Zilandile Xulu was seven-months pregnant when she went missing from her home in Hlobane, northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa on June 27. Three days after her disappearance, her body was found on a cliff with a visible broken neck and several stab wounds to the stomach.
A police investigation revealed Xulu was raped and killed in her bedroom and dragged out of her home before being thrown off a cliff. A 38-year-old man has been arrested in connection with the murder.
Since the gradual relaxation of lockdown rules, there has been a spike in cases violence against women and children in South Africa. More than 20 women and children have been raped and killed in recent weeks.
South Africa has one of the highest rates of violence against women in the world with reports suggesting that a woman is killed every three hours in the country. The South African Police Service [SAPS] says almost 180, 000 crimes against women were recorded between 2018 and 2019. During the first week of the coronavirus lockdown in March, the police recorded 2,300 complaints of violence against women.
Dawn Linder works with the Justice and Peace Commission of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference alongside other women and nonprofits such as People Opposing Women Abuse [POWA] to raise awareness about violence against women. They organize workshops and seminar discussions for women.
Women from around Johannesburg and local communities attend to share their experiences and learn more about how to respond and speak up when men are violent toward them.
“The church has been involved in programs and projects through the justice and peace agency,” Linder said. “Our programs focus primarily on creating awareness and doing advocacy against violence targeted at women and young girls.”
With these workshops organized by the church, Linder said the aim is to empower women to take action and speak up when they face gender-based violence.
The home is one of the places to start addressing gender-based violence, Linder says. “This is where it all starts so we need to have conversations from here and how to build family values in the homes,” she adds.
Since the church doesn’t have a home for women who are victims of violence, Linder says they work with other nonprofits to assist people that urgently need help such as counseling support.
“We work with them to assist other people that came for help to the justice and peace department and also from the different deaneries and dioceses in the country,” she says.
On August 9, South Africa celebrated National Women’s Day, which marks the anniversary of the 1956 demonstration where about 20,000 women marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest against legislation aimed at tightening the apartheid government’s control over the movement of black women in urban areas.
Since it was launched in 1995, the day has come to represent women’s courage and strength and an opportunity to highlight the challenges women and young girls face in the country especially regarding violence and all forms of attacks on women and their rights.
Before the lockdown in the country started on March 27, Linder and her group organized discussion groups and workshops during previous National Women’s Day celebrations at the church.
Speakers are invited to speak on different themes. Women and young girls attended to learn more about violence toward their sex and how they can respond to it.
During this year’s celebration, justice marches for rape victims were also held. In Cape Town, a group of women activists held a protest outside the residence of the Anglican Archbishop, Thabo Makboba against violence toward women and young girls. The women are protesting for justice for Rev June Major, an Anglican priest from the diocese who was raped in 2002 by a fellow priest but hasn’t been prosecuted.
“We choose not to celebrate Women’s Day because we have nothing to celebrate,” said Lucinda Evans, one of the protesters who runs a nonprofit that advocates for women’s rights. “In a country where we, the women, are unsafe. In a country where gender-based violence is the national sport. This morning we are in front of the Archbishop of South Africa’s home and we’re here for the justice for June Dolley.”
They are calling on the leadership of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa [ACSA] to respond to the allegations and reopen the case after state prosecutors declined to press charges against the accused priest some years ago. The ACSA pledged to launch an internal disciplinary process to address Major’s allegations.
Just like Linder’s group, the South African Faith and Family Institute [SAFFI] works with religious leaders, especially the Catholic leaders in the country, to address issues of violence against women by organizing workshops and seminars to strengthen their capacity in their response to violence against women.
SAFFI says the purpose is “to offer technical support to faith communities in developing denominational or faith specific material on prevention and intervention which would include policies and procedural guidelines for working with victims and survivors and perpetrators of domestic violence.”
In partnership with local churches, the organization holds a pilgrimage for victims of violence as a way of healing from trauma and abuses they have suffered in the past.
“We must begin to look at where patriarchy and structures enhance violence against women are entrenched like church groups among others and begin to dismantle them,” said Nontando Hadebe a Catholic who works with faith-based organizations and regularly speak at workshops on gender-based violence in the country.
Hadebe says she works with UN Women South Africa in their campaigns aimed at addressing violence against women.
Since November 25, South Africa has been observing the “16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children Campaign” which is a United Nations campaigns to raise awareness on violence against women around the world.
However, there are challenges to the concerted efforts of the church and women groups against violence toward women in the country.
“It is not something that is integrated into the teachings of the church,” Linder says. “Children don’t often learn about gender roles in the church. I feel children should be taught this at a very young age in catechism as they get taught about who they are as Christians and about the gender aspect of women and men.”
It is one thing to create awareness and another thing to try and get people to act on that, Linder adds. “And I found out that our church communities are more interested in doing the Christian duties of going to church every Sunday and going to pray and there is not much time for any involvement in the rest. It is difficult to get the church communities and parishioners to understand that this is something that is part of who they are as Christians and that they should get involved in these programs.”
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Violence and crime here in South Africa is completely out of control, and the government does nothing beyond paying lip service to it. What we need is more, better trained and equipped police, and tougher penalties for violent and sexual offenses.
According to surveys, women hit men about as often as men hit women. Of course, men do more damage, but women are more likely to use a weapon.
That said, violence within the family (short of murder) should NOT be the concern of the law. This is because family is generally built on love, there is too much possibility for malicious false complaints, and violence can be used legitimately as a form of punishment or self-defense. Also, any permanent damage to one’s spouse short of murder means that the spouse will have to live with it until the other spouse dies or there is a separation (that is a separation without the possibility of remarriage). In addition, to murder one’s spouse is an impediment to getting married to another.
Killing a person is more than an impediment to remarriage! The law must intervene when common humanity fails, and within families this happens precisely because some view it as a private sphere where abuse is ok. Women may use “weapons” to try and be heard or simply defend themselves, but men use the weapons offered by religious and societal structures that put women below them in terms of imaging God, having financial power, ability to be heard, freedom to prioritize themselves and their children’s health and wellbeing. Family has a role, but should be to uplift the “least of these.”