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May 7, 2012 / Man in the Mirror

Can churches here promote women’s rights?

By Helen Ovbiagele

We urge you to partner with government in some progressive campaigns that promote women’s rights,”  President Zuma of South Africa, was alleged to have told members of the United Congregational Church of South Africa in Kwazulu-Natal, whose female members were celebrating its centenary in Ifafa, Kwazulu-Natal’s south coast.

“Churches and other organizations could help remove certain cultural, religious and traditional practices that are harmful to women and girls, e.g. forced marriages as well as succession and inheritance rights which usually ride roughshod on the rights of women,” he said.

He added that the same level of commitment demonstrated during apartheid era is needed to realize this, and that women in churches must be in the forefront of these struggles.

I was impressed when I read this on the internet. I don’t have the statistics on how women are faring in South Africa, but the little I know about their emancipation shows that there are quite a number of them in government, and some others hold high-profile positions, just like we have here in Nigeria.

For President Zuma to talk about the need for women’s rights to be respected, it means that like us, despite having women in high positions, the rights of many are still held in bondage.  I think it was smart of  him to note that the church has an important role to play in helping the cause of women. This is because religion plays a large role in the general well-being of most Africans.

It’s part of our culture to believe in a supernatural power that oversees our existence.  For many, the church is a place of worship and for finding a solution to whatever problems we might be having.  Or, some of us may actually be there to know the mind of God on how we should live our lives in ways that are acceptable to Him.   But would the church make it a point to promote women’s rights?

There’s no doubt that churches and perhaps other religious bodies are concerned about the plight of women.  In fact, right from the days of the early churches, provision for women has always been on the agenda of churches.  Hence we’re told in the Acts of Apostles that the Greeks complained to the Apostles, that Greek widows were left out of the daily ministrations, whereas the Hebrew widows were well-favoured. A special team had to be set up to see to this.

No present day church is worth its salt if it doesn’t have a welfare department which caters for the poor; particularly widows, orphans, and the destitute.  Members are urged to donate money, clothing and food items to be distributed periodically.  For the well-heeled churches, there’s a staffed free clinic for the sick, scholarships for indigent students and an employment section to seek for jobs for members, especially the young people.  Some churches have special units for widows.  These are very welcome and they certainly go a long way to ease the hardships that many women face in this country.

However, in the area of championing the rights of women in order to uplift their status and see that they’re no longer treated as second class citizens, or subjected to inhuman traditional practices/deprived of their inheritance when they lose their husbands, I can’t see the church here in the forefront. Instead, they are more concerned about meeting their spiritual, financial, food/clothing needs.

They also focus on; ‘submission by women in the home because the man has been created by God to be the head’, being an excellent wife and mother, raising godly children, etc. than actually seeing women as individuals who have their own lives to live and account for to God, and who should be helped to live decent, respectable and qualitative lives, so that they’re empowered to raise worthy citizens for the nation.

I’m not saying that churches are wrong to insist on submission/cooperation by the woman in a union, but they should be mindful of what she’s to be submissive to.  I don’t think our women actually have much problem accepting the man as the head in the home.  In Africa, we’re brought up to acknowledge this, and this is what obtains in many families.

However, what about  the rights of  the woman? Should her body be tampered with at birth because tradition wants her sexual desire curbed for her? Should she be married off at a tender age, and her not yet fully-developed body forced into intimacy and childbirth, with the attendant risk of developing the dreaded VVF, and becoming an outcast?

Should she be battered by her husband because she belongs to him, and therefore has no right to be respected, protected and treated with decency?  Should she be sent away by her husband because she can’t have children, or has only female children?  If she becomes a widow, should her in-laws prevent her and her children from benefitting from what her husband left behind?

We’re not talking about the highly educated women who earn well, occupy good positions and can look after themselves.  Barring some discrimination at their places of work, these ones have a secure future for themselves and their children, whether single, divorced or widowed. They can’t be disinherited at whim because they’re smart enough to tie the loose ends about the property in the family.  Some enlightened parents also make sure that their female children are well-provided for, while they’re still alive.

We’re talking about the majority of Nigerian women; mainly of whom are not equipped for financial independence, and who, along with her children, are exposed to the cruelty of culture and tradition.

Churches should be seriously promoting women’s rights if they really want a godly and righteous nation, because, even though men head most churches, female members are always in the majority.    Women have more time for religion, are more emotionally hinged on religion than the men, and many of them seek solutions for problems confronting them and their families, from the church.

Women in churches cannot on their own succeed in promoting women’s rights, because most churches are headed by men, many of whom have not shown that they are convinced that women should have those rights they’re clamouring for.  Even where a woman heads a church, she has to be careful about what she promotes as women’s rights, if she doesn’t want to lose male membership, and incur the displeasure of the wider church body (headed by men, of course) which may isolate her and her church for her ‘radical’ views.

We still have a long way to go before churches in Africa will be totally committed to promoting women’s rights.

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