South Africa is scarred by a history of violence against women.
The country’s 2016 Demographic and Health Survey reported that one in five women older than 18 has experienced physical violence. This increases to one in three in poorer communities.
As a response to the recent protests against gender-based violence held around South Africa, boys and male staff at St Benedict’s School have developed a unique Manifesto on Masculinity.
It was announced at a special school assembly meeting that the manifesto intends to be a proactive tangible declaration against femicide, one that denounces excuses and promotes behavioural change, ultimately holding the greater school community to a higher standard.
In September 2019, the prevalence of femicide was brought to the fore by the deaths of UCT student Uyinene Mrwetyana, UWC student Jesse Hess, boxing champion Leighandre Jegels, 14-year-old Janika Mallo, Lynette Volschenk, and Meghan Cremer.
These tragedies influenced the school heavily, and strengthened staff resolve to proactively participate in measures to curb violence against women.
The school’s Executive Headmaster, Andre Oosthuysen, states that as a boys’ school, St Benedict’s watches with concern, as on a daily basis, more cases of abuse are flashed on the front pages of newspapers.
“We are deeply distressed by the rise in gender-based violence and as a community we feel it’s important to take a stand that will live on beyond marches and calendar events like 16 Days of Activism. We may not be able to influence legislation but we can mould and shape the thinking of our students. We take our role in developing honourable men seriously and want to ensure we teach our boys - while they are still young - to work against these societal norms which degrade women,” he says.
Manifesto on Masculinity
Staff held discussions with boys at assemblies from Junior Preparatory to College level to explain in an age-appropriate manner what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behaviour towards women.
Oosthuysen challenged the Grade 10 and 11 boys, and the male staff, to craft a Manifesto on Masculinity which would highlight how they would choose to behave towards women.
Some of the 20 commitments made include to:
- Always call out other men on their inappropriate behaviour towards women. This includes for example when derogatory comments relating to women are made on WhatsApp groups.
- Report and put a stop to any form of abuse against women.
- Never assume anything about a woman because of what she is wearing.
- Never make a woman uncomfortable because of my presence.
- Never justify any unacceptable behaviour by saying “boys will be boys".
Andre says the signing of the manifesto was a momentous occasion where all the boys and men of St Benedict's formally adopted their collaboratively written code. It was a declaration to everyone that they commit to making the world a better place for all women and girls. The commitments are permanently displayed in Cafe ‘58, the school restaurant, as a constant reminder to everyone.
An ally of women
Ayrton Griffin-Ellis, a grade 11 pupil, believes that while St Benedict’s is an educational institution, teaching should extend beyond academic tuition and include morals and ethics, life lessons and the values of equality and respect for all.
"At a time where femicide, rapes and general gender-based violence and discrimination are considered hourly occurrences within South Africa, the poignancy and importance of a Manifesto where men agree to come to the protection and support of women cannot be underestimated. St Benedict’s College is a supporter of equality and an ally of women," he says.
He describes how he sees the Manifesto of Masculinity as an important step towards a future where women are consistently valued for what and who they are: human beings.
"It's an admission and acknowledgment of the threat women face day to day due to the actions of men. It’s an agreement taken by the men associated with St Benedict’s, both past and present,"he says, "reminding us all to be cognisant of our behaviour - encouraging us to stand up and take action in support of women.”
St Benedict’s says they place their focus on developing boys holistically, so they'll go on to be well-equipped adults who have empathy and compassion for everyone, irrespective of their gender.
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