By William Keepin, PhD and Rev. Cynthia Brix
“I don’t know how to be a man anymore,” said Tebogo, a 24-year-old from Soweto, South Africa, “I feel traumatized.” Tebogo was visibly shaken, as were many other men and women in the room. They had just heard Siboniso, one of the women, share her heartbreaking story of being brutally raped four months earlier.
It was the third day of an advanced workshop in “Gender Reconciliation” with 12 men and 13 women at a retreat center in Johannesburg, South Africa. The workshop was sponsored by Gender Reconciliation International (GRI), which has developed and piloted a process called Gender Reconciliation in eight countries over the past 21 years. The Gender Reconciliation process creates safe forums for deep truth-telling, healing, and reconciliation between the sexes. The basic premise of Gender Reconciliation is that both women and men are afflicted by gender injustice, and each needs the other for a true and complete healing. Taking a step beyond traditional forms of gender activism, the Gender Reconciliation process brings women and men together—to jointly confront gender injustice, and facilitates a collaborative process that leads to mutual healing, reconciliation, and often forgiveness between the sexes.
“The future of humanity will be decided not by relations between nations, but by relations between women and men, ” said DH Lawrence. Gender injustice and patriarchal oppression characterize every major society across the globe, with devastating consequences. Among the myriad symptoms, violence against women has recently received expanded coverage in the international media. The horrific gang-rape in December, 2012 on a bus in New Delhi, which caused the tragic death of Jyoti Singh, created a global outcry against the horrors of sexual violence. A similar hideous rape and murder of Anene Booysen in February, 2013 caused a similar outcry across South Africa. The so-called “developed” countries are no exception to the injustice; for example in the United States a sexual assault occurs every two minutes (according to U.S. Justice Department statistics). Gender injustice is evident in every country and every segment of society—from bedroom to boardroom, from parliament to parish—regardless of race, religion, culture, or class. Virtually every society on earth is afflicted, and the entire human family lives under a kind of ‘gender apartheid’ between men and women of all sexual orientations.
We sat in circle during the workshop – the women on one side and the men on the other – facing each other. An hour earlier, during the Truth Forum, participants were invited to step into the center and share their truth of pain and suffering as women and men.
“When we share, we speak not as victims,” instructed the woman facilitator, “but as witnesses to our personal stories.” Looking around the circle at each woman and man, she continued. “It is important that we speak truth and acknowledge the stories of our lives.”
Siboniso had been preparing herself for this moment, and summoning great courage she moved to the center. “I was raped,” she began slowly, “and next week I will face my rapist in court.” Siboniso had come to the Gender Reconciliation workshop as a way to prepare for testifying in front of the man who raped her, and the judge who would rule on the case.
Open to women and men of all sexual orientations, the Gender Reconciliation process has been successfully introduced in eight countries —United States, Canada, India, Kenya, Croatia, Colombia, Australia, and most extensively in South Africa—in venues ranging from prisons to schools, universities, religious communities, NGOs, and members of parliament. The methodology combines a broad range of modalities necessary for individual and group safety coupled with skillful navigation through the sometimes delicate or volatile dynamics of transforming gender relations and gender-based violence. Independent monitoring and evaluation of the long-term impacts of GR programs conducted over two years by Phaphama Initiatives, an NGO in Johannesburg and Soweto, concluded that “the Gender Reconciliation programme has the potential to prevent communities from self-destructing because of gender violence and HIV/ AIDS.”
Gender Reconciliation International is partnering with the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation to launch an initiative to apply ʻtruth and reconciliationʼ principles to transforming gender relations between women and men. “For goodness sake, for our sake!” exclaimed Archbishop Desmond Tutu. “Women have to be acknowledged as who they are. We have undermined our humanity by the treatment that we have meted out to women—just as much as racists undermine their humanity by treating others as less than human.” Archbishop Tutu spoke emphatically at the media press conference to formally announce and launch the partnership, held at the Stellenbosch University Tygerberg campus in Cape Town on August 20, 2013.
The initial project of the partnership is to implement GR programs and facilitator training in “Gender Reconciliation” to qualified university students at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. “We come together to collaborate on a partnership that has already shown very good results on this whole question of gender reconciliation,” said the Archbishop.
