Enlisting Men for Women’s Equality

Wednesday, 2 April, 2008 - 08:26

South African Initiatives Against Sexual Violence, Gender InequitiesStephanie UrdangWhen an older man raised his hand to speak on the third day of a gender workshop for men in a South African rural co

When an older man raised his hand to speak on the third day of a gender workshop for men in a South African rural community, Bafana Khumalo’s heart sank. As facilitator he had touched on concepts of ‘manhood’ and gender inequality.  He had been emphasising that attitudes of men and the idea of masculinity “are linked to our patriarchal heritage”.

This participant could derail the workshop by insisting that such equality was contrary to African culture and would divide families.  He did not.  Instead, he told how he had insisted to his sons their attitudes had to change and that they can no longer expect their mother to arrive home tired from work and do all the household work. “I can’t learn to cook - I am too old. But I am prepared to wash the dishes.”

For Khumalo, it was a significant moment. “Social conventions equate manhood with dominance and aggression, with sexual conquest and fearlessness,” he said. Change is possible when all aspects of gender inequality are addressed.

Across South Africa such workshops are having an impact. South African Men as Partners (MAP) network research shows that 71 per cent of male workshop participants agree that women should have the same rights as men against 25 per cent generally, while 82 per cent believe that wife-beating is not normal against 38 per cent of non-participants who believe it is. Khumalo was struck by how “hungry” men are to discuss their role in violence against women. “They express a heartfelt need to be different men, different fathers from the older generation of men.”

Khumalo and Dean Peacock are co-directors of Sonke Gender Justice, an NGO formed in 2006. Its work links two major issues: violence against women and extreme HIV-transmission rates. Both strongly believe that that men’s behaviour and attitudes are behind these issues. “Men’s violence against women is not simply a result of men losing their tempers or because they lack control,” Peacock argues. “They have been raised to equate manhood with aggression, dominance over women and sexual conquest. Men often fear that they will be dismissed as not ‘real’ men or regarded as ‘weak’ if they apologize, compromise or share power.”

South Africa has the highest incidence of reported rape in any country. A 2006 South African Medical Research Council (MRC) study of 1,370 male volunteers from 70 rural villages found that close to one quarter had participated in sexual violence. In a University of the Witwatersrand study in 2004, almost one-third of sexually experienced women report that their first sexual encounter was non-consensual. MRC also reported that one woman is killed every six hours by an intimate partner - the highest substantiated rate anywhere in the world. The same year South African researchers reported in the medical journal Lancet that women with violent or controlling male partners are more vulnerable to HIV infection, postulating that abusive men are more likely to be HIV+ and to impose risky sexual practices on their partners.

Violence against women is not unique to South Africa, of course. Worldwide, one woman in three experiences domestic violence. With the end of apartheid in 1994, the new government made gender equality a central goal. The new constitution broke ground internationally by including the protection and promotion of women’s rights and gender equality, affirming the right of equality for all before the law. Sonke believes that to ensure gender equality, men must also change. Khumalo argues that the initial focus on women’s empowerment led men to feel left out.

Women’s empowerment is essential, Khumalo adds, but if a woman is in an abusive relationship it can become problematic. “Women return from workshops with new clarity, wanting to assert their rights at home and the men see themselves as the victims.” The result? They often become even more violent towards their partners. It is important to show that the power men exert over women impacts men as well.

The South African National Injury Mortality Surveillance System reported in 2003 that men are roughly seven times more likely to die as a result of homicide in South Africa. Peacock argues that this too is a form of gender-based violence. Man-on-man violence is another way of asserting male dominance. “If men can understand that they themselves are at risk then there is an incentive to express their masculinity it more peaceful ways.”

Mike Matyeni, an organiser for Sonke Gender Justice who is open about his HIV-positive status, links male cultural attitudes and HIV transmission. This includes the belief that condom use diminishes his sense of manhood, that lobola (bride price) means their wives have no right to challenge their actions, and that being tested or treated for HIV indicates “weakness”.

Sonke’s work focusing on men began in collaboration with women’s organisations. Agisanang Domestic Abuse Prevention and Training (ADAPT) was one of the first to develop a programme to educate men about domestic violence. This in time spurred a wider response by government departments, civil society organisations, trade unions and faith-based groups. Their activities include workshops, drama, discussions in shebeens (taverns), murals and other initiatives that involve the community.

Sonke’s goal is to engage men - and women - in broader activism and campaigns and to develop a national response. Their ‘One Man Can’ campaign is one reflection of this approach. Its purpose is to mobilise men and boys and civil society to take action to end domestic and sexual violence and to promote healthy, equitable and mutually respectful relationships. “We want men to be able to speak out and take a stand, not watch from the sidelines and do nothing when they see a woman that has been beaten or hear screams behind a closed door,” Khumalo explains. “Women are afraid of us. They are afraid to hear footsteps behind them in the night. We have to show them that we will no longer accept the harmful behaviour of men towards them.”

The diverse messages of the campaign emphasise the need to build trust between partners and with women in general and that men can love passionately, respectfully and sensitively. Developing clear communication between men and women, whatever their relationship, is key to building respect. Only then can men appreciate that “no means no”. The campaign also emphasises that justice and rights are necessary at both the personal and national levels, and that the government needs to do more to meet its constitutional obligations.

For Khumalo, like other activists, the passion for his work lies in his hopes for a safer society for women. “I want to contribute to a society in which I do not have to be my wife’s protector,” he says. “I want to contribute so that my daughter can walk without fear of being violated by men. I want her to be able to grow up and respect herself for who she is and live accordingly. I want a society in which my wife and daughter are able to live without such fears.”

(A longer version of this article was published in African Renewal, April 2008)

Stephanie Urdang is an experienced writer about development issues.

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