The solution lies in education

2009-06-22 00:00

I CAN’T remember when last I agreed and disagreed more strongly. I refer to the recent article in this paper by journalist Marianne Thamm on masculinity (The Witness, June 11).

Like Thamm I am also the parent of a girl child. I wholeheartedly share her fear for our child’s safety in a world that, in certain ways, appears hostile towards girls and women. There can’t be many fathers for whom Thamm’s outpouring of concern didn’t resonate at some level. I salute the strong convictions that motivated the article and I sincerely hope that it helped to raise awareness about this critical social issue.

However, as much as I identify with Thamm’s parent-heart it would be remiss of me not to express my reservations about her recommendations regarding this social crisis.

My first response, strangely, was one of profound sadness for Thamm. In the same way that racism has the potential to distort victims’ perceptions of themselves and the world, so the severe threat to our girl children has the potential to skew perceptions of the causes and solutions. One of the results is a kind of gender myopia that, ironically, serves to aggravate rather than alleviate the problem. By her own admission Thamm “cannot trust South African men”. This is a very significant admission and if this forum were a court of law, I suspect that her admission would allow her as a first-class witness but recuse her as a judge.

I have said that I am the parent of a girl. Unlike Thamm I am also the parent of a boy child. A great many of the thoughts that follow derive, in part, from this chromosomal happenstance.

Firstly, throughout the article Thamm asserts in various ways that society only threatens the girl child: “What do you do when you live in a place that is so hostile towards girls and women?” Part of my sadness is that Thamm might never know the deep anxieties shared by many parents of boys concerning the particular threats which modern South African society poses for our boy children.

Secondly, in her article, Thamm offers at least three recommendations to alleviate the plight of women.

The first is to warn against religious teachings and, in particular, those of Angus Buchan of Mighty Men fame. Thamm strongly condemns Buchan for using the Bible to justify male domination. This, she says, is simplistic and irresponsible.

That the teachings of any religion can be misappropriated for personal gain and political domination is undeniable. If Thamm’s judgment of Buchan is correct then he is indeed part of the problem and not the solution. But is she correct?

Earlier this year, I accepted an invitation by a relative to hear Buchan address an audience of over 200 000 men. I had never heard the man before and accepted the invitation out of curiosity. Not once did I hear Buchan use the Bible to justify male domination. On the contrary, I heard him, several times, emphatically challenge the very dominance that Thamm accuses him of. He strongly encouraged the male audience to assume more responsibility in the raising of children, to admit and seek forgiveness from their wives for their shortcomings and to commit to being better listeners and supporters of their partners.

Surely any serious attempt to transform the deeply engrained and finely nuanced behavioural patterns of men must proceed from the position that other men and spirituality are potential resources, rather than outright enemies.

Secondly, the paucity of Thamm’s thesis is exposed in her offer of a single “remedy” that will stop men and boys from believing they can abuse women ...’ Her solution? Convict and severely punish.

Any time I hear a social commentator offer a single solution and, on top of it, one that that involves only sticks and no psychosocial intervention, I am concerned. I wonder if Thamm is aware of how much she sounds like the very men she is so afraid of.

However, for me the most revealing moment in Thamm’s article is when she relates an example (from a documentary) of how a group of abusive men from Cameroon apparently had their miscreant attitudes towards women changed in a behaviour change intervention. The agents of change in the documentary were none other than two women prosecutors.

It’s hard to escape the view that Thamm’s solution to the problem is a nation of emasculated men cowering before woman authority figures. While I acknowledge the short- term safety appeal of this response, in my view, it is about as far from the solution as one can possibly get.

Lest I be accused of criticising without offering some recommendations of my own, I would like to suggest some.

There can be no doubt that well-functioning and gender-sensitive police and justice systems are part of the solution. But what else? I think we need, first and foremost, to strengthen the resources of the many parents, teachers and NGOs in this region, who on a daily basis, aim to support and educate boys and men in their social roles. Two specific resources come to mind. The first is parenting courses being offered by the Child and Family Centre at the local campus of UKZN. Parenting is a complex and demanding endeauvour and those of us in this role need all the support we can get.

The second resource is an adventure camp for young people, on the way to Richmond, called Highover. The courses offered at this and similar centres offer boys and girls an amazing opportunity to rescript their prejudices and reconsider their beliefs about each other. There’s nothing like a plunging abseil or risky river crossing to reinforce healthy values such as interdependence, teamwork, respect for the other gender, humbleness, diversity and real courage. I do not have the statistics but I would expect that organised, well thought out activities such as these are far more helpful in shaping gender attitudes at a tender age than the single punitive remedy prescribed by Thamm.

Colin McKay is a local educational psychologist who runs an adopt-a-school project for township and rural schools, called SchoolTrade. For more information about SchoolTrade go to

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