Faith and the Fragility of Justice: Religious Responses to Gender-Based Violence in South Africa

Doctoral Dissertation


In this project, I examine how three Protestant Christian non-governmental organizations in South Africa that were involved in the struggle against apartheid have recognized gendered inequality and violence. While they share important similarities, the organizations vary in how they perceive gender-based violence (GBV) to pertain to broader questions of justice. The differences in their approaches to GBV are partly due to structural influences, both internal and external, that have governed the organizations’ actions over time. Their responses are contingent upon their constituencies (including particular denominational connections), relation to the political sphere, internal organizational structure, and dependence upon particular resources. Yet, while these factors are important, they do not fully explain the variation in the organizations’ responses to GBV.

I contend that the organizations’ theological cultures play a central role in the constitution of their responses to GBV. That is, we cannot understand the organizations’ approaches to GBV without taking into account how the content of the cultural schemas that they have developed over time is transposed to GBV. Their theological cultures stem from differing interpretations of the Christian message, and are rooted in the organizations’ constituencies but are also semi-autonomous from them. These theological cultures establish routinized patterns of discourse, creating a path dependency for their responses to GBV.

My argument about the centrality of cultural schemas acknowledges the influence of structural factors and incorporates cultural forces in a multi-causal explanation of social life (Weber 1905 [2010]; 1994). It sees culture as irreducible to underlying structural forces, and perceives its causal power. I argue that the cultural schemas that are developed in the organizations shape how the problem of GBV is defined institutionally (see Polletta 2008:84-86). They each recognize GBV as a social problem, but they differ in their perceptions of what exactly it is a problem about. This has practical consequences for whether and how they address it, net of structural conditions. I show here that the organizations’ responses to GBV, an issue that emerged in broad public awareness in the context of the transition to democracy in South Africa, are rooted in their historical patterns of discourse. Thus I also build an “endogenous” explanation of culture’s social power: the organizations’ cultural patterns established in apartheid explain their cultural patterns of discourse concerning GBV (Kaufman 2004). I demonstrate that the content of the cultural schemas developed by the organizations is contingent and fragile, but also remarkably consistent over time, in ways that directly impact their discourse and actions around GBV.


Attribute NameValues
  • etd-04022015-174038

Author Meredith Chase Whitnah
Advisor Mary Ellen Konieczny
Contributor Paul Kollman, Committee Member
Contributor Robert Fishman, Committee Member
Contributor Mary Ellen Konieczny, Committee Chair
Contributor Lyn Spillman, Committee Member
Contributor Christian Smith, Committee Member
Degree Level Doctoral Dissertation
Degree Discipline Sociology
Degree Name PhD
Defense Date
  • 2014-12-17

Submission Date 2015-04-02
  • United States of America

  • gender-based violence

  • South Africa

  • gender

  • culture

  • Religion

  • University of Notre Dame

  • English

Record Visibility Public
Content License
  • All rights reserved

Departments and Units


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