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South African expert on gender, religion and health

An interview with Sarojini Nadar of the University of KwaZulu-Natal

November 14, 2011

Geneva

Sarojini Nadar is a theologian and academic from South Africa who has work on the issues of gender, religion and health for many years.

She is currently serving as senior lecturer and director of the Gender and Religion program, School of Religion and Theology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Nadar has been deeply involved with churches to raise awareness about women’s health in communities, challenging patriarchal values and working for gender justice.

As part of the World Council of Churches (WCC) initiative ― “Gender inequity and its impact on health: Created in the image of God” ― of inviting congregations and individual Christians to make November a month of health and healing, and launching biblical meditations on gender, reproductive and sexual health, Nadar was interviewed by WCC Communications.

What are the main issues faced by women in relation to their health and well being, as impacted by gender inequity?

It is significant to note health is not necessarily the absence of illness, but is a state of holistic well being in all aspects of one’s life–physical, emotional, mental, social and of course spiritual. Gender inequity unfortunately impacts on each of these aspects of well being, causing not just an imbalance in society, but even may lead to physical death. The most poignant example of this is the HIV and AIDS pandemic in South Africa. Gender inequity is a significant factor in the sexual transmission of HIV and at the same time influences treatment, care and support. HIV has become known as a gendered pandemic due to socio-political contexts of our societies.

What solutions can churches offer to ensure the good health of women in communities?

There are a number of spaces that exist and can be created for women to pursue healthier options that lead to their well-being. Space will not allow a discussion of all of these, but I would think that one of the most powerful spaces is church women’s organizations.

These organizations can provide the space for women to become agents of change and to challenge the patriarchal status quo. Unfortunately, these organizations have become “patriarchal mouthpieces” as opposed to becoming spaces for transformation. The only way in which these spaces can be reclaimed is if women themselves have a strong sense of gender justice and equity.

Furthermore, harmful cultural practices such as “widow cleansing” (a traditional practice in which widows are expected to have sexual relations, often with a relative of their late husband, in order to secure property within the family), female genital mutilation, preparing women for unequal gender relations in marriage, all continue to fuel the HIV pandemic. Often it is women who uphold these practices.

How do you see the role of churches supporting women in their quest for equity and good health?

A number of studies on gender inequality and violence show that despite the impressive national machinery, gender inequality and gender violence remain at unacceptably high levels. This is why more than ever the role of the churches is so important.

One of the significant ways of reaching people is through the sacred text – the Bible. The Bible is filled with resources to challenge gender inequity and to show the ways in which gender inequity leads to illness and death. These biblical texts are far too many to mention, but perhaps at the heart of the issue is the issue of human dignity – addressing what it means to be created in the image of God.

How do you understand the biblical phrase “Created in the image of God”?

The Middle-Eastern myth of the origins of creation found in the Hebrew Bible has not only entrenched itself in cultures across the world but has served to establish and legitimate a hierarchy of gender relations in society, purely because of the understanding that a woman was created from a man’s rib.

As Phyllis Trible has noted, “Throughout the ages people have used this text to legitimate patriarchy as the will of God. They maintained that it subordinates woman to man in creation, depicts her as his seducer, curses her, and authorizes man to rule over her.” A Bible study that calls into question the notion that women were created from a rib, instead of half of the first earthling adama, can do much to entrench the view that women are fully created in the image and likeness of God and that, therefore, violence against women means “violence against God”.

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