GENDER BASED VIOLENCE, RELIGION AND FAMILY MINISTRY –

Aug 18, 2020

I was contacted by a journalist asking me what counselling we, I and MARFAM , offer for gender-based violence. I hesitated at first but then decided to answer as best I could from a very particular perspective.  So I came up with an article that, after some further editing, will, I hope, be worth sharing with our newsletter readers.  

“By way of introduction I would say that I generally avoid getting involved specifically in the issue of GBV because I, myself, and MARFAM’s ministry are not really in the counselling domain. 

A definition from Wikipedia, and some deeper exploration of gender-based helped me to open the topic more widely. “Gender-based violence (GBV) is directed at an individual based on his or her biological sex OR gender identity. It includes physical, sexual, verbal, emotional, and psychological abuse, threats, coercion, and economic or educational deprivation, whether occurring in public or private life.”  Contributing factors are harmful gender expectations and norms, use of power and domination and inadequate relationship and conflict management skills in dealing with frustration and anger.It can occur at all ages and across ages groups.   

Within a family setting it is also known as domestic violence and is an aggravated form of relationship conflict expressed through inappropriate sexual behaviour. It also commonly involves men and women known to each other.  The most serious cases, of rape and femicide, may occur among strangers with male uncontrollable and violent displays of power, anger and inappropriate sexual expression.

Chris, my late husband and I, became involved in marriage and family ministry after experiencing MARRIAGE ENCOUNTER, a marriage enrichment experience, in 1979.  ME offers relationship skills and is aimed at solid marriages with its slogan “couples deserve a good marriage.” That probably is still my basic focus but over the years there have been different ways to go about this. Relationship skills are a key aspect of preventing GBV. 

I was involved in Sexuality Education as a religious educator in parishes and in schools, during the years of HIV education and awareness, mainly promoting the Catholic teaching on abstinence and faithfulness. For a time too I taught in a private independent school.These same values remain the best antidote to GBV.  Condomise, of course, became the accepted response, even though that was in conflict with church teaching. In practice though many couples and other sexually active people tended to make up their own minds on this and increasing promiscuity resulted.  Unfortunately this uncontrolled approach without a backing in relationship education has contributed to the growth of GBV.

Chris and I, with a number of other couples and priests, introduced Catholic Engaged Encounter, a pre-marriage course, in 1981. After nearly 40 years it has offered preparation for solid marriages to some thousands of couples and has undoubtedly acted to prevent much of the GBV that is so rife even in marriage today. Still today, I believe that relationship education and enrichment from a spiritual foundation is ideal,  recognizing that God’s plan for us is what we ourselves wish, to be  fulfilled and happy. 

Over time we came to realise that there is more to family life than marriage and in 1995 began the movement of which I am still the coordinator: MARFAM, Marriage and Family Life Renewal Ministry. Mainly through publications in print and digital format on a wide range of family relationship and spiritual topics, e.g. parenting skills, the aim has been to build and strengthen families.  We were also asked to promote and start up a programme for troubled marriages known as Retrouvaille in 1997 which is still active today in various centres in South Africa and has helped save many hundreds of marriages.   

The methodology used in these programmes is not counselling per se, but formation and guided sharing of one’s own experience of married and family life.  Religions would refer to this as testimonies.   In cases of addictions and criminal activity, such as GBV, couples would be referred for specialist counselling. In the Catholic network there are few such counselling resources but a number of psychologists and social workers, however operate mainly in private practice.  Some churches do offer counselling services, also bible-based counselling.              

A programme, “How can we help to end violence in Catholic families?” employs my own view that GBV is a family issue, rather than one for women and men, victims and perpetrators, separately.  Training has been provided in dioceses around the country but the programme has not yet been widely implemented. 

I have worked within the wider Catholic network while employed at the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference for 12 years, largely engaged in a Parish Family Ministry programme.  One of the first activities is to  conduct a parish profile from which to establish needs, and from this a spiritual and practical enrichment  programme, together with outsourced specialist needs is promoted. It has not been widely implemented, often for financial reasons.  I have also been part of the DSD National Family Services Forum, which as part of its mandate was responsible for developing the White Paper on Families. This, which is in fact the National Family Policy, also promotes the strengthening of families as the ideal way forward for dealing with social ills and building a well-functioning society with well-functioning and resilient families.    

From a religious or spiritual perspective, and the belief in stable committed relationships living according to God’s plan for human nature, it is naturally a concern that the vast majority of cases of gender-based violence and femicide occur in unstable, poorly formed relationships, where the men and women, themselves or individually, do not have the necessary skills to manage the conflict and stresses that occur.  The number of marriages has decreased over the years and effective relationship preparation is not commonly promoted or used.  Young people enter into sexual relationships far too young and without the necessary maturity.  

Those aspects noted, in my view, are primary causes of gender-based violence. Violence and abuse are sinful and need repentance and a journey towards forgiveness and reconciliation.  Supporting families in this what  “divine intervention” already offers.

Toni Rowland.   19 August 2020

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