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18 December 2014 19:02 (South Africa)
South Africa

Religious leaders pledge support in fight against domestic violence

  • Rebecca Davis
  • South Africa
C:\fakepath\rebecca religous leaders

A new multi-faith initiative, Ubuntu in the Home, aims to harness the power and influence of South African religious leaders to tackle the problem of gender-based violence in the country. At the programme’s launch on Tuesday, members of different faith communities lamented the silence that has previously prevailed among them on this topic. By REBECCA DAVIS.

Bigwigs from Cape Town’s religious community gathered in the Banqueting Hall of the Civic Centre on Tuesday morning. They were there partly to mark the launch of the Ubuntu in the Home project, but a theme running alongside that was the commemoration of the 57th wedding anniversary of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his wife, Leah. 

The couple’s long and successful marriage was held up by speakers as an example to emulate, in tacit distinction from the less happy topic at hand: domestic violence. 

“It goes without saying that there is no better example of what a family should be – the Arch and Leah have been married 57 years,” said Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille, the host for the event. She added that since the Tutus had been granted the Freedom of Cape Town, they were at liberty to make themselves at home. 

The Ubuntu in the Home initiative is a collaboration between the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation and the SA Faith and Family Institute, with a pilot project running from May this year until April 2013. The motivation behind the programme is the belief that, in the past, South African religious leaders have not always played the role they could have when it comes to gender-based violence.

“The role of the religious community is critical,” said De Lille. “Sometimes an abused wife will go to the priest, or the imam, and say: ‘I’ve got this problem’, and sometimes the church will say: ‘Forgive and forget,’ and not really assist the women in need at that point.”

The director of the SA Faith and Family Institute, Elizabeth Petersen, agreed that the response of faith leaders to issues of domestic violence was often inadequate. “I have a long history of working in the sector of domestic violence, and over and over again I have heard women say: ‘I don’t want to end the relationship, I want the violence to stop,” she said. 

“Over and over again, I have heard women talk about their faith, and say that when they go to domestic violence support, they don’t understand faith, and when they go to religious leaders, they don’t understand domestic violence. Saffi comes in to address the root causes, and to be a support to religious leaders as they take up this work.”

Petersen pointed out that the role of religious leaders could stretch beyond extending emotional support or counsel to victims of domestic violence. She noted that existing resources for abused women are already overstretched and under-funded, and that faith communities could play an important role in expanding shelter options for these women.

The programme’s initial aims are relatively modest: to train 20 religious leaders to deal with gender-based violence by April 2013. By the end of the training, they hope these leaders will have a greater insight into the root causes of this violence, an understanding of helpful kinds of interventions, and the necessary knowledge to collaborate with gender-based service providers.

There was no shirking away from the fact that religion itself is sometimes a cause of gender-based violence. One of their stated aims is to ensure that religious leaders are able to “interpret easily misinterpreted dictums” that may lead to some kind of abuse, and to understand that sometimes domestic violence is rooted in a faith basis. A strong religious faith can also have a paralysing effect on abused women: in a video screened at the launch, one woman testified to wondering whether her abuse was some kind of punishment for turning from God. This aspect, too, will be incorporated into their educational programme.

The programme will be carried out in consultation with the University of the Western Cape, with the long-term aim of having this training stand as an accredited course for religious leaders. 

The multi-faith aspect of the project was highlighted throughout. Newly elected chairman of the Western Cape Religious Leaders’ Forum, Imam Dr Rashid Omar, pledged “our full support to this vital initiative”, terming gender-based violence “a very critical issue which needs to be pushed up the agenda”. A representative from the African Religious Leaders’ Forum read a mixture of a pledge and an apology which stated: “As religious leaders we say to victims and survivors of domestic violence: you have reached out for help and we have often failed you…You have told us your stories and we have remained silent… You have come to us for refuge and we have sent you back to your partner with the instruction to be more submissive or pray more.”

Amidst this communal repentance, a touch of lightness was provided by Tutu and his wife, who were presented with a cake to mark their wedding anniversary. The idea that it is Leah who really wears the pants in the relationship was the major fodder for the couple’s words to the audience, with Tutu pointing out that he had entered the room carrying his wife’s handbag. Reflecting on their long marriage, Leah said: “Don’t ask me what it’s like to be married to a famous man. Instead, ask how I made him famous!”

Tutu told the story of a group of men waiting outside the gates of heaven to gain entrance. A board instructs all men who have been dominated by their wives to stand in one queue, which consequently features a long line of men. Another board tells men who have not been dominated by their wives to stand in a separate queue. “There is only one little man in the queue,” said Tutu. St Peter says to the man: what’s your story? “And the man shrugs, ‘My wife said I must come stand here,’” finished Tutu, bringing the house down with his characteristically accomplished comic timing.

It wasn’t all laughter, however – Tutu reflected on the “incredible, fantastic support” of his wife, particularly during the apartheid years. “There was a time when (apartheid-era Police Minister) Louis le Grange said: ‘The trouble with Bishop Tutu is that he talks too much’,” recalled Tutu. “I asked Leah, do you think I should shut up?” He said he would never forget her response. “She said, ‘I’d much rather you were happy on Robben Island than that you were outside and forced to keep quiet.’”

In keeping with the theme of events, the launch concluded with a prayer. It will be interesting to see whether the obvious goodwill towards the programme – which has also received financial backing from EU funders – will translate into a meaningful and sustainable initiative. Given the parlous state of affairs that currently exists for South African gender-based service providers, there certainly could not be a better time for religious groups to step up and make a contribution. DM

Read more:

  • Tutu praises wife Leah, on IOL

Photo: Desmond and Leah Tutu seal 57 years of marriage with a kiss, in the company of daughter Reverend Mpho Tutu and Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille

  • Rebecca Davis
  • South Africa


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