South Africa’s Religious Orders Decry Gender-based Violence on Women’s Day

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A majority of women in South Africa are living in fear of abuse during COVID-19 lockdown, leaders of various Religious Orders and Societies of Apostolic Life in southern Africa have observed in their collective message to commemorate this year’s Women’s Day.

In a statement shared with ACI Africa on Sunday, August 9, officials of the Leadership Conference of Consecrated Life South Africa (LCCLSA) note that despite the many gains in efforts to achieve gender equality in the Southern African country, women still battle many challenges, key among them Gender Based Violence and Femicide (GBVF), which the leaders referred to as a scourge that had been heightened during the lockdown period.

“Despite our democratic gains, the country has among the highest levels of intimate partner violence in the world. Over 52,000 sexual offences and nearly 42,000 rapes were reported to the police in 2019, showing that violence against women is a scourge that is rife in South African communities,” LCCLSA President, Sr. Nkhensani Shibambu said in the statement.

She added, “Our commemoration this year comes at a time when the country is fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.”

In South Africa, Women’s Day is celebrated on August 9 to pay tribute to more than 20,000 women who marched to the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956 in protest against draconian pass laws and their impact on women.


The women submitted a document called “What Women Demand,” which addressed needs such as child care provisions, housing, education, equal pay, and equal rights with men in regard to property, marriage and guardianship of children.

Sr. Shibambu noted with concern that while trying to find ways to combat the spread of COVID-19, South Africans were living in fear.

According to the South African nun, the women, hearing cases of their sexual violence which are reported daily, keep asking themselves, “Am I next?”

South Africa has gone through different levels of lockdown, each with different guidelines, with level 5 having the most stringent regulations. Each of the levels translated differently to women who are victims of gender-based violence, according to the LCCLSA official.

“When the COVID-19 lockdown started in March at level 5, 842 cases of GBV were recorded countrywide at the Gender Based Violence Command Centre hotline,” she says, adding that the statistics covered the period 27 March to 30 April when there were restrictions in the movement of citizens and alcohol was completely banned.

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With restricted movement and continued alcohol ban in May, GBV cases dropped significantly to 585 during level 4 of lockdown, she says, adding that the cases skyrocketed to 1,505 between 1 June and 6 August when the country lifted alcohol ban during lockdown.

“During this period (level 3 lockdown), the alcohol ban was lifted and one can argue that this could be the reason why the statistics for this period skyrocketed. One can thus argue that the lockdown made women more vulnerable to GBVF,” she says.

Elaborating this year’s theme, “Generation Equality: Realizing women’s rights for an equal future”, Sr. Shibambu asserted the need to end sexual harassment and violence against women.

“The Generation Equality campaign demands equal pay, as equal sharing of unpaid care and domestic work, an end to sexual harassment and all forms of violence against women and the girl child, health-care services that respond to their needs and their equal participation in political life and decision-making in all areas of life,” she said.

The president of the leaders of Religious Institutes in the Southern African country further says that the country has made significant progress in gender equality, which show in the equal representation in government, economic participation and educational attainment, putting South Africa as one of the best performing countries on the Global Gender Gap Index where it is ranked 19 out of 149 countries.


She said, in reference to the Global Gender Gap Index statistics, “This means that South Africa has undergone a more positive gender-empowerment transformation than many developed nations – including Switzerland, the Netherlands, and even the US!”

She notes that despite the progress, real change was slow for the majority of women and girls in the country where she said socio-economic inequalities had “persisted in the three decades of the post-apartheid era.”

“It (South Africa) has the greatest inequality of income in the world and extremely high inequality in wealth,” Sr. Shibambu said, and added, “This means women remain undervalued, they continue to work more, earn less, have fewer choices and experience multiple forms of violence at home and in public spaces.”

According to the Superior General of the Companions of St. Angela, a Religious Congregation of Sisters in Johannesburg, the impact of the pandemic on society has the potential to reverse progress the country has made on women empowerment and eradicating poverty.

“Across the globe, women earn less, save less, hold less secure jobs, are more likely to be employed in the informal sector. They have less access to social protections and are the majority of single-parent households,” the Catholic nun says, and adds, “The impact of the pandemic on society therefore has the potential to reverse progress the country has made on women empowerment and eradicating poverty.”

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The gender inequality can also be observed in the Church where the Catholic nun says that they are treated as lesser human beings.

“With all the strides that the government has made to achieve gender equality, the question remains, how far has the church moved to achieve this? Locally, women in the church are treated as second class citizens especially Religious Sisters,” she says.

Referencing the recent Vatican appointment that included six women, she says, “Pope Francis epitomizes what it means to put women first by promoting women to be part of important Dicastery in his administration.”

She added in reference to Pope Francis, “It is reported that he has added to this list by appointing six more women in the most senior roles ever given to women within the Catholic Church’s leadership, to oversee the Vatican’s finances. We pray that our local church may follow the Pope’s example and walk the talk of promoting gender equality in the church.”

With global statistics indicating that more men are succumbing to the coronavirus than women, Sr. Shibambu notes with concern the likelihood of many women ending up without husbands. Additionally, she says that the burden of taking care of COVID-19 patients has been taken by women who she says make up the bulk of healthcare providers.

Meanwhile, the member of the Compassions of St. Angela has extended condolences to women who have “died brutally in the hands of our fathers, our brothers, our sons and our friends,” and those who have succumbed to COVID-19 related complications including religious sisters.

“We also remember those who are missing and their families cannot find closure to what has happened to their daughters and mothers. To achieve gender equality, we need to eliminate this harmful practice against women and girls, including femicide, rape, and misogyny and domestic violence and other oppression tactics,” she said.

Sr. Shibambu added in reference to gender equality, “We can achieve this by becoming change agents and joining hands as communities in eradicating the gender-based violence and femicide pandemic.”

Agnes Aineah is a Kenyan journalist with a background in digital and newspaper reporting. She holds a Master of Arts in Digital Journalism from the Aga Khan University, Graduate School of Media and Communications and a Bachelor's Degree in Linguistics, Media and Communications from Kenya's Moi University. Agnes currently serves as a journalist for ACI Africa.