Combating Violence Against Women in South Africa

U.N. Women estimates that one in 10 of the nation’s women are victims of violence each year. Cape Town’s Sonke organization is tackling the issue by turning men into better husbands and fathers.

Written by Gemma Newby Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
A father and his son holding a South African flag. AP/Peter Dejong

There are myriad complex reasons why South Africa has such high rates of gender-based violence. High unemployment rates and poverty have left many men feeling frustrated and powerless, while the nation’s recent past – the armed struggle against apartheid – led to a normalization of violence.

“The messages that we received from our elderly brothers from the community and society were, ‘Tigers don’t cry,’” says Patrick Godana. “‘Don’t cry – fight back. When you fight back you are a strong man. You become a real man.’”

Godana is the media and government liaison for the gender-justice organization Sonke. This nonprofit body is working to solve the country’s epidemic of violence against women by tackling its root cause: men.

In 2013 Sonke launched the MenCare Global Fatherhood Campaign, promoting a “nurturing, non-violent model of fatherhood and equality in parenting responsibilities.” It reaches out to men through counseling, education, media campaigns and policy advocacy.

The soft-spoken Godana is also an ordained priest. Like many South Africans of his generation he was an anti-apartheid activist. In 1985, he and four colleagues were caught up in an armed battle with the South African army. They were arrested then tortured by the army and police for two weeks; Godana was put on trial and imprisoned for five years.

Godana spoke to Women & Girls Hub about how that history underpins Sonke’s work to engage men in ending violence against women.

Women & Girls Hub: How do you think apartheid impacted men – especially fathers – at that time?

Patrick Godana: When I was a young boy, violence was the order of the day; it became part of my socialization at home. I never saw my own father kissing my mother, but I saw him many times beating her. That left me with some emotional scars, but no understanding of what it is to be a father.

Remember the burn-to-stand system – the divide-and-rule mechanism in South Africa? We were robbed of the very valuables of the land, and of our own fathers’ presence at home. It robbed us of quality time with our own parents. My father would wake up at four in the morning, travel by foot and start work at 6 a.m. He would arrive home at 8 p.m. During his working day he had no authority – he was just a black man. Even the master’s son called him by name, something unusual in our own black community. It made him doubt his manhood.

When I look [back] at my father I say OK, as much as he was this monster to my mother, there was another side to him. When I started this work with men and boys in 1998, I began to understand my father better.

Women & Girls Hub: What do you see as being the legacy of apartheid on men and boys born after it ended?

Godana: I want to quote our president [Jacob Zuma] who recently said that we have a violent past in South Africa that we have not resolved. People are expected to be good fathers overnight without concerted efforts to help them. You see 64 percent of fathers absent in the lives of their own children. Also, in our culture, we prioritize boys over girls. If you’re a girl, you don’t have to finish school because your destination is marriage. My boy must keep my name for the generations to come, so I invest in my son. The roles that we give to girls – they’ve got to go and collect water, over long distances, at the risk of being raped in the process – girls become the most vulnerable of the vulnerable in this society. Every day three women die at the hands of men who claim to be loving to their partners.

Women & Girls Hub: Let’s talk about the solution to this violence. What are you doing with men to turn them into better men?

Godana: I go to ordinary people in the villages and talk about gender norms. The toys we give our own children: guns for boys, dolls for girls. The messages that we are giving, “Don’t cry, don’t be like your mother, be strong like me!” We talk about how to transform these social norms that are embedded in our religion, culture, education and media.

I also work with gatekeepers: your traditional leaders, your religious leaders, your policymakers. I work with a king who has about 94 chiefs who report under him. People have huge respect for chiefs and kings; I work with them to change social norms.

We have developed community action teams in 32 villages that are doing gender-equality work in schools. In the community, when there is an activity – slaughtering a cow or cattle – men are encouraged to participate in the cooking. How they collect wood is no longer the old way; men are driving vans to collect the wood.

Women & Girls Hub: Can you tell me about your schools for fathers?

Godana: We recruit at the maternal childcare centers. We say [to women], “We’ve seen your partner drop you off, can you give us his details, his number so that we can invite him to fathers’ school?” That’s the way we recruit. Couples in the church who are planning to have a child come to join the fathers’ schools. Remember, we must talk about equitable relationship before everything – that’s very, very important. Remember the legacy of the patriarchal system and the legacy of violence; how do we bring healthy relationships first? Between partners so that they learn to respect each other? We learn that in our couples’ sessions.

If they have made up their minds to have a child, how do we then say what the role of a father is in this pregnancy? How do we bring men to prenatal clinics to start with so that the midwives and the nursing staff engage with both of them, so men can begin to experience these magical moments in seeing when the child is kicking and begin to touch? That’s bonding. You relate to your child in that way.

Let the men be exposed to the magical moment when the child is being brought into this world. The kings are promoting that as well – “Hey, go and experience this” – because if men see the pain and agony that women endure in bringing children into this world, there will be fewer street kids; there will be fewer kids going to school without food, fewer kids going to school over long distances, barefoot. We men will take responsibility for family planning and not say, “It’s your prerogative as a woman.”

If you expose men to making decisions and seeing parenthood as their responsibility, it benefits them as men. You become comfortable when you are trusted. You become comfortable when your child comes running to you, just to jump at you.

We are moving mountains and changing behavior.

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