Justice and Compassion for All


Justice and Compassion for All

By Bernedette Muthien

Cape Town, South Africa

 In 2005 the World Health Organisation and Amnesty International published results of their respective multi-country studies over several years. Each report clearly showed that a third of all women around the world are violated (by men). The United Nations estimates that one billion women are violated. This is the entire population of the subcontinent of India. One billion women violated in every village and city in the world.

A Buddhist teaching asks how one responds to a particularly vexing problem. It suggests that an appropriate response should focus less on justice, and more on compassion. After 20 years of Apartheid in South Africa, 300 years of colonialism, genocide and slavery, this emphasis of compassion over justice greatly troubled me, until I realised that even perpetrators violate from a deep space of feeling victimised, much like when we express road rage at other motorists. Indeed, many perpetrators of violence are themselves survivors of violence. This helps one understand indigenous methods of restorative justice over Eurocentric retributive justice.

The Buddhism in this teaching, an ancient religion founded 6th to 4th centuries CE, now practiced worldwide, profoundly connects with what is called pan-African humanism, or Ubuntu, popularised by two of South Africa’s Nobel Peace Laureates, President Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Ubuntu speaks less of the Descartian notion of “I think therefore I am”, and more of “I am because I belong, I am because I care”.

So the message is less about either/or and more about both-and, that is that compassion and justice are deeply interconnected and interdependent.

Both compassion and justice are at the heart of all cultures and faith traditions in the world, even in the 17th century John Donne’s metaphysical poem, Meditation XVII: “no man is an island unto himself…”. This concords with the teachings of great teachers like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mary Robertson and Wangari Maathai.

What does it mean when we speak of a billion women violated? It means one in every three girls and women, and the occasional boys and men, are survivors of rape. We are people, mothers, daughters, sisters, neighbours, friends. The perpetrators are sons, brothers, fathers, neighbours, friends. Women from lower castes and classes, the world over, marginalised women by race or geography or sexuality, suffer multiple forms of discrimination which exposes them to yet further sexual and gender based violence, in addition to social, political, cultural, economic and other violences.

How can one sleep at night when our fellow humans are so routinely violated? In one Cape Town township a young lesbian, walking home from the local pub, was followed by a gang of young men who beat and stoned her to death, within meters from the door of her father’s modest home. Her crime? Being lesbian. Everyone heard her dying cries, failed to recognise her voice, and were too afraid to intervene. Where is our compassion, our Ubuntu? Where is the justice for the billion women and lesbians brutalised, raped, killed, around the world?

We call for the decriminalisation of sexual orientation and gender identity in all countries and regions of the world. Facing death sentences and prison terms for loving a woman or gender non-conforming person is, with respect, contrary to the teachings of all religious founders, from Gautama to Jesus. Even the current Dalai Lama, the international Buddhist leader, recently spoke out about the need to recognise and respect same-sex relations.

The United Nations, and its precursor, the League of Nations, were founded on the principle of creating a more humane, compassionate, just world. As we practice our Realpolitik, may we remember President Mandela’s wisdom on intersectionalities in 1993: my freedom is inextricably connected to your freedom, my oppression and rape is your oppression and rape. 1993 is also the year of the UN’s germinal Vienna conference which declared women’s rights as human rights.

As deep change is inexorably slow, we must maintain our vigilance, renew our unbiased faith and hope, and continue to strive for future societies that will realise South Africa’s founding Constitution and its enviable Bill of Rights, societies in which all beings are truly equal, free, safe and happy.

In the spirit of hope of celebrating South Africa’s 20th National Human Rights Day, let us work together to hold up the noble foundations of international human rights mechanisms and cultures, to co-create a more compassionate and just world. And let us end sexual and gender based violence against women, intersex and trans people, and other gender non-conforming people now and forever.

 Follow Bernedette on Twitter: @BerneMuthien



Bernedette Muthien is a scholar, poet and facilitator. She works in the intersectional areas of genders, human rights, justice and peace. Her community activism is integrally related to her work with continental and international organisations, and her research necessarily reflects the values of equity, societal transformation and justice. She has published widely, written for diverse audiences, and believes in accessible research and writing. Over 20 years, on all six continents, she produced 200 publications and conference presentations, some of which have been translated from English into other languages, including Dutch, Flemish, French, German, Italian and Spanish. Among others, she serves on the Executive Council of the International Peace Research Association as co-convenor of its Global Political Economy Commission; and serves on various international advisory boards, including the international journal Human Security Studies. She also chairs the Strategy and Policy Committee, as well as the special Committee on Human Remains, of the Council of Iziko Museums of South Africa, and serves as Deputy Chair of the board of the South African NGO Coalition in the Western Cape. In March 2014 she was appointed to a five-year renewable term as part-time Commissioner for South Africa’s Constitutional Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities. Muthien was the first Fulbright-Amy Biehl fellow at Stanford University (1994-1995), and holds postgraduate degrees in Political Science from the University of Cape Town (Dean’s Merit List, 1992), and Stellenbosch University (Andrew W Mellon Fellow, 2006-2007) in South Africa. She is presently leading a pan-African research project on Ubuntu and the Gift Paradigm in Africa with over 30 participating African countries. During 2012 she published her first solo poetry anthology, “ova”, with critical acclaim around the world.

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