Mamokgethi Phakeng | To end gender-based violence, we need to win our men back

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Capetonians protest against gender-based violence after the murder of student Uyinene Mrwetyana in September 2019.
Capetonians protest against gender-based violence after the murder of student Uyinene Mrwetyana in September 2019.
Jaco Marais/Netwerk24

We need to challenge the dangerous myth of the masculinity of power if we are going to win the war against sexual- and gender-based violence, writes Mamokgethi Phakeng.


South Africa is not winning the war on violence against women and children.

A report by TimesLive on 1 September 2020 revealed that, in the first three weeks of the national lockdown to prevent the spread of Covid-19, the government’s Gender-Based Violence Command Centre recorded calls from more than 120 000 victims across the country. That’s an average of over 5 714 a day.

It’s time to change how we discuss sexual- and gender-based violence (SGBV). While it’s important to monitor the statistics, we need to focus on what we can do to stop this sickness.

As a mother of young men, I believe we need to identify the myths about the power of masculinity and reconsider the important roles men and boys need to play in balancing the world, so that violence against women and children will be unheard of in future generations.

READ | Opinion: Gender-based violence is all of our problem

Last year, the rape and murder of first-year student Uyinene Mrwetyana ignited anger across the University of Cape Town (UCT) community about the seemingly insurmountable pandemic of gender-based violence. The government is an easy target for this anger. But the problem is not just government policy and implementation, although that is clearly important.

It is something each of us needs to confront on an individual level, within our places of work and study, our homes and our personal relationships. We all need to challenge the dangerous myth of the masculinity of power. Research from the South African Medical Research Council demonstrates that when men change sexist, domineering and patriarchal views about masculinity and their roles in society, SGBV crime falls dramatically.

One root cause of violence is the absence of compassionate leadership from men.

Dr Don Pinnock, a research associate at UCT’s Centre of Criminology, traces the rise of gang violence to the forced removals under apartheid, which drove young men to join gangs in search of the community life that was taken from them. Pinnock says:

"[I]t is not the physical conditions that former [District Six] residents yearn for, it is the way in which people interacted, a feeling of sharedness…. it was always the extended family that formed the catch-net of the urban poor. Within it were people who could be trusted implicitly and would give assistance willingly, immediately and without counting the cost."

This kind of community life has been robbed from us in other ways: by fathers needing to leave their families to work far from home, by the migration of young people to cities to find jobs, by the tragic pattern of absent fatherhood around the world. We need role models to help young men learn that the real power of masculinity is not in violence or domination, but in empathy and self-control.

People think that the power of masculinity keeps things running smoothly. But the fact is, the world is in deep trouble from climate change, Covid-19, economic crisis, poverty and inequality, to name just a few.

We cannot address these issues with only half of our human resources. Research shows that when management shifts away from the power of masculinity in business, productivity and innovation tend to rise.

The International Men and Gender Equality Survey shows that men around the world are happier and healthier when women share the power. Household incomes tend to rise when men don’t have to be the main breadwinner. Men who take on greater caregiving roles and who more openly communicate with their partners experience deeper family connections and tend to have better physical and mental health, and even greater sexual satisfaction.

READ | Opinion: Gender-based violence: Lessons from a pandemic

As a society, we need to work towards achieving gender equality in our lifetime.

This is why, in June this year, I signed a letter to Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the United Nations (UN) Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, committing UCT to eliminating SGBV in our institution. UCT became the 10th University Champion in HeForShe: a global UN campaign that aims to mobilise one billion men to become change agents towards the achievement of gender equality.

On 1 March 2020, HeforShe declared this the Year of Male Allyship. Masculinity programmes can empower men to change their beliefs, attitudes and knowledge about rape culture, patriarchy and masculinity. They are an important component of addressing and changing SGBV culture.

Unconscious bias 

Other components at UCT include strengthening our workshops to raise awareness about the various forms of rape culture and gender-based violence; achieving gender parity through our employment equity policies; and providing dedicated support to survivors through our support office and a specialised tribunal to oversee cases related to SGBV, including the provision of legal support to the survivor.

Gender equality will not happen on its own; there is too much history and unconscious bias to overcome.

My experience has taught me that women have to be much better than men to land top jobs. Many women believe that they cannot be themselves in their working environment; that they must become replicas of their male colleagues.

This obliterates the diversity we all need in every aspect of society, including the academic, professional and business worlds. This diversity also needs to include people with non-conforming gender identities, who for so many centuries, like women in male spaces, have had to hide who they really are.

After 25 years of South Africa’s democratic government, under a Constitution that upholds the rights of all human beings, we see that transformation will not just happen organically. We have to make it happen – and the good news is that we can.

We can start by making this year’s 16 Days of Activism about how our sons and brothers, fathers, partners and male colleagues see themselves and their important role in supporting their daughters, sisters, mothers, partners and female colleagues.

- Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng is the Vice Chancellor of UCT.


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