OPINION | Why 'men need to protect women' is a phrase stained with toxic masculinity

Illustration. Photo by Getty Images
Illustration. Photo by Getty Images

This is not just semantics — the messaging around gender-based violence matters if we are to avoid undoing one injustice only to replace it with another.

Throughout the last Women's Day celebrations, on numerous occasions I witnessed men supporting the emancipation and advancement of women speaking about how men should play their part and protect women. The sentiments may be well-intended, but the narrative needs to be corrected at the offset.

READ MORE: Abuse increases during lockdowns: Women stuck between 2 pandemics, coronavirus and gender-based violence

Assuming that women need to be protected by men brands women as weak and powerless. It is yet another way that men insist they are more capable and superior than women, that our wellbeing and safety depends on them.

This rhetoric reduces us into vulnerable beings to be tossed on from the hands of abusers to those of men who claim to be our protectors.

To put it into perspective, toxic masculinity is a cultural concept of manliness that glorifies stoicism, strength, virility and dominance. This would explain why misogynistic men often struggle to let go of power to the point that even when they believe they are allies to the plight of women, they show up with a hero complex.

READ MORE: If you have 2 minutes to spare, this GBV short film featuring Leleti Khumalo is a must-see

On the other hand, hero complex is a phenomenon affecting people who seek heroism, usually by creating a situation that they can resolve.

And it would seem that the gender-based violence problem plays to this definition as it is created by men, who then become the ones to "rescue the day". We need to understand that men cannot create a problem, help solve it, and then expect to be celebrated and praised for resolving the same problem which is their own doing.

There is a difference between being supportive of equality as a man and stepping in to glorify your role in the solution. Hence, this particular narrative is quite problematic.  Women are not helpless damsels in distress, waiting for a man to rescue them. Instead, women are fully capable of existing without the "forced" and "manipulative" support of men.

READ MORE: Here are 5 apps developed to help keep women safe

Society must understand that any bond or association that a woman has with a man should be by choice and not out of a need for "protection" — that very idea is the basis on which many abusive relationships are built. Men feel they've earned the right to abuse women because they are "protecting" them from poverty, homelessness, etc.

Men have to be genuine in helping to undo injustice and understand that by doing so they are not doing women a favour, but creating a world where equality belongs to all. And equality cannot be measured in uneven slides of the scale with one tipping favourably towards men, elevating them as the protectors and saviours of women. Men are equal participants with women in existence.

The phrase "men need to protect women" is a gentle, seemingly harmless assertion of the imbalance of power and men's belief that they are the "dominant" gender — it should be used with caution.

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Men need to stop killing and abusing us, and then we won't need any protection. It becomes pseudo-activism when movements against GBV develop a tendency to manipulate the people they claim to protect in a kind of 'I'll rescue you from this evil and indoctrinate you in another' manner.

If you are a man and want to play your part in ending gender-based violence and inequality, stop saying you need to protect women. Instead, endeavour to expose and bring to book men who are violators of women's rights. If we continue to use these sorts of phrases, we will only undo one form of injustice against women and replace it with another.

As for women, we are completely capable of living fully without needing protection if there is no threat of GBV - we should not be reduced to helpless victims of existence. What we deserve is equality, not pity.

If you or someone you know needs help, you can contact one of the organisations below:  

Gender-based violence Command Centre: "Please call me" facility: *120*7867# Emergency line: 0800 428 428 

POWA helpline: 011 642 4345 

SADAG has a WhatsApp counselling line that operates from 9am to 4pm: 076 882 2775 

To speak to a SADAG counsellor: 0800 567 567

Tears Foundation helpline: *134*7355# 

How has gender inequality affected you? Tell us your story here.

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