Today is National Women’s day in South Africa. By making this a public holiday in South Africa, the government is obviously trying to focus on the rights of women to be treated with equal respect as men and to eradicate all forms of discrimination against women – a laudable desire indeed. However, looking at the people in the communities where we minister in Swaziland, another picture arises. And I am sure the same can be said for most of the rural areas in South Africa and probably in many other countries in Africa as well. While girls are in their parents’ home, they have to bow before the authority of their fathers and other males in the family and once they are married, they have to bow before the authority of their husbands. I can fortunately say that there are quite a number of families that we know very well where it does seem as if there is real respect between the husbands and wives. In most, if not all of the cases, the men are Christians who also wish to live out their faith in the way in which they relate to their spouses and families.
I cannot speak on behalf of the whole of Africa, but in sub-Saharan Africa where I have visited a number of countries or have contact with churches, by far the majority of church members are women. It is as if many men tend to think that Christianity is below their dignity. This becomes a problem in a certain way, as the Christian women feel that they should submit to their husbands but at the same time their husbands sometimes expect things from them which is in stark contrast to the women’s faith in Jesus Christ.
The women of our church (this is very common in Africa) have a women’s conference every year, where the female members of the church from all over Swaziland gather for a weekend (usually in September) to discuss issues which are relevant to them. My wife got so frustrated with these gatherings at one stage, because year after year the theme would be something like: How to live as a Christian in a married relationship. It just seemed as if no final answer could ever be formulated.
In these times of HIV and AIDS, the problem becomes much more severe. What does a Christian woman do if she suspects that her unbelieving husband is involved in extra-marital affairs? What does she do if her husband is working on the mines somewhere in South Africa, only comes home once in every two or three months (or even once in six months!) and she knows that he is having sex with prostitutes at the mine hostels?
In August 2006 a large number of Reformed churches gathered in Nigeria for a consultation, where they discussed, amongst other things, the church’s attitude towards HIV/AIDS. A question was posed: Would the churches protect a woman if she suspected her husband of infidelity, and would they support her in her refusal to have sex with him in those circumstances? Eventually a resolution was adopted which said that both men and women have the right to refuse sex with a spouse, should they suspect the other partner of infidelity. Different people were then asked to respond to this decision and it seemed as if I was the only one who did respond (or at least who questioned the decision), because I later found out that special reference had been made to me in a report about this meeting. My main concern was not whether the woman had the right to refuse sex with her husband should he be involved in extra-marital affairs. My concern was what would happen to her, should she refuse. In Africa a term which is being used more and more, is domestic rape. When reading books and articles written especially by women in Africa, it becomes clear that this is becoming a tremendous problem. In short, when reading these articles and listening to the voices of many of these women, I doubt whether the decision by the Nigerian church is feasible.
Increasingly we find that devoted Christian women are succumbing to the effects of HIV/AIDS, not because they were untrue to their husbands, but because they were unfortunate enough to be married to a man who lived an adulterous life.
Can a government’s decision to have a public holiday which focuses on women’s rights change this? I doubt it. If the men of Africa do not submit to the authority of God, then I cannot see how this will ever change.
Someone asked me a question today: Why would someone want to keep on believing in Christ if everything around them seems to tell them it is hopeless? I couldn’t really give an answer. But let me explain what led to this question.
The group of students from Ottawa in Canada arrived on Saturday and since Monday they have been involved in the community surrounding one of our church buildings. It started with home visits and this grew into the repairing of a water hole within one of the communities where people fetch their drinking water from a spring.
Today we once again went into the homes to visit people – some of whom are going into their final stages of full-blown AIDS. One of the homesteads I visited today consists of about three different homes, but only one of them have people living in them at this stage. This is an old woman living there with her grandson. She had thirteen children of which ten have already died. She didn’t say so, but we know from experience that most if not all of them had died due to AIDS. So now she has three children left. One son lives in Johannesburg in South Africa and has no contact with her. She is not sure what happened to the second son. The third sun is a deaf-mute and mentally retarded. He lives in another area. His son of seven stays with her, as her son’s wife has also died. The grandson is also a deaf-mute. Furthermore she can’t walk. I’m not sure what is wrong with her feet (sometimes I just wish that I had more medical knowledge), so wherever she wants to go, she has to walk on her knees. Don’t think for one moment that this house looks like our houses! She sleeps on a grass mat on a floor made with cow dung! Outside the hut there are no grass – only sand and stones. The toilet (a hole in the ground) is about fifty metres from her hut. She has to walk on her knees to get there! I’ve heard the story of James who supposedly had knees like those of a camel because he was praying so much. I have never seen anyone with knees like a camel – until today!
And she keeps on believing in God and that God loves her!
Why would someone want to keep on believing in Christ if everything around them seems to tell them it is hopeless.
I really don’t know.