"We do not have an open conflict right nowbut guns keep taking their toll within communities still today," says Josefina Sandemba, a pastor from the Evangelical Congregational Church in Angola (IECA) who was briefing a Living Letters team visiting the country on behalf of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in late July.
Living Letters are small ecumenical teams. Within the framework of the WCC Decade to Overcome Violence, they travel to different parts of the world where Christians are striving to promote peace.
After the 14 year-long independence war with Portugal ended in 1975, Angola suffered a 27-year civil war which killed hundreds of thousands of people, left scores of internally displaced and devastated the economy and infrastructure.
Despite the current post-war reconstruction boom – Angola is one of Africa's major oil producers – two thirds of its population of 17.5 million live on less than two US dollars a day, the World Bank estimates. 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 in Angola (CICA).
In this context, women pay the highest price, Sandemba adds. "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 3 am 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 10 pm, they might have earned 200 kwanzas (less than $3), but if sales were not good, there may not be anything for dinner."
Hard, exhausting work to feed their families is not the only hardship women face in Angola. Although statistical data is 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", constituting 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", says the Rev Rui García Filho, general secretary of the Evangelical Baptist Church in Angola.
The post-war period "has brought an inversion in traditional gender roles", points out Noé Alberto, a member of the Mennonite Church who is responsible for CICA's Justice and Peace department. 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 handy response.
Taking sides with women
In the heart of Petrangol, a poor neighbourhood with bumpy and dusty streets in 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," she said.
"And you do not have to take it anymore from anyone who lies to you," added another young woman.
"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 sees her role more as 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 psycho-social work on war traumas has been scaled down and their 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 micro-credits, 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, the CICA general secretary 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."