Rape, sexual harassment and femicide continue to make daily headlines in our country.
And with that comes a flurry of advice for women and girls on how to protect themselves and avoid becoming the next victim.
But with the perpetrators being overwhelmingly male, it’s equally important to consider how we can help shape the minds and behaviour of boys. Here’s what experts have to say about how providing more positive influences on boys can help shape the men they will become.
FROM BOYS TO MEN
So many of us have said it when we’ve seen a boy pulling a girl’s braid or slugging their playmate: “Ag, boys will be boys!” But US sexuality educator Robin Wallace-Wright warns that this common saying creates an excuse for disrespectful behaviour. “It’s also disrespectful to many boys and men – it implies they’re incapable of controlling their impulses,” she says.
Clearly, what we as adults say and do has a huge impact on boys and stays with them until they are adults.
In an opinion piece for the Mail & Guardian, radio host Eusebius McKaiser wrote, “The man who raped and murdered Nene [Uyinene Mrwetyana] wasn’t born a murderer. His sense of entitlement to her body started with banter he heard, and participated in, which seeps into the belief system of a young boy, and eventually becomes part of our inner mental landscape.
“We should not, as part of the solution space, underestimate how the ways in which we talk, and the thoughts we start thinking based on the language we use habitually, can be a powerful foundation for the worst kinds of violence later in life. “Respect isn’t only about language. But it starts with language, so be vigil- ant about how your raise your boy.”
THE VIOLENCE THEY SEE
We look at how young boys learn from their surroundings and ways we can raise them to have good values. “When a boy witnesses violent abuse at home, he’s more likely to become an abuser himself,” says Mbali Sibiya, a clinical psychologist from Kempton Park. “The boy tends to identify with the aggressor unconsciously.”
Other factors that can negatively influence a boy include a sense of entitlement, being abused and having low self-esteem, Sibiya adds. Lauren Moss, a counselling psychologist from Sandton, says violence is often an act related to power. “South Africa has a history steeped in disempowerment.
When respect is not taught and modeled, children become unsure of how to behave. When faced with feeling disempowered themselves, they will likely choose a response that will make them feel powerful, like violence,” Moss says.
MORE THAN JUST THE BIRDS & BEES
Laurie Halse Anderson, an author who spent 20 years of her career engaging with school children across the US, says many teenage boys have told her the same thing about a rape victim she wrote about in one of her books.
“They don’t believe that she was actually raped. They argue that she drank beer, danced with her attacker and therefore, she wanted sex. They see his violence as a reasonable outcome. Why should they think otherwise? “Their parents generally limit conversations about sex to ‘don’t get her pregnant’ lectures. They learn about sex from friends, and internet porn, where scenes of non-consensual sex abound.
No one has explained the laws to them. They don’t understand that consent needs to be informed, sober and freely given.” Anderson adds that the boys also wondered how the rape victim could be so upset after being attacked. “They don’t understand the impact of rape.”
US sex education teacher Kim Cavill says another important conversation for pre-teens is about pornography. “Most online pornography is produced by men for men. We should say porn is sex for entertainment. If parents don’t have those conversations, the misogyny and violence can make an indelible impression on kids,” she adds.
WHAT PARENTS CAN DO
“Consistently foster the good values of your religious and cultural practices that teach respect. Teach him to accept ‘no’ gracefully,” Sibiya says.
Foster a good relationship between him, his mother, sisters and good male role models. “A deep sense of respect for all means we are more likely to develop empathy and compassion,” Moss says
As a guardian of the child, you are always being watched. “Treating others as you would like to be treated is a great lesson,” Moss adds.
Teach them that violence against anyone is unacceptable, Moss says. Aggression can be expressed, but not in a way that hurts someone else.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
Teacher Wayne Tewson recently wrote a pledge for boy students at Bracken High School in Ekurhuleni to memorise and recite. It went viral earlier this year and included the chant, “We will treat all women with respect. I will be the man people run to, not run from.”
This shows that schools, churches, community programmes and foundations can be relied on to help. An example of such an organisation is Action Breaks Silence, an educational charity that teaches and supports children in SA in the fight against gender-based violence.
They launched the Hero Empathy Programme in 2018. Activities involve group work and role play where kids learn about empathy, healthy relationships and consent.
Evaluating the programme, Maretha Visser, a professor in psychology at the University of Pretoria, noted, “They have learnt that boys and girls are equal. That the stereotypes they believe may not be true. One boy even said, ‘When I am provoked in class by a girl, I tell the teacher. Previously I would just beat the girl or tease her’.
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