By Kara Eberle
he Bible is the only book in many homes and is one of the most widely read texts throughout Africa.
With this in mind, faith leaders and health professionals know it is imperative to incorporate faith teachings in their efforts to address—and ultimately end—sexual and gender-based violence throughout the continent.
“SGBV is a lethal and global pandemic,” said the Rev. Amy Gopp, Vice President of External Relations for IMA World Health, a faith-based, global nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. “As people of faith, we are advocates for everyone to live life abundantly. That includes a life free from violence.”
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, it is riskier to be a woman than to be a soldier and rape wasn’t even considered a crime until 2012. Even with laws in place, the systems to intervene and to address SGBV often break down. Women and children are being violated at an alarming rate.
However, there is often no direct focus on gender-based violence and little effort made to address it by government agencies, said Vuyelwa Chitimbire of Zimbabwe Association of Church-Related Hospitals, or ZACH.
“It’s up to the faith community to advocate for that,” Chitimbire said.
Faith leaders also recognize the need to look at how masculinity and gender roles play into SGBV. Communities are generally male dominated and women don’t have a voice.
Professor Ezra Chitando and the Rev. Pauline Njiru of World Council of Churches have done extensive work using Biblical texts to empower women and encourage men to change their behavior.
“We can make a difference,” Chitando said.
WCC identified “Four Deadly S’s” that surround SGBV: shame, silence, secrecy and stigma. To combat them, they use contextual Bible study, a methodology that helps people interpret sacred texts and how they can speak in life-giving ways to the entire community.
In Africa, at least half of all health care is provided by faith-based groups, according to the World Health Organization. In an effort to bring together those faith-based groups to be more effective, the Africa Christian Health Associations Platform formed 10 years ago to be a convening body for Christian Health Associations. The organizations are on the front lines of health and are often the only ones to continue to provide health care in the midst of conflict or outbreaks.
Known as ACHAP, the convening body of the CHAs gathers every two years to connect and share information. This year, the biennial conference was held in Maseru, Lesotho, and it focused on ways to strengthen health systems and to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.
During the conference, Gopp moderated a daylong workshop on how to engage faith-based organizations to address SGBV. The interactive forum helped to educate and inspire leaders of faith-based organizations to move from silence to actions.
“We are the people of influence,” Solange Mukamana said. She works with Tearfund South Africa with SGBV survivors and recounted for the group many sobering realities about the repercussions of SGBV.
“When you start the healing process, you start seeing light,” Mukamana said. “Once you’re out of the shadows, you can see everything.”
The Ushindi project, led by IMA World Health, has been empowering survivors of SGBV in DRC to step into the light since 2010. Ushindi, a seven-year cooperative agreement funded by the United States Agency for International Development, addresses the holistic needs of survivors in the eastern corridor of DRC, known as the worst place on earth to be a woman because of the prevalence of violence and lack of opportunities for women.
Dr. William Clemmer, Chief of Party for Ushindi, shared stories of women who have been mutilated, assaulted and cast out.
“The victims of sexual violence are considered worthless after the act, and the abusers can carry on with their lives without consequence,” Clemmer said.
An estimated 48 women are raped in DRC every hour, he added.
But the woman who started the Ushindi project, Lyn Lusi, worked toward a new reality up until her untimely death in 2012. Clemmer shared this quote from Lusi:
“There is so much evil and so much cruelty, so much selfishness, and it is like darkness. But if we can bring in some light, the darkness will not overcome the light, and that is where faith is, if you believe that.”
The faith leaders and public health experts who attended the conference this week do believe that, together, there is hope.
“This is the beauty and effectiveness of ACHAP,” Gopp said. “We are the body of Christ in the world, bound by a common mission and vision of health, healing and well-being for all. Engaged with one another at the community level, together we make a real difference in peoples’ lives.”