Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health

CULTURE-SOUTH AFRICA: Helping Men Become Men

Mercedes Sayagues

PRETORIA, Sep 19 2004 (IPS) - In the Nguni languages, which include Zulu and Xhosa, an “indlavini” is a violent and reckless man who disrespects elders and tradition. The indlavini emerged in the early twentieth century, when millions of South African men migrated to towns – looking for jobs in the gold and diamond mines.

The tough cities also produced the “utsotsi”, a street-wise petty criminal who asserts his masculinity through violence. “These are all manifestations of an alienated identity,” says Nhlanhla Mkhize, a lecturer in psychology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Mkhize traces the origin of this alienation to factors that defined the era of apartheid (the system of racial segregation that ended in 1994), namely marginalisation, poverty, violence – and the forced migration that uprooted men from families and communities. These social ills transformed male identify into something typified by aggressiveness, risk-taking, sexual prowess and dominance over women.

Amplified by the media, such notions of masculinity have now become entrenched. With the introduction of HIV into the social equation, their consequences are also deadlier than ever before.

Experts agree that the twin epidemics of AIDS and violence against women and children in South Africa are linked to these concepts of male identity. Frequent casual sex, unprotected sex and forced sex put men and women at risk of HIV infection.

According to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), HIV prevalence among South Africans aged 15 to 49 was 21.5 percent in 2003. This means that 4.3 to 5.9 million people here are now living with HIV – the largest number in any country. South Africa also has the world’s highest number of rapes: 52,107 cases were reported in 2002, according to police statistics.

Moreover, rapid political and social changes in post-apartheid South Africa are further eroding the privileged position that men have traditionally occupied in society.

A survey of 30 schools in the south-eastern KwaZulu-Natal province found that, across all races, male students and teachers felt uncertain about their role and status. For white males, this stemmed in part from the advancement of blacks and women. Black males felt marginalized by poverty, unemployment and women’s empowerment.

“Men and boys carry a burden of anxiety about manhood,” says Graham Lindegger, author of the study – and a professor at the School of Psychology at Natal University.

His research also indicated that many elements of masculinity – promiscuity, risk-taking, the desire for superiority over women, the need to take the lead and to succeed – transcend race, culture and class.

Similar findings have emerged from a country-wide survey of chiefs, traditional healers and priests from the Zionist denomination, done by the Promotion of Traditional Medicine Association of South Africa. It found that loss of leadership in various areas had made men “socially disoriented, indifferent and irresponsible spectators of family life.”

However, government and civil society have put a variety of programmes in place to address this problem.

Since 1998, Men as Partners (MAP), a project of the Planned Parenthood Association of South Africa, has run workshops for trade unions, ministries, hospitals, schools, churches and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in all provinces to discuss gender roles, stereotypes and power relations between men and women.

A survey of 2,000 men found that, before participating in a MAP workshop, 22 percent approved of hitting a partner – and half believed rapes were caused by women dressing or walking provocatively. After the workshops, 71 percent believed that women had equal rights to men – and 82 percent that it was unacceptable for a husband to beat his wife.

MAP Manager Lesetedi Boitshetole notes that men have become more receptive to having their perceptions of women changed in the past three years. This is likely due to public condemnation of rape and political leaders taking up the case of women’s rights and advancement.

The Youth Development Skills (YDS) programme of the Centre for the Study of AIDS at the University of Pretoria works with unemployed youth in the poor townships of Mamelodi and Atteridgeville, and in the centre of the capital. Its 20 peer educators have overseen AIDS and gender relations workshops since 2000, educating some 6,000 youths in that period.

“Young men are scared of the virus but they still think it is cool and right to have two or three girlfriends and get them pregnant,” says peer educator Charles Kekama, 21.

On a sunny morning earlier this month, YDS peer educators were handing out free condoms at the Vista University campus in Mamelodi. “Not for me, man. I like to do it skin to skin with my women,” an accounting student named Jacob said, walking away. But many others collected handfuls of condoms.

Over the past few generations, economic migration has resulted in men absenting themselves from family life. Women head more than a third of households in South Africa.

Now, a traveling exhibition of photos of men with children – the Fatherhood Project – is seeking to stimulate discussion of how to help men assume an active family role, particularly as caregivers to children – even those not their own. At a time when increasing numbers of households are being required to absorb AIDS orphans, this is no small thing.

The project has been organized by the Human Science Research Council, and implemented by the South African Men’s Forum and the Department of Social Development.

As the exhibition travels, local governments, the private sector, NGOs, churches and communities organise music events, dramas, poetry readings, essay competitions and debates around it.

Law enforcement agencies are also addressing skewed notions of masculinity in their bid to combat gender-based violence. In the northern Gauteng province, the Department of Community Safety (DCS) has teamed up with police and justice officials to speak on gender equality in schools and communities.

Lulu Mxekezo, deputy director of communication at DCS, says while the department used to dealt with violence against women after the fact, it now seeks to address the underlying causes of the problem.

In Thembiza township, in Johannesburg, the Men for Change organisation also teaches anger management and gender equality to abusers of women.

At present, South Africa and Mauritius are the only countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to have passed comprehensive legislation against gender-based violence in line with the 1997 SADC Declaration on Gender and Development.

“Equality cannot be realized solely through legislation. (There is) a paradigm shift, a mental gear required for the values of equality and dignity to take hold in the collective psyche,” says Cheryl Gillwald, Deputy Minister of Correctional Services.

Her department is the lead agency for a campaign entitled 16 Days of Activism against Violence against Women Campaign, which takes place in November.

And, change is happening, especially among the under-25s, with “increasing interest and mobilization” of men around issues of masculinity and HIV/AIDS, says Liz Floyd – director of the Gauteng Province AIDS Programme. This initiative reaches taxi drivers, mine workers, traditional leaders, prisoners and 30,000 men in single-sex hostels.

“Our challenge is to promote a male identity based on the traditional humanistic African values, without the excess of power of men over women,” she adds.

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