Veena O’Sullivan of global Christian relief and development agency Tearfund says faith-based organisations have an obligation to work to end sexual violence against women and children.
(Image: Sulaiman Philip)
• Veena O’Sullivan
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The rape and murder of cousins Yonelisa (2) and Zandile (3) Mali in the poor settlement of Diepsloot north of Johannesburg in October enflamed the crime-ridden community, and led to violent reprisals. The community burnt the suspects’ homes to the ground.
Every day, South Africans face reports of dreadful violence against women and children: the rape of a 90-year-old grandmother, or of a three-week-old child. Each new horror rouses people’s anger. But, until now, that anger has had no outlet. The rape and murder of the Mali toddlers was just one of 64 000 reported cases of sexual violence that take place in South Africa in a single year. It’s a shockingly high number. And according to to Breaking The Silence, a report released by global Christian relief and development agency Tearfund, those reported cases make up a mere 5% of all sexual assaults committed in a year.
Tearfund’s report spurred the agency to set up We Will Speak Out, with the support of Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, the Anglican archbishop of Cape Town. Launched at St Albans the Martyr Church in Pretoria on Monday 25 November, the intention of the campaign is to help combat sexual violence through the more active involvement of the church.
Some 35-million South Africans identify themselves as Christian, out of a population of 51-million. Christian South Africans, Makgoba said, have a history of fighting injustice. Desmond Tutu, South Africa’s only archbishop emeritus, won the Nobel Peace Prize for his campaign to end apartheid using economic sanctions.
“We have done mighty things before, and we can do it again,” Makgoba said. “Together, we can draw a line and move forward towards a different future.”
Veena O’Sullivan, Tearfund team leader, said the involvement of the worldwide Anglican Communion would help stop the stigma against rape survivors, and break the silence that allows sexual violence to continue. “We needed a champion, a strong voice that will be heard and listened to,” she said. “Reverend Makgoba is that man who can bring together leaders of all religions.”
For now, the campaign involves only the Christian community. But Tearfund hopes that within a year all faiths will be join it. The NGO’s research found that survivors believed it was time people of faith proved themselves. A common assertion among survivors interviewed for the study was the belief that the church was far too concerned with theology and did not see tackling sexual violence as part of its biblical mandate.
Tearfund’s research involved interviews with survivors of sexual assault, many of whom were clear in their feeling that the church had failed them as women and then again as victims. Researchers in Bredasdorp, where teenager Anene Booysen was brutally raped and murdered, found a negative perception regarding the role of the church when it came to victims of sexual assault.
“The church is the anchor of the community but they run from victims. They sweep it under the rug. Or they stigmatise victims, isolating them,” an anonymous survivor told the researchers.
O’Sullivan has worked with survivors in Democratic Republic of Congo, where rape is used as a weapon of war, but is shocked by the cyclical nature of sexual violence in South Africa. “The culture of rape is so cyclical in this country. We found families where the grandmother and mother had been raped; now the child as well.”
Sexual violence has become normalised in some communities, the report suggests, and O’Sullivan argues that there is a real danger that these perceptions will become ingrained and intractable. “There is a culture of silence that comes from that; an acceptance that it is inevitable. That is what we must bring an end to.”
With this as a guiding principle, Tearfund and the Anglican Church formulated a four-point plan that forms the basis of We Will Speak Out:
● Faith communities will speak out and act: despite the negative perception that some survivors have of the church, they still feel that religious communities are a refuge. The church has a unique role to offer lifelong support to survivors. A church in Bredasdorp is showing the way by setting up a neighbourhood watch scheme. It spreads safety messages and offers counselling and home visits to survivors.
● Churches will become safe spaces for survivors: beyond praying for an end to sexual violence and offering a safe space for healing, congregations are encouraged to become non-judgemental sanctuaries for survivors. Male church leaders need to highlight and spread the message that women in their congregation share the same rights as men and that the blame for sexual violence cannot be laid at the door of the victim.
● Survivors’ movement will influence policy and practice: the church’s response to the epidemic of sexual violence will be shaped by survivors. The church has undertaken to work with the authorities to understand the procedures involved in reporting rape and to offer assistance to any victim who asks for it.
● Men will be involved in preventing sexual violence: the faith community has access to a pool of dedicated volunteers who can mentor men and boys about their role in relationships and society. They are often also the only source of positive role models in a community and these should be tapped to spread the message that sexual violence must end.
O’Sullivan admits that the findings did not come as a surprise, but she says that it is a reflection of the inherent good of South Africans that they are embracing a programme hoping to make a change. “South Africa is an amazing country but on the ground there is so much pain and suffering. Communities are willing to join hands, to collaborate. There is hope.”