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Sexual Violence: Changing Male Attitudes in South Africa

Civil society groups in South Africa are targeting men in the fight against rape.
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The role of masculinity in gender relations has been the target of gender equality organisations for more than a decade in South Africa. And in the country's twin epidemics of gender violence and HIV/AIDS - South Africa has the highest number of people with HIV/AIDS in the world, while a girl born in the country has a higher chance of being raped than of finishing secondary school - the role of male attitudes is of particular importance.

Two South African civil society organisations, Stepping Stones and Men as Partners (MAP), have made men the focus of their campaigns in the fight against gender violence and HIV/AIDS. The success of these projects suggests that targeting the transformation of men's attitudes is a worthy investment. MAP activist Dumisani Rebombo captures the current state of gender relations and the possibility of transformation: "Power is enjoyable, I guess. I accepted the status quo. Being introduced to gender education made me stop and start thinking and feeling."

By encouraging men to reassess their position in gender relations organisations like Stepping Stones and Men and Partners can bring new weapons to the fight against sexual violence and the HIV epidemic. Both organisations use a series of workshops which bring gender issues to the wider community. To encourage gender equality, it is important that women are able to communicate their position without fear of intimidation. The workshops seek to make men assess the impact of their actions and assumptions. Men as Partners offers reinforcement in the form of community action teams composed of local men in an effort to permanently embed the progress made in the workshops.

Mixed results

A study conducted by the Medical Research Council (MRC) in the Eastern Cape demonstrates the positive impact of these programmes. Stepping Stones was shown to have reduced the perpetration of physical and sexual intimate partner violence (IPV) slightly after 12 months, and significantly after 24 months. There were similar decreases in rape, number of sexual partners and alcohol and drug abuse.

Surprisingly, however, an unexpected rise was found in instances of transactional sex, that is sex that is given in return for some form of reward, often money or gifts. Transactional sex extends far beyond the business of prostitution. The vast majority of those engaged in transactional sex do not regard themselves as sex workers.

Studies conducted by the director of the MRC Gender & Health Research Unit in Pretoria, Rachel Jewkes, and Emory University's Kristin Dunkle show that 21.1% of young pregnant women reported offering sex for money - it is likely that there are more women who engage in such relationships. A 2011 study by the MRC in the Western Cape suggests women are not always passive victims of transactional sex, although once 'initiated' there is little doubt that men take control. Sexual exploitation, risk-taking and low condom use are all problems inherent to transactional sex, while 85.9% of the women in the study reported intimate partner violence: aggressive forms of masculinity emerge, to the detriment of the woman.

The reaction of one respondent reveals the fear that permeates such transactional relationships: “He won’t [let her go without having sex with him], he will never, he won’t just give it to her. He will drag her then put her in his car and sort her out, rape and then kill her.” Masculine notions of sexual conquest ride roughshod over the rights to health and safety of women. Financial and material needs result in an explicit power imbalance in gender relations. Rape and IPV are precipitated by expectations of sex for financial outlay that are frustrated. The needs of the woman are subjected to the desires and needs of the man.

This state of affairs is not just confined to transactional sex. A quarter of South African men have admitted to raping or attempting to rape women, while partner violence forms a part of life for many South African women. Transactional sex degrades and devalues women. And in societies where the status of women is  such, rates of rape and IPV are high.

Changed conceptions

Changing masculine conceptions of women is crucial if gender equality is to be secured in South Africa. Stepping Stones and Men and Partners are not the only organisations to recognise this. The One Man Can Campaign (OMC) conducted by Sonke has been implemented in eight of South Africa’s nine provinces. Workshops, community action teams and digital media target individuals within urban and rural communities, while the campaign also draws on a wide range of other organisations to pressure the government to intervene in the epidemic of gender violence.

The effectiveness of Sonke has been proven in a number of reviews and reports. The Centre for Aids, Development, Research and Evaluation reported that OMC campaigns had a high impact on behaviour, to the extent that participants were passionate about addressing gender issues. The Ekukhanyeni Tribal Authority revealed that prior to the workshop, 63% of the respondents believed it was acceptable to beat their partners. Following the workshop, 83% believed that it was not acceptable.

The view from government

The importance of tackling the epidemic of gender violence has not escaped government attention either. Widely criticised in the aftermath of his rape trial, Jacob Zuma has at least appeared vocal on the government’s position on gender issues. A new government department for Women, Children and Persons with Disabilities was established upon the formation of his government, with a brief for the ‘transformation of gender relations’.

In a statement to the 55th United Nations Session on the Status of Women (UNCSW) in February this year, department minister Lulu Xingwana stated that crimes against women and children were a national priority for the South African government. She highlighted the reintroduction of Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences units within the police force and the Thuthuzela Care Programme, which cares for victims of sexual violence, as evidence of government efforts to tackle the epidemic. Upon the launch of the 16 Days of Activism campaign against violence to women and children, the government noted a 4.4% decrease in the total number of sexual offences, but emphasised the large numbers that still suffered abuse. The government appears at least to have realised the scale and intensity of the problem, and has shown that it is prepared to increase its activity.

A long road ahead

So what does the future look like for gender relations in South Africa? Recognition of the extent of the problem by the government has been a crucial step forward. Similarly, acknowledging the central place that prevailing conceptions of masculinity occupy in gender relations is a sign of progress. As the combined work of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), Community Based Organisations (CBOs) and the government succeed in changing masculine ideals, pressure for a change in gender relations will increasingly come from communities. Increasing numbers of men are joining the campaign for gender equality.

Challenging pre-conceived notions of masculinity is but one part of the fight for gender equality. Deficiencies in the legal system remain, which will have to be rectified if increasing numbers of women are to feel able to play a prominent part in achieving gender equality. Strong legal protection will challenge the assumption that perpetrators of gender violence almost always escape unpunished. Economic empowerment will help to reduce the number of women from seeking material gain through transactional sex. The road is long and there are many obstacles. That there is a strong desire on the part of both men and women to overcome such obstacles is, however, clear.

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