The situation of women in South Africa.

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The situation of women in South Africa is once again in the spotlight – and rightly so. Some especially horrific and notorious stories have hit the headlines – the brutal rape of Anene Booysen in Bredasdorp, the senseless shooting of Reeva Steenkamp, the selling of a 13 year old girl as a bride, and, locally, the accusations of sexual abuse on the Wits Campus. But while each of these stories is in itself shocking, what troubles us more is the knowledge that they are just the tip of an iceberg of violence and abuse of women that is pervasive in the country.

Of course, women’s rights are enshrined in the Constitution. Legally we are all equal; culturally we are not. Every day in this country countless women are abused. Some estimates claim that a woman is raped in South Africa every 17 seconds. These abuses happen at all levels of society, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, black and white. As we sit in church every Sunday there are people sitting in the congregation next to us who fundamentally do not believe in the equality of men and women. Men who believe that they have greater rights than the women in their lives; women who believe that they are created less than men.

We should not be surprised: feminism is a very young movement, barely more than 100 years old. In that time women have achieved the right to education, to equal job opportunities (though they still do not always get equal pay), the right to vote, the right to wear what we want, the right to marry who we want or even not to marry. Fundamentally women should enjoy the right to personal safety: to not be raped or abused, even by husbands or fathers. Nonetheless these rights are not yet entrenched in our society’s behaviour. Rape and abuse is not yet treated with universal abhorrence. In the Medical Research Council Report of 2010, one in four South African men admitted to raping a woman. Just another horrifying statistic.
Some might be surprised at the Church speaking out in favour of women’s rights. After all, doesn’t the Church support and model a male-driven patriarchal society? But we need to look beyond the institution of the Church to the Church’s founder.

When we look to the example of Jesus, we are presented with a man who dealt counter-culturally with women. Jesus had close friends who were women, Mary and Martha. He spoke to women on the margins of society, the Samaritan woman and Mary Magdalene. He challenged the men of his time to act differently towards women whom they regarded as sexually immoral. In popular understanding, Mary Magdalene was transformed by Jesus’ friendship from being ‘the woman caught in adultery’ to becoming the ‘apostle to the apostles.’ In his encounters with women, Jesus saw them as fully human, as equally worthy of his time and interest as men. It is to the Samaritan woman, the woman with no husband and no status in her community, that Jesus reveals himself as the Messiah.

We all – men and women – need to explore our own hearts and minds, our deepest cultural formation. All our cultures have to some extent oppressed women. Let us as women see ourselves through Jesus’ eyes. Let us all see the women we know – our mothers, daughters, sisters, colleagues – as Jesus would see them. Do we help them to become truly the free human beings God created them to be?

Church Teaching on Respect for the Dignity of Women

Christ’s way of acting, the Gospel of his words and deeds, is a consistent protest against whatever offends the dignity of women. (15) (Bl John Paul II Mulierem dignitatis)
Then too, when we look at one of the most sensitive aspects of the situation of women in the world, how can we not mention the long and degrading history, albeit often an “underground” history, of violence against women in the area of sexuality? At the threshold of the Third Millennium we cannot remain indifferent and resigned before this phenomenon. (Bl John Paul II Letter to Women, 1995)

[The injustice of rape] Here we are thinking of atrocities perpetrated not only in situations of war, still so common in the world, but also in societies which are blessed by prosperity and peace … guilt needs to be attributed to men and to the complicity of the general social environment. (JP II Letter to Women)

Faced with such grave and persistent phenomena the Christian commitment appears all the more urgent so that everywhere it may promote a culture that recognizes the dignity that belongs to women, in law and in concrete reality. (Benedict XVI – referred to by Archbishop Silvani )

Violence against women remains an inescapable reality in too many places. Structures and attitudes of discrimination justify violence against women and impunity for their abuse too often perpetuates the problem. The daily fear of violence for attending school, the rape of a young girl with disabilities, and the forced marriage of a raped girl each is a recent example that represents practices, laws, and cultural conditioning and are manifestations of institutionalized and tolerated discrimination and violence against women. (Archbishop Silvani Vatican UN Observer, address to UNHRC, June 26th 2012.)

Image and Rights of Women in the Bible

Genesis 1.27 : God created the human being in God’s image; in the divine image God created the human; male and female God created them.

Amos 1.13: Thus says the Lord: for three crimes of the Ammonites, and for four, I will not revoke my word; because they ripped open expectant mothers in Gilead, while extending their territory, I will kindle a fire along the wall of Rabbah.

Mark 10:3: (On getting rid of a wife) Jesus said, ‘what did Moses command you?’ They replied, ‘Moses permitted [the man] to write a bill of divorce and dismiss her.’ But Jesus told them, ‘Because of the hardness of your hearts he wrote you this commandment… what God has joined, no human being should separate.’

Matthew 5:27: You have heard that it was said, ‘you shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Galatians 3.27: For all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Frances Correia