By Francesca Merlo
March 8 is a special day in which to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. It also provides an occasion to highlight the plight of millions of girls and women, across the globe, who continue to be marginalized, discriminated against and even assaulted and murdered as they go about their daily lives to provide and care for their families and seek education and improvement for themselves.
Like in South Africa, the country with the highest rate of rape in the world and where, according to a survey conducted by the South African Medical Research Council, approximately one in four men surveyed admitted to committing rape.
That’s why the work and the commitment of women like Mahadi Buthelezi is so important and so challenging.
In an interview with Vatican Radio just ahead of International Women’s Day, Johannesburg-based Mahadi Buthelezi, who works with the South African Catholic Bishops’ Conference “Justice and Peace” and “Family Life” Departments, and who describes herself as a marriage and family life activist, speaks about the power of bringing women from different faiths together and of the urgent need to reach out to the most disadvantaged girls in rural areas.
Every year, on the day before International Women’s Day, “we convene a huge prayer day” in which “women from all walks of life and different denominations” are invited to participate, Mahadi said, pointing to the power of coming together for such a significant cause.
Strength in Unity
“We serve one God, we pray to one God. The only difference we have are our features but we share the same struggles, we share the same challenges, we cry the same way….so joining together as women and as girls from different faiths can show the beauty of God and what God can do,” she said.
Our experience has revealed, Mahadi said that the testimonies of the women show indeed that “God lives in each and every one of us and that God does answer prayers, irrespective of the faith you actually belong to”.
It is precisely in our differences that we form our strength, she continued, “because we get to learn from each other” and “when we all pray, you can actually feel and sense the presence of the Holy Spirit.”
Mahadi explained that the challenges faced by women in South Africa are many: “of course these exist in many other countries too, and on this day we are definitely going to be praying for women all over the world.”
We pray for the alleviation of inequality, she said, and also “that our men, our brothers, our uncles, our husbands, stop abusing us by means of raping us, by means of killing us, because we are actually not as strong as they are.”
And Mahadi said, women in South Africa are not being given the recognition they deserve across the board.
Inequality in the work-place
For example, in Corporate environments, she said, even “if you have the qualifications, you have the skills, you find that you are not given the opportunity of a promotion, instead, it is given and granted to your male counterpart.”
“We are not asking for handouts we are calling for equality on the basis of skill and qualification,” she said, reiterating that when a woman has those skills and qualifications she “truly deserves to be given an opportunity to showcase” herself and t offer her skills and talents.
Poverty and inequality
In countries like South Africa, Mahadi explained, poverty is a major cause of inequality and injustice when it comes to women and girls who are the vulnerable victims of wide-spread “gender-based violence.”
She spoke of the reality in many rural areas where women are isolated also in terms of access to the internet and to information: “they don’t know what is happening around them, they do not know what women in cities, in urban areas are doing.”
She said one of her aims is to reach those women and empower them by helping them gain access to programmes and other means to escape oppression.
Mahadi spoke at length of the terrible reality of rape and sexual violence in her country that continues to destroy the lives of so many and that seems to be an inherent part of a system that keeps women down.
She said daily reports in the news reveal the brutality inflicted on so many of her sisters in South Africa:
“Recently we lost a 17-year-old young girl. She was a first-year university student. She was raped and brutally murdered. And only this year, I think a few days ago, we read on the news that a grandmother of 101 was also raped. And you find children, babies as young as 2-months, 2-years-old that are being raped.”
So, Mahadi said, “we are praying for women who are being raped and are being killed.” “We are praying for women who are unemployed,” and we are praying for the alleviation of inequality.
She said the women, all together, are praying for the governments of Zimbabwe, of South Africa and countries across the world so they may invest more resources in women’s issues, including education, bursaries and assistance in setting up enterprises.
Everything starts from the family
“Those are the kind of things for which we are going to join together, as women from different denominations, as women from all walks of life, to pray.”
Most important, she said: “we are going to be praying for our families because everything actually starts from the family… “We will obviously also be praying for us, women, for God to give us strength, to give us the courage to remain in our faith, and to be able to be our sisters’ keepers.”