"Gender Reconciliation is the next step in our logical process as a country,”
said Rev. Mpho Tutu, Executive Director of the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation, and daughter of the Tutus. “The need is in all of our institutions in South Africa,” she said, and “the work of racial reconciliation is never going to be complete without the work of gender reconciliation."
“I feel safe with all of you, and I want to tell you what happened,” Siboniso continued as tears began to well up in her eyes. For the next several minutes, Siboniso recounted in graphic detail the horrific story of her rape. The men sat frozen in their chairs, as many of the women wept. None had ever heard a rape story told in such a direct, personal way.
Siboniso was quivering as she completed her story, and the other women lovingly gathered around her, gently enveloping Siboniso as if in a protected womb. Feeling their tender touch after sharing so openly, Siboniso collapsed into their arms like a flower wilting from the blazing sun.
Gender Reconciliation is not male-bashing, as people sometimes fear. It’s about bringing women and men together, and applying principles of truth and reconciliation to cultivate healing and forgiveness, and to restore mutual respect, honor, and dignity between women and men. The greatest male privilege is not any of the social advantages that are afforded to men in a patriarchal society; the greatest male privilege is for men to play an active role in dismantling the unjust patriarchal system itself. Courageous men in every country we have worked are rising to join with women to embark upon the work of Gender Reconciliation.
“We are inaugurating and announcing this collaboration,” said Archbishop Tutu. Introductory programs in Gender Reconciliation are being conducted at the Stellenbosch University main campus. A daylong pilot workshop was held at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa. From these introductory programs a group of qualified students will be selected to enter a comprehensive training program that will run from January through September, 2014.
Across the circle, the men held a deeply compassionate space as they witnessed Siboniso’s story, and the women’s responses. With great sensitivity, responding to silent gestures from the women facilitators, the male facilitators guided the men to move slowly around the women, keeping a respectful distance. Silently they prayed, as the women completed their grieving process together. Eventually the deep silence in the room was gracefully pierced by the clear ring of the meditation bell.
“You don’t know how to be a man anymore,” one of the male facilitators quietly reflected to Tebogo, “because you have truly heard and opened to Siboniso’s pain. You have taken her pain into your own heart, and so you feel traumatized . . . as we all do. Previously Siboniso carried that pain by herself. Now, you are carrying part of that pain with her. This necessarily changes your identity as a man.”
Siboniso’s story and Tebogo’s experience offer just a brief glimpse of the healing process for transforming gender relations between women and men that sometimes takes place in Gender Reconciliation. Extensive facilitation training and experience are required to bring a group of women and men through an intensive healing process such as this one. Many other examples are documented in our book, Divine Duality (see below).
“Beginning Gender Reconciliation work at Stellenbosch is so completely appropriate, given our history and context,” said Rev. Mpho Tutu. Training young men and women university students in Gender Reconciliation is especially important, because they represent the next generation of leaders who will help transform society, and break the chains of ‘gender apartheid’ that has oppressed women and men across the Rainbow Republic, and beyond.
“If we don’t do gender reconciliation, we can’t do human reconciliation,” said Professor Botman, Vice Chancellor of Stellenbosch University, “and then we can’t do this Constitution [of post-Apartheid South Africa]. And if we can’t do this Constitution, then we have forsaken not only the past, but also the future.”
Gender Reconciliation International is conducting professional facilitator trainings in South Africa, the United States, and Australia, with new trainings scheduled to begin in India and Colombia in 2014. We began training South African facilitators in 2009, and to date approximately 40 facilitators have been certified to lead the Gender Reconciliation process in South Africa.
Gender Reconciliation is needed everywhere, yet exists almost nowhere today. “Stellenbosch University is the first university we are piloting this project, said Rev. Mpho Tutu. “Our hope is that eventually we will be in all of the universities in South Africa.”
For more information about Gender Reconciliation and upcoming programs, please visit www.GRworld.org Several introductory workshops are planned over the next few months in Australia and in several locations across the United States. Gender Reconciliation is documented in our book Divine Duality: The Power of Reconciliation between Women and Men (Hohm Press, 2007).
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This article appears in:
2013 Catalyst - Issue 18