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#WomenofSU: Empowering communities through research and faith
Author: Corporate Communication/Korporatiewe Kommunikasie [Rozanne Engel]
Published: 20/08/2020

For Prof Nadine Bowers-du Toit, playing a constructive role in the transformation of Stellenbosch University (SU) and broader society has always been one of her biggest commitments.

Apart from being an Associate Professor in Practical Theology in the Faculty of Theology at SU, she also serves as the Director of the Unit for Religion and Development Research (URDR), which is a female led research unit working at the intersection of faith and development to empower communities.

As part of South Africa Women's Month celebrations, Bowers-du Toit shares insight into her work at URDR and the importance of faith communities helping to alleviate poverty and inequality in civil society.

1.      Can you tell us more about your research?

My research is positioned at the intersection of faith and development. For a number of years my research has focused on the intersection of poverty, inequality and gender with faith and I have largely studied faith responses in this respect. I am particularly passionate about researching the ways in which faith communities contribute to civil society's responses to issues of poverty and inequality. The most recent research project, of which I am the project leader, received a rare grant from the Nagel Centre for World Christianity. The project focuses on the ways in which Christian young adults in the area of Stellenbosch articulate their lived experiences and theologies of inequality and the manner in which these intersect with understandings of social justice, race and reconciliation. I am very privileged to work with a wonderful team of colleagues and students on this. A book project arising from this research is planned for the coming year.

2.      Why or how did you become interested in this specific area of research?

As the daughter of a minister who was committed to social justice as a church leader ministering on the Cape Flats at the height of Apartheid, my research and interest in training clergy and religious community development practitioners was born out of witnessing first-hand the powerful role clergy could play in engaging issues of poverty and injustice. In many ways, I also build on the legacy of my mother and grandmother who are well known for their activism and leadership in community development. The field of Theology and Development was birthed at the Faculty of Theology at SU during my time as an undergraduate student and although I had originally intended to study social work, the field offered a way in which I could combine my two loves of theology and development. In 2005, I became the first person to receive a PhD in this specialised field. There is nothing that excites me more than engaging with church and community leaders about the way in which faith responses can benefit the wellbeing of society.

3.      Why do you think the work you do at the URDR is important for South African women?

The work of the URDR, while broadly dealing with the intersection of religion and development, is specifically focused on the intersection of gender, religion and development. The unit has produced outstanding research on the issue of faith and gender-based violence (GBV) that is used by local and global faith-based organisations as well as organisations such as the World Bank and the United Nations. Currently, we are seeing the rise of the #Churchtoo hashtag – both in South Africa and globally, which yet again emphasises the ways in which religious communities are often complicit in the system of patriarchy and perpetuate misogyny and GBV. The URDR's cutting-edge research not only highlights the ways in which faith communities are complicit, but also make recommendations on how churches can resist and engage this scourge in society.

4.      What would you consider the greatest impact of your research on women in the country?

I recently received WhatsApp and Facebook messages from three women whom I taught many years ago and who today lead faith-based NGOs. They thanked me for my role in their journey and told me that they continue to practise what I taught them within the contexts in which they serve today. I also received a call from a clergywoman I had supervised previously, seeking wisdom in her church's approach to development. Journeying with these women who are working at the coalface of addressing poverty and inequality at grassroots level in our county and on the continent is what I have been called to do. They inspire me in my commitment to the kind of teaching, research and mentorship that will hopefully continue to empower women like them to be agents of social transformation.

5.      Do you have any message for the next generation of women who will continue the work that you are doing?

As a woman of colour in the academy and in a field that has long been male dominated, it is my hope that the generations to come would continue to smash those glass ceilings, armed with the knowledge that they carry the dreams of their foremothers for a more just, equitable world for all.