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South African Men’s Groups Fight to End Violence, Discrimination Against Women


This month, women's rights advocates are calling on men and women to join together to fight gender discrimination. They're meeting in New York for the 53rd session of the Committee on the Status of Women [March 2 – 13]. And in South Africa, two NGO's are reaching out to men to help end violence against women. They're also looking at ways to help reduce some of burdens borne by women, like providing almost all of the care for those with HIV/AIDS. From Washington, William Eagle reports.

Johannesburg community activist Dumisani Rebombo says one out of six men in South Africa commit physical violence against women. Research by Witswatersrand University showed almost one third of sexually experienced women report their first encounter was not consensual.

Rebombo is an organizer with the Men as Partners outreach group, part of the NGO EngenderHealth. As part of his work, he begins by recounting his own story. When he was 15, he and his cousin raped a girl. Later, his football team gave him a standing ovation.

Twenty years later Rebombo began feeling remorse – after becoming active in the church and in the fight against HIV/AIDS. He says many of the women his NGO was trying to help were beaten when they tried to get their husbands and boyfriends to use condoms. It recalled his own experience.

"It just hit me hard that I did something wrong, and I had to go and apologize to this woman. I had to drive 600 miles to find her," says Rebombo.

Rebombo says because she is now married, he arranged to meet her at a public health clinic. He told her what he had done was wrong and asked her forgiveness.

"She didn't say a word," he says. "She just looked and me and started crying. and said 'You know, two other men did what you did to me. Sometimes, my own husband touches me and I cringe, and he wonders why. I have never told anyone. I've never been stable emotionally since then.'

"I thought when I went to apologize I'd leave that heavy load there, but I carried another one: all these years...someone's life [had been] destabilized because of my actions."

Rebombo's story is not unique. Statistics show that half of South African women are at risk of being raped at some time in their lives. One quarter of them are in abusive relationships.

Today, through the NGO EngenderHealth, Rebombo works with church and other social groups in cities and townships challenging young men to question the social values of their peers – values that encourage them to dominate, and often subdue, women.

Young men are also shown how a culture of violence among youths harms them as well: a survey by the South African National Injury Mortality Surveillance System shows that violence claims the lives of seven times as many men as women. Perceptions of manhood that encourage men to reject condoms also leads to HIV infection.

Statistics also show that women in violent relationships are 50 percent more likely to become infected with HIV than those who are not.

Challenging social stereotypesis also the work of one of Rebombo's colleagues, activist Mbuyselo Botha of the Sonke Gender Justice Network and South African Men's Forum in Limpopo Province. Botha says part of men's disregard for women comes from a misinterpretation of traditions, like paying a lobola, or dowry, for a wife:

"In areas where I work," Botha explains,"men will say 'I cannot use a condom, because I am an African man. I have paid lobola, I own her and she cannot tell me to use a condom. And in Africa, the woman is subservient to me, the man.' "

"A lot of men," Botha continues, "have gone out and used that cultural practice as a license to oppress women. But lobola was an idea that originally thanked the family of the woman who was to become your wife. It was not a payment [for purchase]."

Botha says that in traditional culture, a man who beat a woman would be ostracized. He blames the legacy of racial segregation, or apartheid, for forcing men to leave their families for jobs in the mines, thus weakening families and traditions.

Like Rebombo, Botha works with traditional leaders, politicians and ordinary men in social settings, including traditional savings clubs His group, the Sonke Gender Justice Network, also uses music. Their web page includes free music by men's groups singing about violence, as in one song called "My Strength is Not for Hurting."

Botha's group encourages men to be caregivers for family members stricken with HIV/AIDS. Women are traditionally expected to serve as caregivers and often they must quit their jobs or drop out of school to fulfill it.

Rebombo's and Botha's own lives have also changed for the better. They cook, clean and provide care in their own homes. Rebombo has taught his son to respect women and has taught his two daughters to be assertive with their male peers.

Botha adds that his country got its freedom from apartheid in 1994. That victory will be a hollow one, he says, if women continue to be oppressed.



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