Young children learn by imitating the behaviours of those around them, especially adults in their immediate environment.
What they see and hear, they do. While this is perfectly acceptable when it applies to the respectable traits and good habits that form the foundation of being a responsible citizen, it is not for those behaviours that are inappropriate, toxic and harmful. Our children emulate all our behaviours because they do not know the difference. It is up to us to show them.
For the past 25 years South Africa has initiated its annual 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children Campaign, but despite efforts, gender-based violence is rampant in the country. Every day there are 146 sexual offences reported, of which 116 are cases of rape, the vast majority of which involve adolescent girls and young women. That is compounded by the daily reality that 200 women are being diagnosed with HIV and 291 live births are recorded to young women under the age of 20.
Femicide, rape and violence have become an uncomfortable but seemingly accepted part of our culture, disproportionately affecting adolescent girls and young women. To have any chance of eradicating gender-based violence we need to stop only focusing on the survivors, we need to stop acting like prevention is their responsibility. Women do not abuse themselves and so we must turn the lens to where the challenge begins.
The face of gender-based violence in South Africa is overwhelmingly female and specifically black female, with one in five women having experienced physical violence by an intimate partner. Awareness of this reality is critical so while we must continue running campaigns geared towards changing societal and gender norms and having conversations with older men that raise awareness about patriarchy and power dynamics, focusing on this adult segment is too late to really have a meaningful impact. What we need to do is shift our efforts to younger men and boys.
There is a Zulu proverb “umuthi ugotshwa usemanzi” which translates to “you have to bend the stick while it is still wet”. The experiences of boys in their childhood will influence the men they become. This is why we need to consider the behaviours they are exposed to and the conversations we are having with them, while there is still time to shape their thinking and influence their actions.
Boys are products of their cultural environment and in South Africa, these immediate environments are often violent. Watching the actions of fathers, father figures, role models and mentors in their own homes, boys will then replicate these behaviours. We are shocked when they act inappropriately, but that is precisely the bar that we have set for them. What is the calibre of role models these young boys are taking reference from? Are these the men we would entrust with our daughters, younger sisters, nieces?
And it is not just acts of violence; these older male figures are teaching lessons and setting examples by how they engage with and talk to their wives, girlfriends, aunts, sisters, grandmothers and daughters. Men are regarded as being in charge, as being superior, being stronger and providing more value, all of which implies that women and girls fill the opposite role.
When we raise boys and girls differently, we reinforce that genders are not equal and therefore not worthy of the same respect. To usher in a new generation of South African men who are masculine in a positive, sensitive and accountable way, we need to start having honest and frank conversations with young men and boys.
There is a lot of work to be done and the starting point is in our own homes. It is the essential duty of parents and guardians to lead by example, so children mimic good and acceptable behaviours, and it is key that they address gender-based violence head-on. Talk about what contributes to violence against women and girls, male privilege and toxic masculinity, what sexuality and consent mean, and gender roles and family dynamics.
As the mother of two boys, I firmly believe in having open conversations that cover all topics, even the uncomfortable ones. These ongoing exchanges do not only relate to how men and boys treat women and girls, but also to how stereotypes and inequalities are addressed. By giving them the space to talk about what they observe, how they feel and how they respond, they self-realise that exclusion based on someone’s beliefs, sexual orientation, gender or race is incorrect. As soon as you deem a person “different”, you are disempowering them and that perpetuates the cycle. The lesson to teach is that it is not just how you treat women, it is how you treat all people from all walks of life as equals and worthy of the same level of respect.
Show young men and boys that they do not always have to be tough, strong and dominant and that vulnerability, emotion and fear are within the range of what is perfectly normal and acceptable human emotion. We need to cultivate a space where women and men are equally respected, and where a mother’s opinion holds equal weight to the father’s. This will only happen if we raise our boys to become the men our daughters deserve.
However, it is not the sole responsibility of parents and guardians. These conversations that start in the home must continue at schools with teachers and principals. Education is key in providing information to boys about gender stereotypes, how traditional masculinity contributes to gender-based violence, how to have healthy relationships, the importance of sexual consent and having respect for women and girls.
This knowledge must be shared in safe and supported spaces, where boys can talk openly and comfortably about their feelings, fears and anxieties, and where they can share emotions in a healthy way. By teaching boys how to inhabit their masculinity in a respectful and responsible manner, we can influence how they see themselves and ultimately, the kinds of men they grow up to become.
To really have an impact on the next generation, we also need to be conscious about who it is that is having these conversations, as men listen to other men – not to women. Young men and boys need a relatable voice, which is why it is crucial for more men to step up and actively participate in challenging the social norms and attitudes that perpetuate violence against women and girls. Men have a central role to play in becoming positive role models, projecting healthy models of masculinity and promoting gender equality and equity.
Gender-based violence devastates the lives of girls, women, families, communities and the country. To end the scourge, we must focus on prevention and stopping the violence before it happens. By having meaningful and direct conversations with young men and boys and helping them to become affirmed, well-adjusted and conscious members of our society, we empower them to be the responsible allies we need to eradicate violence against women and girls.
Mtshali (MD, MBA) is the Chief Executive Officer of Shout-It-Now, a South African NPC that delivers youth-friendly, community-based HIV prevention, sexual and reproductive health and related services in the Gauteng and North West provinces.