a significant bearing on Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRH). Many negative health issues in the communities have been linked to GBV, and these include debilitating conditions such as HIV.  These gender issues have had a direct relationship with access to SRH services. The Ministry of Health and Child Care has noted that without integrating gender in SRH programming, meaningful strides in health programming cannot be realised.

To show the prevalence of GBV, Mrs. Hlomani reflected on a snap survey that was conducted in Bulawayo among selected individuals who were living with HIV.  Of the 371 respondents who had experienced one form of GBV or the other, only 14 reported their cases, while 24% indicated that they did not know where to report or they chose not to do so for fear of further abuse by the perpetrators or breakdown of their marriages. The voice of the Church with reference to GBV was explored through discussions. It is clear that the church does not condone GBV. Several exhortations refer to the ideal model of family life which is free from GBV, namely the Holy Family of Nazareth of Joseph, Mary and Jesus.

Gender equality was defined as a social order in which women and men share the same opportunities and the same constraints on full participation in both the economic and the domestic realm. However, gender equity in the community involves ensuring that women are allowed to participate fully and equally in the community’s social, economic and political life, and are not limited in their choices simply because they are women. It refers to ending social norms, laws, practices and attitudes that discriminate against women in the community. The Catechism of the Catholic Church cites from the book of Genesis in which God gives man and woman an equal dignity where both are created in his image and likeness (CCC#2334). Each of the two sexes is the image of the power and tenderness of God, with equal dignity though in different biological characteristics (CCC#2335)

Mrs. Hlomani said masculinity is about qualities that are ascribed to males. Ideas of masculinity are part of a society’s and a community’s gender norms which include attitudes and behaviors that are learned, copied, encouraged from childhood and strengthened throughout a man’s life by the community. Ideas of masculinity are reinforced as people act and communicate until it is deeply rooted in the community’s norms to become a culture. Therefore, GBV is particularly rooted in the idea of male power over women and is usually perpetrated by men of low self-esteem or who are afraid that they are perceived as unmasculine.

Since gender norms are learned, it, therefore, means that they may equally be unlearned or changed. They need to be changed instead of being accepted as “culture” or “tradition,” as something unchangeable and part of any culture. The traditional gender norm which says that women should be subject to men, passive participants and mere submissive subjects should be challenged in the strongest terms. The same applies to the belief that men should be aggressive, dominant, and controlling over women. The norms that discourage girls from freely expressing their sexual feelings and yet finding it okay for boys to do so should be eradicated. All beliefs that claim that husbands are the ones to control and discipline their wives, that says men cannot control their sexual urges and that violence is an inevitable part of male over female should be demystified.

St. John Paul II states in his Apostolic Exhortation on the role of the Christian family in modern life (1981) that husbands are called upon to develop a new attitude of love, manifesting towards their wives a charity that is both gentle and strong like that which Christ has for the Church. He goes on to quote the words of St. Ambrose who says that man is not the master of the woman, but her husband and that the woman was not given to man as his slave, but as his wife.

The presenter noted that GBV leads to reproductive and sexual health problems such as but not limited to infertility, gynaecological disorders, pelvic inflammatory disease, sexually transmitted infections including HIV, pregnancy complications, miscarriage, unsafe abortions and unsafe pregnancies and even death.

To the family, GBV may result in emotional and mental health disorders like depression, suicidal thoughts and attempts, mental trauma, including nervous breakdowns and shock, loss of memory or the inability to think clearly.

Children who witness violence demonstrate high rates of emotional health problems. They are likely to be violent with other people or be more accepting if they experience violence later on in life. They may be physically incapacitated or traumatized to the extent of being unable to take care of their children. Physically incapacitated or traumatized women may not be able to return to work, resulting in loss of livelihood for the family.

At times in the community, GBV may prevent women from fully and actively participating in community development programs thereby becoming socially and economically vulnerable. To a large extent, GBV undermines overall peace and security within the community. It also has a tremendous economic cost for the community, including the direct costs of health, social and legal services and the indirect costs of loss of resources.

