Women, war and the Angolan churches

By Juan Michel
August 26, 2009

The armed conflict in Angola ended seven years ago, but the consequences of four decades of war are felt still today. And women seem to be bearing the brunt of the suffering.

"We do not have an open conflict right now," says Josefina Sandemba, a pastor from the Evangelical Congregational Church in Angola (IECA) who spoke to a team visiting the country on behalf of the World Council of Churches in late July, "but guns keep taking their toll within communities still today."

After a 14 year war for independence from Portugal ended in 1975, Angola sank into a 27-year civil war which killed hundreds of thousands of people, left many internally displaced and devastated the economy and infrastructure of a country rich in mineral and agricultural resources.

The civil war pitted the South African-supported Angolan rebel group UNITA (the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) against the ruling Soviet and Cuban-backed Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). At the same time, the South African military was engaged in constant battles with Cuban forces and with guerrillas fighting for the independence of Namibia, then a South African colony.

Despite the current post-war reconstruction boom - Angola is one of Africa's major oil producers - the World Bank estimates that two thirds of its population of 17.5 million live on less than two US dollars a day. Life expectancy is about 41 years for men and 44 years for women.

"Almost every family has been affected one way or another by the long decades of war. As a consequence, major situations of trauma are widespread," says Sandemba, who is responsible for the women's work at the Council of Christian Churches (CICA) in Angola.

In this, women pay the highest price, adds Sandemba, speaking to the WCC group that is called Living Letters and which seeks to provide support through visits to areas of conflict. "They live with former combatants, now demobilised, or with relatives who have suffered amputations or other injuries and in many cases they live under the poverty line."

In Luanda, the country's capital, "women typically leave home at 3am to look for saleable goods and often walk through the whole city, sometimes pregnant or carrying little children," she explained. "When they reach home, at about 10pm, they might have earned 200 kwanzas [less than three US dollars], but if sales were not good, there may not be anything for dinner."

Exhausting work to feed their families is not the only hardship women face in Angola. Although statistical data are nonexistent or unreliable, concern about growing levels of violence against women both at home and on the streets is widespread.

Paulo de Almeida, the national police chief has reportedly said that "rapes are taking place daily", which constitutes a worrying and growing "phenomenon that nobody can explain". But women do not seem to be safer in their homes either.

"The issue of domestic violence is taking frightening dimensions," says the Rev José Antonio, General Secretary of the Evangelical Reformed Church of Angola (IERA). This happens mainly in Luanda, but also in other places, he adds.

The causes of this increase are complex. "The war has left a heritage of misery as well as an impact on the culture and domestic violence is one of its outcomes," notes the Rev Rui García Filho, General Secretary of the Evangelical Baptist Church in Angola.

For Noé Alberto, a member of the Mennonite Church who is responsible for CICA's Justice and Peace department, the post-war period, "has brought an inversion in traditional gender roles."

Men who feel disempowered see the active role assumed by their female partners as a threat to their identities and violence appears all too often as a response.

In the heart of Petrangol, a poor neighbourhood with bumpy and dusty streets on the outskirts of Luanda, the headquarters of the Young Women's Christian Association are filled with laughter as some 15 young women enthusiastically participate in a literacy session.

Mariana Afonso, a 24-year-old member of the IERA and a mother of five, told the Living Letters group about the difference that being able to read has made in her life. "A husband shows a different kind of respect if you are able to read." Another young woman added, "And you do not have to take it anymore from anyone who lies to you".

"In addition to learning reading and writing skills they also discuss social problems and together seek solutions," says literacy teacher Juliana Feliciano, a member of IECA. "I help them to discover what they already know," says Feliciano, who says her role is more that of an adviser.

Learning literacy skills is important in a context in which war, poverty and cultural patterns that privilege boys, converge to postpone girls' education. The CICA ran a three-year "Literacy for social change" programme with groups in 13 provinces until 2007.

Lack of funding is an ever-present obstacle. The women's department focus on psycho-social work on war traumas has been scaled down and its project of a dedicated centre seeks more donor support. "Whilst the international community sees Angola as a rich country, communities are lacking the most basic things and donors' requirements often do not take into account our reality," says CICA relief and development director, António Lopes.

Today, the CICA women's department offers capacity building for small business and the use of microcredit, as well as seminars on gender equality at its member churches' premises. "As the supremacy of men above women is still a fact today, in order to overcome domestic violence we need to work with the new generations," says Sandemba.

In spite of the many difficulties, CICA's general secretary, the Rev Luis Nguimbi, is optimistic. "When guns spoke loudly, churches contributed to achieve peace. Today, churches are confronting domestic violence - this will also become part of history."


Juan Michel is the World Council of Churches' media officer.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]

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