“No ceasefire for women!” Resisting violence against women in conflict and in “peace”: The role of The Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians

Nontando Hadebe is the current chair of The Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians in South Africa where she resides.

A ceasefire is an agreement between warring groups to stop fighting “while a way is found to end the fighting permanently” (Oxford Dictionary). In the case of women there is an unofficial war waged against them through multiple forms of violence including physical, sexual, mental, emotional, psychological, economic, political and social that they experience in both the private and public spheres. While one can argue that not all women experience all these forms of violence and similarly that not all men are perpetrators of violence, the reality is that the impact is widespread and has not left any corner of the globe untouched. According to the World Health Organization violence against women has become a “global health problem of epidemic proportions.” Even in the midst of Covid-19 pandemic – or precisely now – there has been a rise globally in cases of violence against women: 

Gender-based violence (GBV) increases during every type of emergency – whether economic crises, conflict or disease outbreaks. Pre-existing toxic social norms and gender inequalities, economic and social stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with restricted movement and social isolation measures, have led to an exponential increase in GBV (UNDP).

Although GBV includes all forms of violence, this article will limit its focus to violence against women. The increase of GBV in crisis situations, as the above UNDP citation highlights, is as a result of pre-existing “toxic social norms and gender inequalities” – it is patriarchy, which drives the war against women before and during armed conflicts and other emergency situations.  Two stories of violence against women from two different countries one in a state of conflict (Democratic Republic of Congo) and one in a state of non-conflict (South Africa) serve to illustrate further that the war against women continues irrespective of the presence or absence of conflict.  The first quotation is from Nobel Prize Laureate Dr Denis Mukwege famous for his reconstructive surgery on women’s bodies brutalized by soldiers: 

The conflict in DR Congo is not between groups of religious fanatics. Nor is it a conflict between states. This is a conflict caused by economic interests – and it is being waged by destroying Congolese women.

The second is a story about the brutal murder of a 19 year old university female student by a post office official in Cape Town, South Africa.

Murdered UCT student Uyinene Mrwetyana, 19, was raped twice, her body hid inside the safe of the post office, and then later dumped and doused with an accelerant before being set alight.

The contrast between the two contexts where women were brutalized namely the war zone (DRC) and a post-office (non-war zone South Africa) is terrifyingly startling. It effectively erases the boundary between two states that would ordinarily be viewed as opposites, that is war and peace. Post offices are not war zones populated by soldiers but public spaces that deliver a service. That women experience the same brutalization confirms that the war against women is pervasive and unrelenting. The “weapons of mass destruction” in the war against women are not in military warehouses or possessed by individual men but in the everyday language and practices that normalize gender inequality, subordination of women and male supremacy. These beliefs and practices are ideologies built overtime that become so ingrained in culture and society that they appear natural and “God-ordained”. Litonjua describes ideologies as: 

system of ideas and beliefs that justifies and rationalizes the injustice, the cultural and religious symbols used to legitimate the structural injustice. Because of the ideology, the structural injustice and violence are considered the natural and normal state of things, even the moral order of things (2013:305). 

Culture and religion are formidable forces of legitimation and naturalization of gender inequality which is why despite human rights progressive constitutions that protect and promote gender equality, patriarchy and gender inequality remain intact at the everyday level of life where they operate with power and impunity making it difficult if not impossible to dislodge patriarchy. 

Despite the odds stacked against them, African women have risen up to be their own liberators. They have used everything to act for themselves as agents of change and transformation of culture, society and religion. At community level women continue to organize and implement multiple projects in all spheres whether urban or rural, literate or illiterate, old or young, poor or rich. In all these spheres women are continuing to erode patriarchy, challenge gender norms and carve out for themselves creative alternatives. 

Here I shall like to  focus on the role of women theologians in taking the struggle against patriarchy and GBV in the cultural and religious sphere. African women theologians under the leadership of Mercy Amba Oduyoye formed The Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, in Accra, Ghana in 1989. One of the aims was to name, confront and dismantle patriarchy in religion and culture through research. Kanyoro explains the link between theology and gender as follows: “Theological engagement with gender issues seeks to expose harm and injustices that are in society and are extended to Scripture and the teachings and practices of the Church through culture” (2002:17). With respect to culture Kanyoro argues that culture “silences many women in Africa and makes it impossible for them to experience the liberating promises of God which bible speaks of” (2002:15).  Similarly Oduyoye implicates patriarchy in culture as the root problem: “the real disease in human relationship is rooted in the perverse patriarchalization of life” (1994:177).

 Accordingly, Isabel Phiri defines African women theologies as follows: 

African women’s theologies are a critical, academic study of the causes of women oppression; particularly a struggle against societal, cultural and religious patriarchy.  They are committed to the eradication of all forms of oppression against women through a critique of the social and religious dimensions both in African culture and Christianity. African women’s theologies take women’s experiences as its starting point, focusing on the oppressive areas of life caused by injustices such as patriarchy, colonialism, neo-colonialism, racism, capitalism, globalisation and sexism.  It sees a need to include the voices of all women, not just theologians, because it acknowledges that the majority of African women are engaging in oral theology (2004:156).

The pillars of the theologies of The Circle are stated as: study and resistance against all forms of oppression against women in African culture and in Christianity based on the concrete-lived experiences of women. The emphasis on  the stories of women as the sources of theology promotes what Phiri and Nadar describe as “narrative activism” that is the use of narratives to critique “oppressive practices in African religion-culture” (2006:7).  Circle theologians need to be be bilingual “speaking the language of academy and that of their communities not just linguistically, but culturally and socially” (2006:6). In this way the liberating theologies produced by The Circle systematically dismantle patriarchy and empower women to be their own liberators. 

As a pan-African, ecumenical and inter-religious organization, The Circle is potentially able to extend their reach and influence into different countries, religions, cultures as a force of liberation that addresses the underlying causes of GBVe namely toxic social norms and gender inequalities. One of the many achievements of The Circle was pioneering mainstreaming of gender in theological responses to HIV/AIDS that confronted and disrupted legitimizing theologies of gender inequality and patriarchy both of which are implicated in GBV, a key driver of the higher prevalence rate of infection among women. These and other interventions by The Circle challenge the many expressions of gender inequality sanctioned by culture and religion and thereby addresses the pre-existing conditions for GBV in both conflict and peaceful states. In this way they contribute to a ceasefire on the war against women that will put an end to patriarchy and gender inequality as the first step in lasting peace for women. 

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