South Africa’s history with violence is one that is complex and deeply entrenched. It finds expression across different sectors of society, in institutions and different cultures. One of the most prominent forms of violence we have come to be confronted with have been the growing cases of Gender-Based Violence (GBV), with men in the majority of cases violating women. Over the last two years, in particular, our country has witnessed some of the worst forms of GBV, with a number of women dying the in the hands of their lovers.
GBV is violence that is directed against a person on the basis of their gender and as a result of the normative role expectations associated with each gender and the unequal power relationships between the two genders. Indeed, there are men who are victims of GBV. However, women are at a greater risk and suffer exacerbated consequences as compared to men.
GBV and femicide have reached epidemic proportions in South Africa. Statistics South Africa’s report, titled ‘The Crimes Against Women in South Africa’, shows that femicide in South Africa is five times higher than the global average. However, given that not all cases of GBV are reported, with women rapidly losing faith in the criminal justice system, these numbers could be even higher.
The shock and utter disgust at these incidents have made it clear that the time for talking is over. More needs to be done by all societal actors to address this challenge. Great strides have been made lately, including the development of key programmes and legislative reforms. Most programmes against GBV have tended to focus on ensuring the safety of victims, usually through the building of safe shelters and the provision of resources including counselling. However, more resources should be committed towards facilitating a cultural overhaul, ensuring that the conversation gives much needed attention to the actions of perpetrators.
It is high time that the root of the problem is sufficiently addressed; that is men and their toxic masculinities. Widely held ideas and beliefs on masculinity and what it entails give rise to incidents of violence committed by men against women, and even against other men. One manifestation of this link is the way men feel a sense of entitlement over women’s lives and bodies. This is evidenced in how men often violate women’s rights as a way of asserting their authority and validating their manhood. The underlying idea here is that women’s lives are not their own. Sadly, cultures across the board often validate this primitive thinking. This explains incidents where women who are deemed as overly confident and powerful are often targeted by men in an attempt to humble them into submission. Forms of ownership are not always overt. They are also found in simple language like the most well-meaning repeated slogans of the need for men to protect ‘their women’.
Another common belief is that men need to maintain a tough and emotionless exterior so as to validate their manhood. Men who fall outside of this standard are usually targeted by men and subjected to ridicule. This often creates a situation where men find it increasingly difficult to communicate and express themselves outside of the language of violence. The implications thereof are detrimental for society as a whole.
More effort should be invested in engaging boys and men on ideas about masculinity and their contributions towards the entrenchment of a violent, patriarchal society. As society, we need to move beyond merely denouncing violent acts and marching against them, to having frank discussions and involving men and boys in debates around GBV.
In developing its Emergency Action Plan, the Interim Steering Committee on Gender-Based Violence and Femicide (GBVF) identified the need for behaviour-change interventions aimed at altering the behaviour of men and boys as one of its key actions. The plan highlights the need to engage young boys, at a very young age, as part of an evidence-based prevention strategy. That this has been identified as a key intervention is worth applause; for it is a vital step in the fight against GBV. However, more energy and resources need to be committed to ensuring that this is implemented on a much larger scale. Fighting GBV ought to be actioned around preventative measures. Engaging with men and boys and key to this endeavour. This work will prove complex but it will take a deliberate and sustained effort to challenge societal ideas on masculinity to bear long-lasting results.
Written by Pearl Mncube