According to the Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN), there are five forms of  GBV which are; sexual violence, physical violence, emotional and psychological violence, harmful cultural traditional practices and socio-economic violence.

Violence against women refers to any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life. Such violence against women would encompass physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the family, including battering, child sexual abuse, dowry-related violence, marital rape, female genital mutilation and other traditional practices harmful to women, non-spousal violence and violence related to exploitation. It may occur at various levels such as family, community and our state. Often this includes rape, sexual harassment and intimidation at work, in educational institutions and elsewhere, also trafficking of women and forced prostitution.

Socio-economic violence may be described as the discrimination or denial of opportunities and services, employment, property rights to someone on account of their gender or account of one’s sexual orientation. It also speaks to the denial of access to social benefits, prevention of the exercise and enjoyment of civil, social, economic, cultural and political rights, imposition of criminal penalties, discriminatory practices or physical and psychological harm and tolerance of discriminatory practices, public or private hostility to women.

Pope Benedict XVI defends African women against violence and acknowledges strides made by African communities in advancing women towards education and other public positions. He however notes that there are still gaps and urges the Church to strive to become a model for society as a whole by combating all forms of violence against women. He further disapproves of practices that degrade women in the form of ancestral spirits.

Speaking about child sexual abuse, Mrs. Hlomani lamented evil practices of defilement and incest. She said that this includes any act where a child is used for sexual gratification and that this may be in the form of forced or attempted sodomy, anal rape, actual or threatened physical intrusion of a sexual nature, including inappropriate touching, by force or under unequal or coercive conditions and even pornography.

The Catholic Church is strongly against violence against children. In His Apostolic Exhortation Africea Munus, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI strongly cautions against violence to children and safeguards the sanctity of family life. He stresses that the family is the “sanctuary of life” and a vital cell of society and of the Church in which no violence should be allowed to take place. In families, children must acquire basic teachings, learn to love in as much as they are unconditionally loved, learn respect for others in as much as they are respected and many other values and virtues.

Mrs. Hlomani also spoke about the aspect of sexual exploitation which relates to any abuse of a position of vulnerability, differential power, or trust for sexual purposes. This includes profiting monetarily, socially or politically from the sexual exploitation of another person. It may also mean trafficking of girls for purposes of performing sexual activities like forced undressing and, coerced marriage, forced childbearing, engagement in pornography or prostitution and sexual slavery. Sexual violence may also be used as a form of torture. Those in advantaged political positions may use sexual violence to cause mental or physical pain on someone to cause to obtain information or confession from the victim or simply to cower to others.

There are also harmful cultural traditional practices such as arranged early marriages and forced marriage. In this situation, the victim is either exposed to violent and abusive situations or threatened with harsh consequences if he or she refuses to comply. Harmful cultural or religious practices may also include things such as infanticide, abandonment, killing, withholding food from, and/or neglecting female children because they are considered to be of less value in society than male children. It also includes denying girls education, removing girls from school, prohibiting or obstructing access of girls and women to basic, technical, professional or scientific knowledge.

Mrs. Hlomani also addressed the issue of the spiritual and pastoral effects of GBV. She alluded to the fact that there are men who prevent their wives and children from actively participating in church affairs. She also pointed out that GBV may lead to the loss of faith in the victim, let alone to be active missionary disciples who are pastorally effective. She challenged the Church to scale up efforts in curbing GBV at all levels and help victims of Gender Based Violence to deal with their situations by reporting their cases to the police and to seek health care services in cases of physical violence. She said the Church should be ready to offer professional counselling and psycho-social support for families and children who may need it so as to reduce challenges of GBV.  Mrs. Hlomani emphasized on the need to establish safe houses at parishes where victims of GBV can find shelter while their cases are being investigated. These and other support systems will help survivors of GBV to pick up their mats and to move on (cf. John 5:8).

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