Monday, February 5, 2007

Day 1--Johannesburg

So far, South Africa has been a sensory sensation. This is a middle-income country. I have never spent much time in major African cities, and am more familiar with poor villages in very poor countries. The contrast is stark. The roads here in Johannesburg are well paved; electricity, television and cell phones ubiquitous; and high-end shopping almost a given. At least where I am. I know there is still poverty here…

Today I visited two outstanding organizations to learn more about their work. First I went to ActionAid International, to meet staff from the international secretariat’s women’s rights program and a member of the new ActionAid South Africa women’s program. One of the most interesting aspects of this conversation was these women’s take on the role of men in the feminist agenda, the ways in which South African civil society does—and sometimes does not—work together on the intersection of HIV/AIDS and violence against women, and the poor implementation of South Africa’s good laws.

With these comments in mind, I went on to EngenderHealth South Africa to meet a handful of staff members working on engaging men in changing gender norms and empowering women. They told me about their One In Nine Campaign, which reflects the statistic that only one in nine South African women who are raped actually report the crime, meaning that many South African men will see no repercussions for abusing the women and girls in their lives. We then went to visit their renowned Men As Partners program. Men As Partners (or MAP) is often held up as an example of how we should be working to change gender norms that result in women’s disempowerment and social tolerance for violence against women and girls. I believe that involving men in this fight is essential, since without their participation women will be constantly fighting an uphill battle. But frankly, I couldn’t understand how this would be done in practice.

We went into the city of Johannesburg (in itself welcome since my hotel and meetings are in the posh northern suburbs) to an area filled with refugees and asylum seekers from all over Africa. Most of the 30 men and adolescent boys in the workshop are street kids or otherwise highly mobile. Some of them gave off a really tough vibe, yet when the workshop leader introduced me as a special guest and said that I work at Global AIDS Alliance, they all started cheering and clapping and several reached out to shake my hand and said “welcome sister.” It was a very warm welcome! It didn’t seem that my presence there really interrupted their honesty either, something I was a bit concerned about before going. When I arrived, the workshop was focused on expressing emotions. I immediately had my first impressions shattered, as expressionless street-wary teenage boys said that they have learned that women’s emotions are important too, and that relationships are supposed to be mutually supportive, sex included. They even mentioned male privilege and talked about how the men in the room (all black) can understand women’s disempowerment because they know what white privilege feels like. It was a fascinating correlation, and probably quite effective. While there were two or three participants who felt that there is so much attention on women’s issues now that men are left aside, it seemed that most of those in the room were genuinely coming to recognize that they live in a man’s world. Some of them even said so directly!

I know that EngenderHealth has data to show attitudinal change as a result of the MAP program—participants fill out a questionnaire at the beginning and end of the 5-day workshop regarding their views about relationships with and treatment of women—seeing the program in action definitely gave me hope that a whole set of men and boys are being reached, encouraged to think about their roles in women’s lives and to value the women and girls in theirs. I still feel that it is difficult for many men to really champion a feminist agenda, but I am grateful to those men who are willing to challenge and break gender norms, to put themselves at risk of being seen as outsiders by refusing to allow the status quo to continue. Men can be feminists, too! So, in addition to beautiful weather (oh, it’s so warm here! How will I go home to winter?), birds singing new and amazing songs, and more to look forward to, I now have some new friends and a new perspective on including men in the fight against gender-based violence.

1 comment:

Mark Greene said...

Wow, the description of the Engaging Men workshop is really interesting. It does sound like attitudes can be changed, at least. That certainly is needed!

Thanks for sharing your travel diary!! I'll check back tomorrow for your next posting. -- Mark