YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Dealing with gender-based violence can be helped with the lessons learned in the fight against the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, the bishops of South Africa say.

In a June 16 statement sent to Crux, the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference (SACBC) Justice and Peace Commission said it strongly and unreservedly condemns the recent surge of gender based violence and femicide that has once again reared its ugly head nationwide since the country entered alert level 3 of COVID-19 lockdown.”

“We are calling for a process of rethinking the approach to gender-based violence and femicide, drawing parallels from the response to the COVID-19 pandemic that witnessed the involvement of government departments, business sector, civil society and ordinary citizens in their efforts to flatten the infection curve,” the statement says.

The bishops said if government departments, business sector and civil society could pool their financial resources and, along with ordinary citizens, comply with stringent physical and social distancing measures in the fight against COVID-19, then “we are of the view that it is possible for a similar aggressive and holistic approach to be used in the fight of gender-based violence and femicide.”

At least 21 women and children have been murdered in South Africa during the lockdown, five of them this June alone.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa last week said that although “their killers thought they could silence them … we will not forget them, and we will speak for them where they cannot.”

Ramaphosa called gender-based violence a “second pandemic” in the country where COVID-19 has infected over 97,000 people and killed 1,930.

“As a country, we find ourselves in the midst of not one, but two, devastating epidemics. Although very different in their nature and cause, they can both be overcome – if we work together, if we each take personal responsibility for our actions and if we each take care of each other,” the president said on June 17.

“It is with the heaviest of hearts that I stand before the women and girls of South Africa this evening to talk about another pandemic that is raging in our country – the killing of women and children by the men of our country. As a man, as a husband and as a father, I am appalled at what is no less than a war being waged against the women and children of our country,” he continued.

“At a time when the pandemic has left us all feeling vulnerable and uncertain, violence is being unleashed on women and children with a brutality that defies comprehension. These rapists and killers walk among us. They are in our communities. They are our fathers, our brothers, our sons and our friends; violent men with utterly no regard for the sanctity of human life.”

The bishops said gender-based violence can be overcome if everyone played their part.

“The culture of bystanderism needs to be eradicated from our midst as gender-based violence thrives in a climate of silence,” the statement says.

“We must all work with government to ensure a safer society for women and children. It is the responsibility of government to eradicate the scourge through legislation, tough police action and hefty court sentences to perpetrators.”

The bishops said the Church must do its part, and called on all parishes to provide care and to preach a clear message that God says “No” to the violence inflicted by men on women and children.

“God created our whole being: Heart, mind and body. Those bodies that are being assaulted are loved by Christ. These bodies remain precious. God grieves deeply when we inflict gender-based violence on anyone. We believe that recovery from being violent is possible. Change is possible. The Church must hold us accountable for what we do. It must lead perpetrators to get the help they need. We must also work towards the healing of the victims. Our work must be to educate and to prevent gender-based violence. We as Church have contributed to this scourge through our denial, our silence, our resistance and our lack of preparation. Forgive us,” the statement continues.

The bishops also said the Church will continue to work for the prevention and restoration of the social fabric which include pushing for change in “toxic masculinities” and social norms that drive gender-based violence perpetration.