Religious leaders and faith communities can and should play an important role in preventing and responding to gender-based violence. Unfortunately they are often contributing to the beliefs, norms and practices that facilitate and condone this scourge.
Drawing attention to this particular issue is exactly what Dr Elisabet le Roux from the Unit for Religion and Development Research in the Faculty of Theology has been doing for quite some time.
As part of South Africa's Women's Month celebrations, she tells us how her work is making a difference in the lives of women.
Can you tell us more about your research?
My research is empirical and focuses, broadly, on religion and violence, and more specifically on religion and violence against women and girls. I work within the international development arena, where gender-based violence is recognised as a global health, development, humanitarian and human rights issue. My research focuses on how religion, religious leaders and religious communities challenge and contribute to gender-based violence. Recent interfaith work has included Hindu, Islamic and Christian settings.
My research embodies engaged scholarship, as it is all done with and for governments, global faith-based organisations, development networks or local organisations. This means that I am positioned as a partner, committed to producing rigorous knowledge and evidence alongside practitioners. I work quite a bit in conflict-affected settings, and in the last ten years I have secured funding and delivered research projects across 21 countries on four continents.
Why or how did you become interested in this specific area of research?
I started off working in HIV and AIDS, first as a practitioner (during a year spent in the highlands of Lesotho) and then as a researcher within the Unit for Religion and Development Research (URDR) here at Stellenbosch University. But it was during a 2011 research project conducted in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Liberia, on sexual violence against women in conflict-affected settings and the role of churches that I identified the issues and space that I most wanted to work in.
I find it a fascinating and infinitely challenging area of study, for gender-based violence is so varied and complex. The same goes for religion, as it takes on such different forms depending on religious tradition, context and culture. Plus, the fact that all of my research is for and used by practitioners, means that I am motivated by the real-life impact of research findings and their implications and applications.
Why do you think this is such an important area of research for South African women?
What is becoming clear, globally, is that the development gains made by women can be reversed. An obvious and shocking example is the USA, where the backlash to gains in women's sexual and reproductive rights have led to abortion bans in several states. What is often underestimated is the impact of religion on the decisions (in public and private spaces) that curtail women's rights and equality.
Religion can play a central role in challenging the subjugation women are forced to endure and violence committed against them. Unfortunately, religion can also play a central role in upholding this subjugation and condoning the violence. Thus we have to engage with religion if we want to ensure a future where women and girls are free of violence and have their full rights recognised.
What would you consider the greatest impact of your research on women in the country?
I think my research is in many ways provocative, providing empirical evidence of how and why religious leaders and communities can be harmful to women. We need such provocative research to force people and institutions to recognise and admit to the problem. Until we acknowledge that religious spaces are not necessarily safe spaces for many women, we cannot push for change.
But the research does not only provoke; it also offers and recommends alternative ways of doing.
Religious communities can be safe spaces of gender equity, spaces that support survivors and value women. This is possible and has happened – no more excuses!
Do you have any message for the next generation of women researchers?
It would be to work on what you are passionate about. Research is hard work! And in the field that I work in, and the places that I go, you often witness a very dark side of human nature (although there are always rays of light too, in the shape of individuals doing amazing work to counter violence and stigma). But if you work on something that you are passionate about, you have the motivation to overcome obstacles – and there will be obstacles!