On Wednesday President Cyril Ramaphosa called for a special joint sitting of both houses of parliament — the National Assembly and National Council of Provinces — to discuss the troubling issue of gender-based violence.
In his speech he revealed that “South Africa is one of the most unsafe places in the world to be a woman, with levels of violence that are comparable with countries that are at war.” SA men are indeed waging a low-level war against the country’s women.
The president also revealed that every day the police receive over 100 cases of rape. Last year 2700 women and 1 000 children were killed by men. The much-publicised case of the brutal killing of Uyinene Rwetyana, has gripped the whole nation. This UCT student was lured to her death by a post office employee who raped and bludgeoned her with a scale in the post office. Many women are hoping that Uyinene’s death will finally bring to focus their daily reality of brutality and femicide.
But how did we get here? President Ramaphosa points to a “broader crisis of violence in our society.” Our propensity for violence is laid bare every year when the Minister of Police releases the national crime statistics. Even some of our politicians are sworn to the idea of our using violence and intimidation for political mileage. We are a country that has normalised the abnormal. And now we don’t know how to get back to being civil and courteous.
Let me show you how this abnormality feeds into the high levels of violence against women and children. On two occasions as a teenager I almost participated in a gang rape. My childhood friends had this crude practise of abducting a girl and taking turns to rape her. Sometimes it would be a girlfriend of one them or a total stranger. On two occasions I came close enough but things never seem to work out. I ended up regretting the lost opportunity.
Believe it or not, this kind of warped mentality fills the minds of many South African men. For instance, in 2009 the Medical Research Council carried out a study which revealed that more than 25% of SA men have raped, and nearly half of that number have admitted raping more than one person. The males in that study were asked about their age at the first time they forced a woman or girl into sex.
“9.8% said they were under 10 years-old, 16.4% were 10-14 years-old, 46.5% were 15-19 years-old, 18.6% were 20-24 years, 6.9% were 25-29 years-old, and 1.9% were 30 or older.”
I shared these stats with boys at Grey High School in PE and the shock on their faces was visible when I told them that one in four of them was likely to sexually violate a woman or girl. In my address I told them that in order to avoid becoming a perpetrator, they would have to disown social values and norms that encourage or normalise the violation of women and girls. I ended by leading them in making a pledge to commit to treating women with respect and dignity.
Change in male behaviour starts in how we raise boys. We need to steer them away from notions of masculinity that treat women as though they were the property of men. In the minds of boys we must also dismantle the idea of a gender hierarchy that places women in subserviency to men. We need to reinforce positive values that reveal the uniqueness of each gender. I am a firm believer that a person’s gender is sacrosanct and serves an important purpose. So far, for SA women, their gender has been a burden, rather than a blessing.
It is as if women have to be apologetic for being who they are. But this can change if SA men could regain their humanity. We need to exorcise the oppressive demons that have us trapped in broken and toxic masculinity. As a teen I was a sex predator and was blinded from seeing the longterm psychological impact of my actions. But now my eyes are opened and I realise that I am capable of so much better. The same is true for every male in South Africa.