The SA government recently acknowledged the importance of addressing issues of equality for women and the need to stop the violence against them by following its annual 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children campaign with the establishment of a national council to plan for 365 days of action.

And just as the campaign may now be set throughout each year, so, increasingly, all members of society — men and women — are being invited to contribute to it.

Men becoming agents of change — even feminists — in the movement. This is a shift that will also benefit men.

Gender equality and feminist activism have often been seen as the domain of women alone: a struggle for women by women. The movement has also been viewed as alienating men. Men are often afraid of, resistant to, amused, or bored by gender equality efforts.

Many in the movement have said that such reactions are predictable: those with privilege rarely notice that they have it, let alone challenge themselves to go of it; while those without are continually reminded of its absence.

But awareness is growing that the struggle won't be won without the engagement of men. And, slowly, men are getting involved: initiatives that engage men have multiplied over 15 years.

At a sexual violence research initiative global forum, held in Cape Town in October, presentations were made on the need to deconstruct "manhood" if sexual violence is to stop. The manifesto of one of the groups that attended the forum, Brothers for Life, states: "There is a new man in South Africa... A man whose self-worth is not determined by the number of women he can have... A man who respects his woman and never lifts a hand to her."

The flagship campaign of another leading NGO, SA's Sonke Gender Justice, is entitled One Man Can. It urges men to take action to end domestic and sexual violence and to promote equitable relationships that both men and women can enjoy. Other such work involves the Men's Project at Community Action for a Safe Environment (Case) in Hanover Park, Cape Town, where men from the community mentor younger men in alternative masculine roles.

Men say that the project provides a rare space for them to express vulnerability and emotional pain. Many report that, as a result, their relationships with partners and children have been transformed, and they have experienced a huge increase in well-being.

Other work in this area includes that of a US organisation, the Satyana Institute, which — with SA partners Phaphama Initiatives and GenderWorks — promotes a "gender reconciliation" approach. The partners hold workshops for all sectors of society — from Parliament to prisons — that bring together men and women to raise awareness of how patriarchy damages both sexes.

Several men have noted that these workshops have changed their lives and their behaviour towards women. Rigid gender stereotypes are deeply harmful for men as well as women.

Masculinity is socially defined and not fixed by biology, and the consequences of staying in the "man box" — a term coined by male African-American gender activist Tony Porter for the collective socialisation of men — are extremely negative for men. The "man box" obliges men to show no pain, no fear, no weakness, and to dominate and objectify women. Almost all cultures of masculinity globally compel men to suppress their emotions, which means that many men experience profound loneliness. Conventional masculinity expects men to be economically successful, which is particularly difficult for men in developing countries or nations racked by conflict. Such "man-hood" pressures exert enormous work-stress over men (which contributes to a higher incidence of sexual violence).

Other ways in which men's lives are damaged by gender inequality include premature deaths from accidents, homicides and suicides; greater exposure to health risks; less nurturing relations with children; fewer educational opportunities; and damage to interpersonal relationships with women.

At the recent sexual violence research initiative forum, Gary Barker; co-chairman of MenEngage, a global alliance of NGOs and UN agencies that seeks to engage men for gender equality, presented findings on men's use of violence against intimate partners.

In Barker's research in Brazil's favelas, men reported that the most meaningful experiences of their lives were experiences of taking care of someone, often a child.

Conventional masculinity, which promotes physical and emotional toughness in men — not caregiving — can make it extremely difficult for men to live fulfilled, happy lives. It can also cause men to experience severe internal and external conflicts.

The aim of such perspectives is not to foster pity for men, but to demonstrate that they, too, are disadvantaged by patriarchy. Nurturing, strong, non-violent masculinities — which see women's humanity before their sexuality — must be built. One way of encouraging this goal is through supporting men's roles as fathers.

Men Care — A Global Fatherhood Campaign — launched in November, co-ordinated by Brazilian and SA NGOs, Instituto Promundo and Sonke Gender Justice, along with MenEngage, seeks to do this.

Benefiting men is hardly feminism's main concern. Many women activists fear that men's involvement in the movement could see them "taking over" and they also express concern that such involvement could divert gender funding from activities for women. So, efforts to engage men should ensure protection of women-focused programmes.

Furthermore, men must join the struggle not only because of its benefits, but because those with privilege have a responsibility to address inequality — as with other societal struggles, such as those against racism.

As Mbuyiselo Botha of the South African Men's Forum stated: "Our own liberation as men, as black South Africans, cannot be removed from the total liberation of women... It would be very hypocritical to talk of liberation when you know that a large section of the society is still in bondage."

Gender inequality should be conceptualised as a struggle of men, women, and children against oppression, for this struggle benefits all.

