Tuesday, 08. March 2022

South Africa: Women Break Their Silence

Violence in the Shadow of the COVID-19 Pandemic


Gender-based violence is the most widespread, yet least visible violation of human rights worldwide. It particularly affects women and girls in South Africa. The violence often takes place behind closed doors, behind the façade of a seemingly intact family life. And in the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic, the perpetrators have it all too easy. But one group of committed women from the Moravian Church in South Africa (MCSA) no longer wants to accept this. 

“Head throbbing… I could not distinguish if it were because of crying, not getting in a minute of sleep or the constant head slamming experience from the night before. Every single muscle in my body was aching. I had to compose myself because I was not allowed to feel anything, for I was in that position because of my own doing. Everything I went through was my fault, every obstacle we faced was because of me. I was reminded of this all the time and before he left that morning, “you look this way because you choose to go against me and my beliefs. If you would only obey me, your life would be so easy.” He got into the car and drove off and as he left a voice in my head said, “You will die here if you don’t leave right now”.

34-year-old Josephine* from Cape Town has often heard this inner voice. But this morning she can no longer ignore it. She packs her belongings and leaves. She finally manages to leave her partner – after more than ten years of humiliation, recrimination and violence. „I thank God for saving me. I could have easily ended up as a crime statistic,“ she says in retrospect.

Not all women muster as much strength or are as lucky as Josephine. South Africa is a country where gender-based violence (GBV) has become an almost daily occurrence. One in five women is physically or emotionally abused by her husband or partner. According to police statistics, a rape takes place every 26 seconds and a woman is murdered every three hours. This puts the number of femicides (femicide: killing of women and girls because of their gender) in South Africa at six times higher than the global average. And Covid-19 has made things even worse.

"The number of femicides in South Africa is six times higher than the global average."

Since the beginning of the pandemic, gender-based violence in South Africa has reached alarming proportions. For example, the South African Police Service (SAPS) reported around 2,300 emergency calls from women in the first week of the lockdown in spring 2020 alone. Due to the lockdown, many were forced to spend the day and night with their partner in a confined space. The restrictions in public life offered practically no alternatives to avoid their situation. So, many men gave vent to their frustration, stress and fears of the future in aggression – often under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Activists demonstrate against gender-based violence. (Photo: Sonke Gender Justice)

Multiple Root Causes of Violence

In South Africa, GBV is now referred to as a „shadow pandemic“ and this points to a fundamental social problem in the country: the low status and low social standing of women. There is a lack of respect for their dignity, their lives and their safety. But why is GBV so widespread in South Africa in particular? Many studies found that the root causes of GBV result from imbalances of power between genders or discriminatory patriarchal practices against women based on individual, community, economic, cultural and religious aspects. Researchers are increasingly using an “ecological framework” developed by the WHO to understand the interplay of personal and socio-cultural factors.

South Africa continues to be an unequal society based on social class perspectives. The apartheid system made sure that people were placed in different racial groups. In many cases, people were forcefully removed depending on their racial groups and relocated far away from their original places of residence and employment. Many suffered the im-pact of these removals and expressed their anger and dissatisfaction through violence.

Physical and Mental Impacts

Gender-based violence often has many health risks for the women affected and it sometimes impacts on women’s well-being throughout their entire lives. In most cases, their mental health also sustains deep wounds. Mental illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression or anxiety are widespread among the victims of violence. Survivors of sexual violence also repeatedly experience ostracism, stigmatisation and victim-shaming by their communities. They may also have to cope with the health and emotional consequences of sexually transmitted diseases – around seven million people in South Africa live with HIV. 

The South African justice system often fails the women who are victims. The courts are piled high with 82,000 unresolved cases of gender-based violence that have not yet been scheduled for trial. The police often play down the problems relating to domestic violence, regarding them as a private matter. In cases of sexual assault, many women experience that the perpetrators are protected by the legal system and get off scot-free. The mere attempt to report a case to the police authorities can therefore be deeply humiliating for female victims of violence and result in further traumatisation.

