How do we change the root causes of inequality?
Regular readers of our blog know we like to keep up with legal news around the world. It’s great to see where South Africa is leading the way, and where we can learn from other countries. Recently, we spotted an initiative from Scotland. The 2022-23 Programme for Government has committed to a consultation on new justice powers to tackle misogynistic behaviour, helping to address the root causes of inequality and men’s violence against women.
Here in South Africa, the theme for this year’s 16 Days of Activism Campaign is: “Socio-Economic Rights and Empowerment to build Women’s Resilience against Gender-Based Violence and Femicide: Connect, Collaborate, Contract!” Government is implementing the Emergency Response Action Plan on Gender-Based Violence and Femicide, announced by President Ramaphosa in September 2019. Government intends to use the 16 Days Campaign as the focus for its comprehensive 365 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children. During the campaign period, Government is hosting a series of community and sector dialogues and activities, together with civil society and the private sector, designed to encourage collaboration in dealing with gender-based violence and femicide (GBVF). We applaud this commitment. This “second pandemic”, as President Ramaphosa called it two years ago, must be ended.
Defensive driving is not the answer!
However, the answer is not – or is not solely – building women’s resilience. This is like teaching road users to drive more defensively to protect themselves against other drivers who speed, drive under the influence, etc. The problem does not lie with the victims, and therefore neither does the solution. For our roads to be safe, speeding and DUI need to end. For our women to be safe, misogynistic thinking and behaviour needs to end. Gendered power inequality, with its roots embedded in our deeply patriarchal culture, is the primary driver of GBVF. The question is: how do we change it?
The effort needs to come from men as well as women. Many men have acknowledged the problem but have marginalised it as a “women’s issue” (not all men, to be fair, but a large proportion). What we need is the construction of a new masculinity, based on an identity that does not reward virility, aggression, or dominance, and does not belittle emotion and compassion as “soft”. Thought and effort is required to change the mentality and culture that drives men to commit crimes against women. Educational programmes and institutions have a major role to play.
Agents of change
There are some exemplary organisations in South Africa working to make changes at a fundamental attitudinal level. Sonke Gender Justice, for one, is “a South African-based non-profit organisation working throughout Africa. We believe women and men, girls and boys can work together to resist patriarchy, advocate for gender justice and achieve gender transformation”. In addition to policy and media advocacy, Sonke Gender Justice works directly in communities with education and mobilisation.
More is needed
However, we cannot leave the work to non-governmental organisations. That in itself reinforces the marginalisation of the problem. And frankly, though we can’t wait for a generation to pass to deal with the scourge of GBVF, we have to start educating boys (and girls) before cultural stereotypes harden. Adult men with deeply entrenched ideas about what constitutes “a real man” are much harder to influence than children. School curricula should prepare young people for loving, equal relationships based on mutual respect, not on historical gender stereotypes. It should teach young people to love and value themselves as caring individuals who can be both tender and resilient. Schools should prepare young people for parenthood, in particular the role and importance of fathers (of which many young people have no experience, based on the number of children currently being raised with absent fathers). Learners need to know about the effects of violence on children in the home – whether as victims or witnesses – and the importance of caring for a child’s self-esteem. This would form the basis for beginning to change attitudes and behaviours.
If male violence is culture, change culture!
Many argue that the trope of tough men and submissive women is part of African culture. But as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi reminds us, “Culture doesn’t make people. People make culture.” We can change this. Research shows that challenging gender stereotypes and misogyny helps boys too. When toughness is normalised as a natural part of being a man, boys are encouraged to see violence as an inevitable part of growing up. In this research, boys justified male violence in terms of men’s possession and ownership of women. This is shocking but not surprising. While it is disappointing to hear of young boys already reinforcing these stereotypes, it helps to explain high levels of sexual assault in schools. At the same time, violence and abuse against boys and men goes under-reported, because boys see this as normal. So they do not exactly profit from their perceived “superiority”.
Boys benefit from a feminist agenda
By contrast, boys would benefit from learning about why gender stereotypes are so problematic. They would benefit from the destigmatisation of close friendships between boys. It’s a truism that men have buddies (sporting, drinking, braaiing, etc.), whereas women have friends. Intimate friendships between boys or men are often looked on as distasteful or feminine by homophobic ideals of masculinity. However, genuine male friendships, as opposed to the superficial relationships many men call friendship, would provide opportunities for boys to learn reciprocity, empathy and intimacy. This is then carried over into their intimate relationships with women, or with male partners.
Although the research took place in the UK, its findings are relevant to boys and men the world over. Rather than feminism emasculating men, the report concluded that “challenging male violence and misogyny, encouraging different types of masculinity and seeing women as allies, all contribute to better mental health and educational attainment among boys”. Don’t our South African boys deserve better mental health and better educational outcomes too?
- 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children
- I am a child of domestic violence, and I am breaking my silence
- How many 16 Days of Activism will it take?
- It is ‘all men’, to varying degrees: men’s violence against women is a systemic crisis
- Vulnerable masculinity
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