Church Leaders in South Africa Urge Use of WhatsApp to Fight Gender-Based Violence

Logo South African Council of Churches
Credit: Public Domain

In South Africa where COVID-19 restrictions have plunged the country into various crimes including police brutalities and a rise in cases of gender-based violence (GBV), church leaders drawn from 30 Christian denominations have condemned the crimes and encouraged the use of WhatsApp to report cases of violence founded on gender.

In a general pastoral letter by the South African Council of Churches (SACC), the church leaders noted that GBV, specifically, had skyrocketed during lockdown in the country where over 10,000 COVID-19 cases have been reported, making the Southern Africa nation the most affected on the continent.

“South Africa has earned the unwelcome notoriety as the home of gender-based violence, gruesome rape, and killing of women in what has been dubbed the Republic of Sexual Abuse (RSA),” the church leaders stated in their collective letter shared with ACI Africa Monday, May 11.

They added, in reference to GBV in families, “Such domestic abuse has increased frighteningly now with victims trapped in lockdown with abusers.”

Based in Johannesburg, SACC "is an interdenominational forum that unites 36 member churches and organizations. (It) is an instrument and servant of its members and is committed to expressing, through proclamation and programs, the united witness of the church in South Africa, especially in matters of national debate." 

Some of the SACC members that were part of the collective pastoral letter include the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC), the African Catholic Church, the Evangelical Church of South Africa and the Moravian Church in Southern Africa.

In their statement, the leaders cautioned against misinterpretation of the Bible, which they said is often misunderstood to allow mistreatment of women.

“We recognize that often our Scriptures are interpreted in favour of the patriarchal attitude that violates women and children. God in Christ made women the primary channels of his saving incarnation, both at his birth by Mary of Nazareth, and at the proclamation of his resurrection by Mary of Magdala,” they stated, and added, “We say to those who bully women at home, in the name of Jesus, stop it!”

Prior to the onset of COVID-19 pandemic, GBV rates in South Africa were reportedly among the highest in the world. According to government reports, a South African woman is murdered every three hours on average, with many assaulted and raped before their demise.

On Monday, May 11, the Southern African country recorded 10, 015 COVID-19 cases, 194 related deaths and 4,173 recoveries from the disease.

In one of the country’s stringent regulations to contain the spread of the virus, the South African government has prohibited the sale of cigarettes and alcohol, which have been identified as catalysts for domestic violence.

To further curb the violence, members of SACC say they will be working with communities in neighborhoods to facilitate reporting and a quick response in cases of violence.

“The SACC is urging all our member churches to work together with all other communities of faith in the neighborhoods of their congregations to have Local Ecumenical Action Networks (LEANs). These are church organs of the love of the Risen Christ through which we should demonstrate the pastoral care that we are called to extend to those in need,” the leaders say.

According to the church leaders, the special SACC website dedicated to the council’s intervention to fight COVID-19 has the helpful information to guide on forming the LEANs.

Most important for GBV, the leaders say, is the request for each LEAN to form a Family Support Unit of trusted people in the community, “to whom WhatsApp messages can be sent by victims of violence who are not able to call the normal government toll free numbers, and call for urgent help.”

“The members of the LEAN’s Family Support Unit will call the government toll-free number to escalate the problem; 0800 428 428; or the police number 086 00 10111. Otherwise the SACC reporting number of 0800 11 1114,” the leaders elucidate in their collective pastoral letter.

Addressed to the hugely Christian population where at least 80 percent of South African population is Christian, the letter sought to allay despair among people whose lifestyles has been crippled by COVID-19 measures.

“We write as leaders of diverse churches in South Africa in the midst of the Coronavirus attack on our homes; on the lives and livelihoods of our people; and on the production systems of our economy. We write to say, God is with us even in these times of perplexing national pain,” the church leaders stated at the beginning of their 8-page letter.

They added, “We write at a time when our people are in lockdown fatigue, and our congregations still deprived of assembling for public worship by the demands for caution from the Coronavirus… We take this opportunity collectively as leaders of our churches, to express condolences to the families of those who succumbed to this dreaded Coronavirus. We commend their souls to the love and mercy of the Risen Christ.”

The church leaders expressed gratitude to the South African government, which they said had remained prudent in the use of public funds to mitigate effects of COVID-19, adding that many other African governments had failed in transparency.

The leaders also expressed regret that during the pandemic, a clear division had appeared between the different social groups in the country, that of the rich and the poor.

“We write to a nation boxed in by the double whammy of COVID-19 and the junk status of our economy. We say, together we can and shall rebuild our economy, but that the resolve must be for an inclusive economy, making our reality of two separate economies - “formal” (mainly white and rich) and “informal” (mainly black and poor), the matter of a pre-COVID past,” they noted, adding, “We must now plan and work for a restructured post-COVID inclusive economy with validated contributions from all, and benefits for all.”

Concerning the prohibition of mass gatherings as well as the suspension of public worship, the SACC National Church Leaders Forum has established a task team that will come up with a proposition to the government on how to go about re-opening churches.

The task team will include leaders of the various traditions of the churches in the country to represent each church’s traditions.

“Recognizing that COVID-19 is not a passing visitor, and that it will be with us for as long as we do not have a vaccine, this task team of church leaders will address the question of what will be the new normal for churches, and how we can continue to worship while containing the spread of the virus and protecting our most vulnerable,” the leaders stated.

“Arising from this work, after discussions by all leaders, submissions will be made to the Government on the proposed way forward for church worship,” the church leaders added.

Meanwhile, some churches in South Africa, especially those in urban areas continue to exploit social media platforms to keep the faithful engaged, a situation that the Church leaders say has the disadvantage of locking out those who can’t afford Internet connection

To accommodate those who cannot access social media, the members of SACC are in talks with the Public Broadcaster, to have various Christian traditions and other faith traditions, to each have a day when a slot can be afforded for a moment of worship that allows the faithful “to hear a familiar approach to worship on their radio and television.”

Concerning a reported likelihood of re-opening of schools in the country, the church leaders have expressed a commitment to be vigilant and to ensure that the children expected to be in school do not face any harm.

“In recent weeks we have all been seized with the question of whether our children should be brought back to the schoolroom, or not at this time. To be or not to be!” the church leaders wrote, and added in reference of the Gospel of Matthew Chapter 18, “When the schools do open, we will be quite vigilant, and watch that nothing amounts to despising the children and their best interests, as Christ says about ‘these little ones’, for ‘their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.’”


ACI Africa was officially inaugurated on August 17, 2019 as a continental Catholic news agency at the service of the Church in Africa. Headquartered in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, this media apostolate will strive to facilitate the telling of Africa’s story by providing media coverage of Catholic events on the African continent, giving visibility to the activities of the Church across Africa where statistics show significant growth in numbers and the continent gradually becoming the axis of Catholicism. This is expected to contribute to an awareness of and appreciation for the significant role of the Church in Africa and over time, the realization of a realistic image of Africa that often receives negative media framing.

Father Don Bosco Onyalla
Editor-in-Chief, ACI Africa
[email protected]