“The statistics on gender-based violence in Zambia are appalling.” So says Grace Mazala Phiri, National Programmes Director for the Anglican Church in Zambia.

As an example she cited a survey conducted in Chipata a town in Eastern Zambia from January to March last year. “[This] revealed that within three months alone more than 1,000 women were victims of battering, while over fifty women were raped.

“Cases of child abuse were more than 100, with 12 people reported as having died as a result of gender-based violence.”

Zambia, is far from the only country in Africa that struggles with gender-based violence. Indeed, it is an issue that cuts across culture, race, religion and socio-economic status. It is defined by the Southern African Development Protocol on Gender and Development as: “All acts perpetuated against women, men, boys and girls on the basis of their sex which causes or could cause them physical, sexual, psychological, emotional or economic harm, including the threat to take such acts…”

In reality though, it is women and children who suffer most from this insidious evil; one which has recently found itself under the international spotlight. Two cases of gang-rape, mutilation and murder of women in India and South Africa have the world talking. The death of 17-year-old South African Anene Booysen has put pressure on Africa to be much more proactive in addressing gender-based violence.

One group that was taking steps to address this issue long before Miss Booysen’s tragic death was Anglicans.

Mrs Phiri said, “Anglicans are taking action to support women and rebuild relationships, so women can reclaim their streets, their communities, their places of work – even their homes – as places which they can use in safety.”

But why is the Church taking such an active role? One answer is because while violence and injustice have existed for a long time in homes and even in the Church, God’s people have “always had the God-given mandate to protect people that have been unfairly treated and ensure that justice prevails at all times.”

Anglican Bishop of Harare Chad Gandiya, his wife Faith (left) and Victoria Chitepo (centre). (Photo: New Zimbabwe)

On February 11, the Church of the Province of Central Africa (CPCA) held a seminar in Lusaka, Zambia to discuss gender issues affecting the Church in the Province as well as to adequately plan for International Women’s Day (March 8), an occasion which the Church sees as an opportunity for women to “reclaim public spaces” in the face of the rising human rights abuses.

“We are seeing a rise in gender-based violence against women and girls,” said Faith Gandiya, President of the Mothers’ Union in the Diocese of Harare in Zimbabwe and a delegate at the seminar. “One of my biggest concerns is that clergy and their wives need to be aware and be able to help people to prevent such occurrences [while] supporting people who are victims.

“The Church in Africa still has a long way to go in terms of dealing with issues of gender-based violence because of culture,” she said. “We need to lift ourselves over and above the culture where women are forbidden from talking too much and are supposed to always listen to what a man says. The Church [in Africa] works within this cultural context which is difficult to deal with.”

The results of gender-based violence can have devastating consequences for the victims including physical, sexual, and mental harm and suffering and, in the worst cases, death. It is widespread in the Southern African region and thus presents what Mrs Gandiya says is a “major obstacle to attaining gender equality and equity which are fundamental human rights.”

Grace Phiri admitted that she had seen a lot of devastating incidences of gender-based violence during her work in the communities. “We have decided to work with women in rural areas because most of them don’t have enough information as regards their rights because of poor information flow,” she said.

The delegates acknowledged the many complications that hinder the effective handling of gender-based violence. “Cases within the family are the most difficult to deal with for fear of embarrassment. Most families would rather deal with such issues silently,” she said.

Another complication within families in Africa is that gender issues impinge on aspects of “culture and bread and butter”. Grace Phiri said, “With men being the breadwinners in most families, women who have been abused by their husbands will try to avoid the police because they would not want to have their husbands incarcerated despite their pain and suffering.”

At the root of gender-based violence are issues of power. A woman who is adequately empowered is placed to deal with physical and emotional abuse. The Primate of the Province Archbishop Albert Chama, who was also present at the meeting, said there is a huge opportunity for the Church to act through the engagement of the people at the grassroots.

“It’s at the grassroots that the Church really is, and by touching the lives of those who are downtrodden, we make the Gospel alive and real. We need to support women all the way until the goal of equality is achieved in all spheres of life: education and property ownership,” he explained.

On a continent where traditionally women were never encouraged to own personal property and girls were encouraged to do household chores while the boys went to school, empowerment of women still remains one of the biggest challenges that is yet to be dealt with. It’s no wonder that CPCA has decided to work with women through literacy and economic empowerment programmes.

“We decided to take up programmes related to development and gender. We are empowering women to increase their household incomes. We give them loans using a revolving fund with a minimal interest rate. Some of them are keeping livestock and are into farming,” Grace explained. “We also empower them by monitoring their health so that they are not incapacitated. They are also taught how to read and write which is important for them to gain some degree of independence.

Participants at the meeting, who were drawn from Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi, shared experiences and discussed the cultural attitudes to the issue. Specifically they looked at the kind of language that perpetuates gender-based violence especially against women. The General Secretary of the Anglican Council of Malawi the Revd Canon Christopher Mwawa said, “Traditional African [sayings] such as ‘This man is as talkative as a woman’ only reinforce the already existing stereotypes against women [and] should be avoided at all costs.”

The Archbishop encouraged everyone to learn from one another. He said those present should also convince the government in their countries to see the Church as “a partner in development” in order to win their government political will in dealing with the many issues of gender-based violence.

“Many people and organisations in Africa have talked about human rights especially those of women and children but the Church has not been coming out strongly in its advocacy,” said the Primate. “We have to be vigilant and make sure that the voice of the Church is heard when we speak on behalf of the downtrodden.

The Archbishop believes that effective engagement of disadvantaged people will “permeate every home, community, congregation” because people will be made to realise that they have the potential to change their own circumstances from negative to positive for good.”