Don’t walk between the bark and the tree.
“No African culture supports the violence.”
Who: Sonke Gender Justice Network
What: Work with men to stop the violence against women, and to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.
The boys sitting on plastic chairs under the shelter of a roof applaud and take photos of the artiste with their mobile phones. The meeting has been organised by the Sonke Gender Justice Centre, a not-for-profit organisation which works with men to put an end to violence against women and stop the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Group discussions take over after the singer has finished. There is the sound of plastic chairs scraping as they are turned to face each other in small groups. The topic is HIV/AIDS. It is not a common subject of conversation, even though most people know someone who has died from the disease.
“If I found out I was infected I’d probably kill myself,” someone begins.
“You don’t know what it’s like until it affects your own family,” says another young man. “Until that happens, you don’t believe the disease exists. That’s the first time you realise we have more graves than houses.”
The biggest problem is poverty.
“When their parents die, children aged around 13 are forced to become the breadwinners,” someone else continues. “The girls become prostitutes and the boys become criminals. They have to find food for their brothers and sisters. Lots of people blame alcohol and drugs, peer pressure and ‘sugar daddies’ who demand sex from schoolgirls in exchange for food and clothes. The biggest problem is poverty. Poverty, and the culture.”
Mbuyiselo Botha, who works at the Sonke Gender Justice Networks office, dismisses the cultural argument.
“There is no African culture that supports the violence,” he says decisively.
He tells us about his own brother, who is a drug addict. His brother assaulted and raped a woman – he forced a bottle into her vagina – and claimed in his defence that it was because the whites had taken his African pride away from him.
“That’s utter nonsense!” says Mbuyiselo. “As individuals, we must take all responsibility for our own actions.”
That’s utter nonsense! As individuals, we must take all responsibility for our own actions.
The woman he had raped offered not to report the assault to the police if Mbuyiselo’s brother paid her medical fees and replaced her glasses, which he had broken. She believed the trial would take years. The brother went to Mbuyiselo, who refused to lend him the money.
“If I’d given him the money I’d have been saying he was in the right. Not only him, but also the woman who was willing to let him buy his freedom from responsibility.”
But Mbuyiselo Botha agrees that the apartheid system legitimated violence at all levels. The man who was forced to move to the town to work was subjected to violence and oppression – and then went home to his family and attacked the people he had power over: his wife and children.
The inequality existed in all structures of society. Men learned to see women as sexual objects: “I’ve paid a dowry for you. I own you. Even if I can’t decide over anything else I can at least decide here.” That fundamental attitude has made black men worse rapists that white South Africans.
Men learned to see women as sexual objects.
The attitude to violence, and to how society should behave, has divided the South African men. In a survey in which Sonke Gender Justice Network interviewed around 1,000 men from different ethnic groups in Johannesburg, 38 per cent of the men replied that the government is doing too little to stop the violence against women – while 41 per cent thought the government is doing too much.
Back to the discussion on the football pitch in the informal settlement of Motsoaledis in Soweto. This is typical of the meetings held to influence young men. A popular artiste, something to eat and a football tournament. And in between, group discussions to show other points of view. The most talkative person in the group is 30-year-old Promise. He raises howls of laughter with his slogan “Save water – drink beer!”
Promise and his friend Jábulani (which means Happy), who is 25, work for an organisation which is trying to encourage young men to be circumcised. Circumcised men are less likely to be infected with HIV, and if fewer men are infected they will not spread the disease.
“According to our culture, it is the man’s right to have many girlfriends. That makes you a real man. And the girl does not have the right to say no. We are brought up to be superior. A woman who does not obey does not show respect. Then you can beat her.”
Promise makes it clear that this is wrong. He himself grew up without a biological father, and with different step-fathers.
“I was expected to be the head of the family. That made me a bully at times.”
I was expected to be the head of the family. That made me a bully at times.
Jábulani’s father is the first in his family to have just one wife. Both his grandfather and his uncles have many wives.
How do Promise and Jábulani live?
Well ... Jábulani has a steady girlfriend, “but sometimes you forget … at our age, you know”.
Promise has two children. The oldest was born when he was 20 and studying in Cape Town. He hardly saw her at all for five years, but now he has re-established contact. And he is full of respect for the mother of his one-year-old son.
“I don’t want her to know when I’m doing my own things …..”
Sonke Gender Justice Network works in a number of ways to change attitudes to gender roles, violence and HIV/AIDS. Research has shown that two-thirds of those who have taken part in seminars such as this one in Soweto have begun using condoms more frequently and a quarter have taken an HIV test following the information they have been given. The figures concerning violence are less clear, but more people have reported violence they have witnessed, particularly if it has taken place outside their own family circle.
Maternal deaths: 236 deaths per l00,000 births
Number of children/woman: 2.3 (2011)
Abortion legislation: Right to abortion during the first three months of pregnancy depending entirely on the wishes of the woman. Thereafter up to the sixth month of pregnancy if there are special reasons, such as the health of the woman or an abnormality of the foetus. (2007)
Law against rape within marriage: Yes
Violence against women in close relationships: in 2010 almost 68,000 cases of sexual harassment were reported in a six-month period, most of them rape. It is claimed that almost 28 per cent of the male population have raped a woman or girl. 40 per cent of South African women stated in a report published by the WHO that their first sexual experience took place without their consent.