Working towards gender justice

South African Faith and Family Institute (SAFFI) director Elizabeth Petersen.

The South African Faith and Family Institute (SAFFI) believe that religious leaders and faith-based groups can play a big role in addressing issues of gender-based violence.

Saffi was among various organisations and religious groups which came together to discuss the findings of their latest reports at a conference on Thursday July 27 at the University of the Western Cape (UWC).

Saffi director Elizabeth Petersen spoke on the lessons they had learnt from their strategies of engaging religious leaders and faith communities on issues of violence against women and intimate partner abuse and their journey over the past nine years.

In her report, Ms Petersen said gender-based violence against women and girls and domestic violence ranked among of the most prevalent human rights violations of our time and one of the biggest South African problems.

“Violence against women in particular is a serious problem as horrific stories of intimate partner violence has become an everyday occurrence,” she said.

Ms Petersen said they found themselves in a catch-22 situation in the beginning as they were in contact with women who wanted the abuse to stop but not necessarily for their relationship to end, while other women didn’t feel that their spiritual needs were met when dealing with domestic help service providers.

Ms Petersen said this was where Saffi came into the picture, by bringing together religious leaders and faith-based communities to work on the root causes and faith dimensions of domestic violence and intimate partner violence.

Saffi was established with the aim of working with both intra- and inter-faith context.

The ethos of Saffi’s work is guided and shaped by values of faith and family, respect and human dignity, compassion and ubuntu and conversation and dialogue.

In Saffi’s research, it has been found that many women of faith who are victims in abusive and domestic relationships are longing for more comprehensive responses to their personal crises.

“These women, whose identity lies within their religious faith, often face the dilemma of having to leave their faith community if they walk out of an abusive relationship,” said Ms Petersen.

According to, Ms Petersen’s report, South African women live in one of the most religious societies, with at least 90% of the population subscribing to religious practices.

Abdul-Kariem Matthews, from the Desmond Tutu Centre for Spirituality and Society, said it was their belief that the only way to prevent gender-based violence is to radically transform harmful gender stereotypes.

“This is why we work with organisations such as Saffi to promote not only gender equality but gender justice and this way we can hopefully challenge and transform social structures that pressure men to be violent against women and women against each other.”

Ms Petersen said it was important for Saffi to understand the concept of using faith and culture as a resource to bring about change. She said religious leaders needed to change from a hierarchical approach to a relational approach when it comes to their thinking and teachings.