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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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.
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.