How Men in South Africa Are Trying to Stop Violence Against Women

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The Sonke Gender Justice Network is encouraging young men to embrace new behaviors.

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One Man Can

A dozen teen-aged boys sit in plastic chairs alongside opposite walls of the converted mobile trailer, forming not so much a discussion circle as parallel lines of slumped shoulders and restless twitchy legs. They came here to the One Man Can Men's Wellness Center in Gugulethu straight from school, still wearing their uniforms of maroon sweaters with crisp white collars peeking out the V-necks, gray trousers and scuffed black oxfords. Their casual posture belies the careful attention they pay to the man with the flip-chart at the far end of the room. He is talking with them about medical male circumcision.

There is no laughter or uncomfortable squirms, even during a talk accompanied by drawings that illustrate how to use condoms, both male and female. An equation sums up the speaker's main points. "Maximum Protection = Know Your HIV Status + Use Condoms + Get Medically Circumcised." The "medical" designation distinguishes the procedure from the Xhosa manhood initiation some of these boys will undergo. That also involves circumcision, by elders, and not necessarily in a manner that reduces the risk of HIV infection and transmission.

These young men are part of the newly formed Youth Indaba organized by Sonke Gender Justice Network and their One Man Can campaign. Like the U.S.-based organization Men Can Stop Rape, profiled here recently, Sonke (pronounced SOHN-kay) Gender Justice works with men and boys to challenge traditional concepts of masculinity and to prevent gender-based violence. That's the rather clinical sounding term favored internationally for violence directed at women and girls. In South Africa, it's a scourge.

The country is sometimes called the rape capital of the world. Doctors Without Borders has estimated that a woman is raped every 26 seconds there. In an anonymous 2009 survey by South Africa's Medical Research Council (MRC), one in four men admitted to raping a woman; 46 percent of them said they had raped repeatedly. Another MRC study found that a woman is killed by her intimate partner every six hours, the highest rate that has ever been reported in research anywhere in the world. Lesbians have been subjected to "corrective" rape in an attempt to change their sexual orientation. Even the country's current president, Jacob Zuma, was charged with raping a 31-year-old woman in 2005, the daughter of a family friend. He maintained that the sex was consensual, defending his actions because the woman wore a kanga, a traditional wraparound skirt. Zuma told the court this provocative dress indicated her arousal and Zulu culture dictated that a man could not leave a sexually aroused woman unsatisfied. Though he knew the woman was HIV positive, he did not use a condom but said he showered afterward in order to protect himself. Zuma was acquitted of the charges.

An indaba is a Xhosa and Zulu word for a meeting to raise important issues. The boys who are part of Sonke Gender Justice's Youth Indaba gather biweekly to discuss challenges they face living in Gugulethu, a black township located 10 miles outside Cape Town. Even in post-apartheid South Africa, many communities remain largely segregated by race. The boys began the indaba by talking about some things that had happened since they last met.

Three of them had witnessed the stabbing death of a man. Robberies are on the rise, with knives used as weapons there, too. Gangsterism is also increasing, in schools and on the streets. You have to be careful, they say, to know which corners belong to which gangsters, and where you can and can't walk. Poverty and unemployment remain perpetual problems, yet several boys still see fit to mention them. South Africa, in fact, has the second highest level of income inequality in the world after its neighbor, Namibia.

So what's to be done about all this? Aviwe Mtibe, the trainer leading the discussion, asks. He is several years older, in his mid-20s probably, but looks as youthful as these boys. The group offers suggestions. The government needs to create jobs and provide skills training for the unemployed. Police must arrest gangsters and violent criminals. Mtibe pushes back.

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Kimberly Burge is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist, a contributing writer for Sojourners, and a former Fulbright Scholar to South Africa. She is author of a forthcoming book about girls growing up in post-apartheid South Africa. 

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