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New Gender Unit at the Beyers Naudé Centre, Faculty of Theology
Author: Marita Snyman
Published: 31/03/2017


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Caption: Prof Amanda Gouws (Guest speaker); Dr Charlene van der Walt (Gender Unit); Prof Julie Claassens (Gender Unit) and Prof Sarojini Nadar (Main speaker) during the launch of the Gender Unit on 28 March 2017

Maternal health and infant mortality are two of the United Nations' Millennium Goals. In SA and the rest of Africa, women and children are particularly vulnerable in the face of the following:  HIV/AIDS (which can be described as a gendered pandemic); caring for the sick and the elderly; poverty and sexual violence.

The Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch University, together with partners in South Africa (University of KwaZulu-Natal), in Tanzania (TUMA University) and Ethiopia (Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology) took up this challenge and each institution developed a unique Master's program in Gender, Health and Theology/Religion that sought to address the grim reality. Unique to this program is also the association with NGO's that markedly strengthens the academic program's social impact.

At Stellenbosch University, the MTh Gender and Health since 2013 has seen each year 10 diverse and very interesting Master's students from all over the country as well as beyond its borders come together in order to grapple with the complex intersection of Gender, Health and Theology.

The impact of this program is evident in the many beautiful success stories since its inception. Most of its students are church leaders in a prime position to effect change in their respective communities. Moreover, this program also draws some non-traditional students. To mention but one example: Renate van der Westhuizen is a schoolteacher at a private school that caters for children experiencing learning difficulties in traditional schools. As the Deputy Head of the school, she spends quite a bit of time counselling students and over the years has seen a great number of children who were victims of rape and sexual assault, leading her to her thesis topic "Rape as Torture: Re-reading the Rape of the Levite's Concubine in Judges 19." It was inspiring to see how this study has transformed her, and in some significant ways the school setting where she is teaching. She regularly started to address the topic of rape into her classes. Her continued commitment to educate students and colleagues on the reality of sexual violence in schools is evident in that for the first time a sexual violence workshop was held in 2016 for teachers in her school. She was invited to attend a Department of Higher Education workshop where she was asked to give a presentation on possible curricular changes with regard to addressing the reality of sexual violence in schools.

The success of the MTh Gender and Health program has led the personnel to explore new opportunities for teaching and research on the intersection of Gender, Health and Theology that already has exhibited a definite social impact in faith communities as well as in the society at large. Stellenbosch University Vice-Rector: Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies, Prof Eugene Cloete, initiated the Gender Unit at the Faculty of Theology. The Head, Prof Juliana Claassens, as well as the Research and Program Coordinator, Dr Charlene van der Walt hope to contribute to the formation of a world where racism, sexism, homophobia and the dehumanizing reality of poverty is no more by amongst others:

  • Raising funds for PhD scholarships for research on Gender, Health and Theology and so helping to cultivate thought leaders who can go back to their respective communities in order to serve as agents of change.
  • Creating a community of scholars who, through their research, contribute to the establishment of a centre of excellence that contextually explains the intersection of Gender, Health and the various sub-disciplines of Theology. Courtesy of Prof Eugene Cloete, the Gender Unit was able to appoint its first postdoctoral fellow, the very talented and experienced Dr Funlola Olojede, born in Nigeria.
  • Building networks on campus, with FBO's, NGO's and faith communities, and with scholars nationally as well as internationally in order to stimulate discourse on various aspects of the intersection of Gender, Health and Theology with the goal of cultivating an ethos that affirms the dignity of all people and resist all forms of discrimination