Mother and child in Elim: During the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a sharp rise in domestic violence against women and children in South Africa. (Photo: EMS/Lohnes)

Growing Public Protest

So far, the Republic of South Africa has failed to successfully curb the rampant epidemic of violence. However, the unimaginable brutality against women and the apparent inability of the judicial system to effectively help the victims and hold the perpetrators to account are causing increasing outrage in South African public opinion. Numerous women‘s rights organisations and church groups are now raising their voices. One of them is the „Anti-GBV Resource Group“ of the Moravian Church in South Africa (MCSA). It was founded in August 2020 at the height of the first coronavirus wave by theologian Angelene Swart, nurse Lettice Joemath, social worker Eleanor Slamat and entrepreneur Rozan Newfeldt.

„Our women are rightly terrified, exhausted and frustrated that men weaponize their physical strength and sexuality against us,“ say the four women. “Our women who are gripped with fear and pain are part of our families, friends, communities and congregations. Why then are we and our church so silent on this matter? For us it was time to stop talking about GBV and femicide and take action. Enough is enough.”

The Anti-GBV Resource Group has made it its goal to support the MCSA in overcoming this intolerable situation – a „mammoth task“, as the group members themselves point out. The need for action is great. „Violence against women is a reality even in our church and our congregations. We want to raise awareness about this and provide a forum for exchange.“



Sharing Information and Raising Awareness

The four women meet at their homes about once a month, in person or virtually as the pandemic circumstances dictate. The group is still in the starting phase: “First, we gathered information from our local NGO’s, from newspapers, media networks, United Nations, WHO and interviewed individuals. We wrote up our findings to have the most up to date information and to educate ourselves.”

Among other things, they were in contact with Dr Genine Josias at the Karl Bremer Hospital in Bellville, South Africa. In the treatment and rehabilitation of rape and violence victims, Dr Josias and her team use a holistic therapy approach with the aim of restoring the dignity and self-respect of the victims.

In November 2020, the Anti-GBV Resource Group hosted the first session of its newly started “Shadow Conversations” reading and discussion group. This offering focuses on reading and sharing literature on GBV. The book they started with was “No visible bruises... what we don’t know about domestic violence can kill us” by the American author Rachel Louise Snyder. According to the initiators, the response to the literature circle was extremely encouraging: “The 15 participants, men and women, find the content and discussions insightful, inspiring, hopeful and motivating. They enjoyed the interaction, but also felt guilty for not taking action or speaking out against this onslaught on our women. The reading inspires the participants to take action.” Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the reading group was unable to meet as often as originally planned. However, the „Shadow Conversations“ will definitely be continued.

“We volunteer our time, our experience and resources.”

Anti-GBV Resource Group in South Africa

Currently, the group is supporting their church in preparing and planning workshops for male and female pastors on violence against women. An Anti-GBV programme for theology students of the Moravian Church Seminary has already taken place. They are planning more workshops for presentation in the 10 districts of the MCSA when funds become available. The Anti-GBV Resource Group works purely on a voluntary basis and is not funded.

Furthermore, the four women are in the process of compiling a handbook for distribution in the congregations of the Moravian Church. The handbook contains the definition, cycle of violence, root causes, risk factors, impact and possible action steps and resources of GBV. They are also considering a video to complement the handbook. 

Angelene Swart, Lettice Joemath, Eleanor Slamat, Rozan Newfeldt

Background Information


We would like to thank the Sonke Gender Justice organisation for providing us with visual material for this article.


The Moravian Church in South Africa (MCSA) is one of two EMS member churches in Africa. It has just under 45,000 members in 90 congregations. Its church leaders consist of delegates from the twelve church districts and a three-member Executive Board elected by the Synod. Reverend Martin Abrahams is President of the MCSA. David William Daniels from the MCSA has been sitting on the EMS Mission Council in an advisory capacity as a youth representative since June 2021.