The long talk to freedom

2010-12-14 00:00

A QUIET revolution is happening in the way that men and women are talking to one another about sex and it seems to be making an impact on rape statistics in greater Pietermaritzburg­.

In a church hall in Pietermaritzburg 12 women and five men are discussing male circumcision in intimate detail. The men are eager­ to explain the mechanics of cutting, healing and hygiene, why it reduces the risk of HIV infection, even how it enhances women­’s sexual pleasure. The women are suspicious, probing. Is the cutting for initiation? Will it make men more promiscuous? Why the Tara KLamp instead of female condoms? Why is this all about men?

For men and women like these — from communities in Mpophomeni, Howick, Nxamalala, France and other parts of uMgungundlovu — the dialogue is remarkably frank and free of shyness. Would such openness about sex have been possible five years ago?

No, says the facilitator, Thulani Mthalane, a project organiser with the gender and HIV desk of the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Christian Social Awareness (Pacsa). “Gender equality was still the issue then. Women were not in a position to share such critical issues with men and sexuality was for men only to discuss. The men were resistant to the idea of women’s empowerment because they saw it as taking power away from men. The walls between the genders were too high.

“Men feel more comfortable discussing sexu- ality in gatherings like our men’s forums, but mixed dialogue like this is breaking down the walls of silence.” Today the men and women whose dialogues he facilitates “have come far enough not to be embarrassed when we dialogue­ about sex,” he says. “The process has matured.”

Mthalane and his colleagues at Pacsa work with 70 men who are committed gender activists in five communities in the midlands. They hold awareness-raising events, research the needs of their communities and check with their local police stations about reports of domestic violence and sexual crimes.

In September, Nxamalala Men’s Forum held a one-day camp at which 76 boys were circumcised. “We used the occasion to introduce larger issues, especially HIV, and engaged them on the issue of manhood.” Mthalane believes that the government should widen its male circumcision programme and follow up on the circumcised men to evaluate its efficacy­ in reducing the incidence of HIV. Pacsa has been working with men on gender and HIV since 2005, helping to set up men’s networks and gender forums at district and provincial level and building a strong relationship with the police, community-based organisations and institutions that offer legal advice. In those five years about 900 men and women involved in its gender­ project have been working to change attitudes in their communities through a variety­ of activities — marches, workshops, condom education and HIV testing — in a variety­ of venues, from churches to shebeens, from police stations to sport fields.

It’s no coincidence, Pacsa believes, that figures­ for all sexual offences reported at police­ stations in Pietermaritzburg and Plessislaer between 2005 and 2009 have declined by 25,6% from 422 to 314 when such offences in KwaZulu-Natal as a whole increased by 9,6% to 13 279.

Says Pacsa director Daniela Gennrich: “In fact, the incidence of all sexual offences for Pietermaritzburg specifically, which is our main area of operation, is at a five-year low. We believe our approach of enhancing the capacity­ of the local community to form networks and build a social movement of men working for change, coupled with our work in partnership with government and other key stakeholders in the capital, is beginning to show dividends.

“We believe, further, that the trust and credibility we have established with men in local communities in and around Pietermaritzburg have created an excellent foundation to strengthen the men’s social movement for gender change at very local level in townships and rural areas.”

A recent study conducted for Pacsa finds that most men believe the Constitution undermines their authority in their homes and communities. But the study also finds that some men, particularly younger ones, do not support gender-based violence and distance themselves from religious or cultural practices that perpetuate the vulnerability of women. Among this minority is an openness to exploring manhood in different ways that are not limited by traditional notions that to be a man one has to dominate women and be the sole provider in the family.

“A key lesson is not to demonise men as perpetrators or simply invoke the gender struggle to help women fight for their rights. Rather, it is to take seriously men’s struggles around their identity and roles in the light of growing unemployment and the loss of spirituality,” says Gennrich.

SOUTH Africa is ranked first in the world for rapes per capita, according to a United Nations survey conducted between 1998 and 2000. According to a June 2009 survey of 1 738 men in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal conducted by the Medical Research Council (MRC):

• Nearly 28% of men have raped a woman or a girl, and nearly half of them said they had raped more than than one female.

• More than 42% of men had been physically violent to an intimate partner (current or ex-girlfriend or wife).

• Three out of four rapists first attacked while still in their teens, the study found. One in 20 men said they had raped a woman or girl in the past year.

• MRC research has also found that more than a third of girls have experienced sexual violence before the age of 18 and that 40% of victims who report rape to the police are girls under 18, and 15% are under the age of 12. Fifteen percent of children report times in their lives when one or both parents were too drunk to care for them and one in two children experience emotional abuse, neglect or witness violence against their mothers at home.

Professor Rachel Jewkes of the MRC, who carried out the research, said only seven percent of reported rapes result in convictions. “We have a very high prevalence of rape in South Africa. I think it is down to ideas about masculinity based on gender hierarchy and the sexual entitlement of men.”

A report published by the trade union Solidarity earlier this month said that one child is raped in South Africa every three minutes, and that 88% of rapes go unreported.

– Witness Reporter.

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