How to be a man

The simple fact that all forms of violence in South Africa have a male face tells us there’s something fundamentally wrong with ideas around manhood there.

Image: UN Women.

Even though the overall media attention for the matter has faded these past few months, women in South Africa continue to be brutalized, harassed, assaulted and murdered by the country’s men – mostly in the domestic sphere by known perpetrators.  A few weeks ago, a black lesbian woman Duduzile Zozo, was raped and murdered. She was found with a toilet brush inside her private parts. She was buried last Saturday.

Obviously, the task of eliminating these many forms of violence rests not only on the shoulders of women, legislators and police.

The simple fact that all forms of violence in South Africa have a male face tells us there’s something fundamentally wrong with ideas around manhood. It challenges us to take seriously the meanings that are attached to ‘being a man’ in South Africa and interrogate the ideas around man- and womanhood that young boys grow up with.

For those men who actively accept their responsibility to end the assaults and make the country safer for girls and women, there’s plenty to do. Not so much by urging men to protect their wives and keep their hands off our women; this excludes lesbian women and reinforces the idea that women need male protection. In a counterproductive twist, these kinds of messages are more likely to consolidate the stereotypes that underpin the violence rather than alter or challenge them.

Understanding what does not work, however, doesn’t answer the question what men can do. It’s a thorny one, especially because the socially constructed ideas about what it means to be a successful man, a competent provider, a responsible mother or a respectable woman are so deeply ingrained into society that much of the behaviour that surrounds these norms appear as perfectly normal and innocent. We learn to read a courteous arm around a woman’s waist as an affectionate gesture, an insistence on paying her share of the dinner bill as gallant, and unsolicited street-commentary on women’s bodies as compliments. Women who deviate from the norm by loving other women, rather than men, are considered ‘funky’, naughty, exotic or liberal at the (very, very) best and deserving of rape, suffering and death at worst. It all alludes to ideas of women as possessions, property and trophies, prepared, ready and available to be chased and courted by men.

So next to keeping their own pester-potential in check, how should men commit to reducing the daily threats that their sisters, mothers, nieces and friends face? How to step out of those stereotypes and become structural partners for gender justice?

Sonke Gender Justice in Cape Town is an organization that made it a priority to figure out how to go about this. Wessel van den Berg, who is the coordinator for the global MenCare campaign, developed by Sonke and Promundo US, and Joshua Ogada, the NGO’s communications manager, took some time to sit down with us and share their views on how men and boys can engage.

Realizing that women empowerment stands no chance without women leaders, South Africa’s post-apartheid governments have done a great job in appointing women to leadership positions in the public (political) space. Yet this arena of empowerment stands in bitter contrast to the wider professional sphere, which is dominated by (often white) men and the domestic space, where most of the violence against women takes place. Whilst often overlooked, the latter is a key space for men to actively challenge harmful stereotypes.

Wessel explains: “Currently the professional workspace is constructed as a masculine space, where masculinity has been associated with competition and self-realisation. This space has also been given a much higher importance than the home space. The home space has been constructed as a female space that is less important, that involves household related work,and includes care for children. In this dichotomy men are cast as financial providers and women as homemakers. People that bridge this divide succeed in dropping the gendered nature of the two spaces, and move freely between and inside the two spaces, regardless of their sex or gender. Both spaces also attain equal value in the partnership. Men and women share care or household work, and financial responsibilities or career development. In this scenario the patriarchal stereotype of the male protector/provider is no longer relevant. Ideally sweeping the floor or washing dishes would then be a signal of a deeper equality and consensus between partners, rather than the token attempt at gender equality that it often becomes.”

So bridging the divide between the work and the domestic space is an important one. What else? According to Joshua, it’s important to understand that gender equality is not something that men grant to women. Neither is it something that will be achieved by apologizing for male behaviour by marching. Instead, he explains, it is about not standing in the way of it and making an effort in understanding how that can be done in a structural and meaningful way. For starters, that means to stop condoning harassment. Joshua explains: “If your friend shouts at a woman, speak out to him. Don’t condone this normalized behaviour. Instead, take responsibility for the violence and challenge the stereotypes that lie at the core of it. This is not about protecting the women, it is about eliminating the threats they face. Root out the threats rather than focus on protecting the victim. Building bunkers in a war doesn’t end a war. Ending the war will.”

Whilst essential to transformation, such individual shifts are not enough. Broad-based gender progress requires concerted campaigns to mobilize South Africa’s many communities. According to Wessel, the different levels that organizations could work at include “community based education focused on service providers such as social welfare offices, schools and clinics, or working with media like radio and television to demonstrate shifts in social norms and to improve policy by holding government accountable for delivery, and challenging weak policy frameworks”.

Sonke’s One Man Can programs, for example, target young boys through outreach at schools. Working from the belief that fathers ought to be aware of their status as a role model and an example to their children in how they deal with women, their MenCare program interrogates and challenges meanings of fatherhood by involving both fathers and sons in discussions about the meaning of gender and role models.

To read more about Sonke’s vision and strategy, visit or follow them on Twitter and on Facebook.

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