By Annemarie Paulin-Campbell

We are in the midst of the international awareness campaign: 16 days of activism for no violence against women and children. The statistics for domestic violence, rape, and child abuse in our country remain horrific. Current figures suggest that over 40% of South African women are raped in their life-time. Some sources suggest that as many as 41% of those raped are under the age of 12.

While exact figures may vary, depending on the source, it is clear that violence, and sexual violence, in particular, is a huge issue. While it is still largely an issue for women, there are men who are victims of sexual violence. For men there is perhaps even a greater stigma attached.

 How do we change the culture of violence that is so prevalent in our society? Changing the way we police and prosecute is only one piece of the puzzle. To address the root of the problem, we have to start with boys and girls. Children who grow up with a strong and healthy sense of their own dignity and self-worth are less likely to act out in ways that dominate or control. They are also less likely to remain in abusive situations. The self-esteem of adults is largely shaped by the dignity and respect with which they are treated as children.

 Issues of gender and sexual violence need to be addressed in schools where many young people are raped or molested by teachers or fellow-learners. From primary school, children need to be taught how to deal appropriately with feelings of anger or frustration, how to treat other people and respect them as separate from me and how to respect the privacy and dignity of their own and other’s bodies – in age appropriate ways. They need to know who they can talk to if they experience abuse of any kind and that they will be taken seriously.

 How do we inculcate important values like respect for the dignity of the other, compassion, equality, and a deep sense of the value of life? Children re-enact what they themselves witness and experience. Often violence has its roots in the perpetrator’s own experience as a victim of violence. It is not words alone which have value, but seeing values being expressed and lived out concretely. It is tragic that this is often lacking, even, and perhaps especially, at the highest levels of leadership in our country. At the launch of this year’s 16 days campaign, Zuma’s words about the seriousness of violent crimes against women and the need to report them, rang rather hollow in the light of the shadows that remain over his own attitudes towards women.

 It is our responsibility to model a different way of interacting with each other that reflects our Christian values.

 In Advent, the readings give us the perspective of the fulfilment of hope that is promised. Advent also offers us an invitation to engage with issues which are obstacles to that reign of God’s peace and love in the world. Gender-based violence needs our urgent and sustained attention.

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