Antonia Porter is a project officer at the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town


Women are particularly good at building peace and creating social change. On August 9, 1956, 20 000 women marched on the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest against proposed amendments to the Urban Areas Act of 1950 — the infamous apartheid-era "pass laws" that sought to restrict where people could live and work on the basis of race.

They sang a protest song composed for the occasion: Wathint' abafazi, wathint' imbokodo! — You strike a woman, you strike a rock. These words have come to represent women's courage and strength.

However, 55 years later, women's proven strength and leadership in building the peace and security of their communities and countries win little recognition.

Indeed, rather than playing a key peacebuilding role, women remain disproportionately targeted by domestic violence and violent conflict. Most victims of war are women, both globally and across southern Africa in the various conflicts in Madagascar, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Women constitute most of the region's estimated 470 000 refugees, internally displaced persons and asylum seekers, and are increasingly subjected to xenophobia and discrimination. They compose most of the poor, and have limited access to resources such as credit finance and land.

They often lack access to justice, and are generally under-represented in governance structures. Trafficking of women and children is also on the increase, and traditional law and customary practices often take precedence over formal law to oppress women. Even in the absence of larger-scale armed conflict, women in southern Africa and the Great Lakes region are prey to widespread physical violence and rape, often accompanied by psychological abuse.

The bitter reality that needs to be faced here is that while women suffer like this, true peace will remain a distant illusion.

A society in which the oppression of women is often explained or justified in terms of culture cannot be a peaceful one. Gender equality must form a foundational brick if sustainable peace is to be built.

For the injustice faced is double in relation to conflict: women not only disproportionately suffer violence, they are also excluded from processes of peacebuilding.

However, such involvement not only constitutes a fundamental political right, but also brings wider benefits.

It has often been argued that women help to ensure a focus on critical and broader priorities and needs in conflict resolution processes, leading to solutions that are more likely to endure.

Women have a vested interest in equalising power: because they face discrimination, they are more likely to identify with the concerns of marginallsed groups.

Women are also viewed as more practised than men at accommodating the needs of others, establishing relationships of trust, and using a more collaborative approach. They are often decision-makers and mediators within the home and in informal situations and settings, although such "hands-on" experience, developed through daily communications within their families and communities, is often dismissed because of its informal nature.

Efforts to address the exclusion of women from peacebuilding, as well as wider gender inequality, various policies and agreements at international and regional levels, have emerged.

The 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women calls for quotas and other measures to increase the number of women in political decision-making positions. The AU 2008 Gender Policy sets its member states a target of 50/50 representation of women and men in politics and decision-making by 2020, in line with Article 9 of the 2003 AU Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa, Article 28 of the 2008 SADC Protocol on Gender and Development, and UN Security Council Resolution 1325 of 2000. However, while this mushrooming of gender instruments and policies may be seen as encouraging, not much has changed.

In southern Africa, the issue of gender equality receives little political will.

Gender fatigue and commonly held views that issues of gender and women's rights are boring, unnecessary, or even amusing, seem to dominate.

Some say the problem is that gender equality policies are not adequately contextualised in the feminist frameworks from which they emerged: there is a disconnect between the way these policies are framed, and the realities of women's oppression that they were created to transform.

Also missing in the framing of gender policies and efforts for their implementation are the stories of women and oppression: if policies are to be made real, they must be made meaningful for people in general, particularly for those who perpetuate oppression. So, they should not exist in an academic or intellectual vacuum, but must be linked to the personal: for it is through individual stories of oppression that empathy is created and seeds for genuine transformation are sown.

The resulting gender consciousness helps people to see clearly how gender relations inform and create institutions such as the family and the military, and how power and oppression function through gender and other faultlines such as race and class. Moreover, telling the herstories and revealing the injustice and oppression of women can inspire individuals and institutions to mobilise for change.

Achieving gender equality will not be easy. It requires radical transformation of power relations between women and men.

But this should not alarm men, for masculinity also suffers under the limits imposed by patriarchal systems.

Gender inequality should not be seen as a struggle of men and boys against women and girls, but rather as the struggle of all men, women, and children, against inequality and oppression.

Men will benefit, too. And true equality will be achieved only when women and men work together with mutual respect to make it happen, at international, regional, and community levels. As a peacebullding priority in southern Africa, the issue must be taken more seriously: true peace and development will not be attained until women are treated as equal members of society and all structural inequalities, including those of race, class, and gender, are overcome.

Elizabeth Otitodun is a researcher, and Antonia Porter a project officer, at the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town

This article also appeared in The Mercury on 30 August 2011 under the headline "No peace until women are respected"


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