Opinionista Justin McCarthy 22 February 2013

Women and violence: Men are both the problem and the solution

The mind numbing rape and murder of Anene Booysens and the high profile case the State is bringing against Oscar Pistorius have dragged the gruesome epidemic of violence against women bloodied and beaten onto the table of (hopefully) every family in South Africa. Outrage is at an all-time high – but is it achieving anything, or are we, the nation of South Africa, merely ordaining that infamous definition of insanity of doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different outcome?

Some men, hitherto largely silent or inactive, have felt compelled to speak out in an apparent attempt to somehow distance themselves from the savage behaviour of their brothers. As well intended as these outpourings surely are, they really don’t contribute a great deal to a reduction in the gruesome, hideous, unspeakable things that are forced upon our nation’s women and children every day. Of course it’s vital that men take a stand and set an example, especially to their children and their male circles of influence, but it’s not nearly enough.

The various campaigns imploring women and men to wear black or blue or gather to dance in unison are no more effective. There are too many credible and intelligent views on this matter for me to contribute any value to, but a basic tenet is that awareness is not the real issue; it is action that impacts behaviour that’s required. In marketing parlance, this shift from awareness to action is something every good marketer understands. A minimum level of awareness is required before you can expect any action. Equally so, no amount of saturated awareness will make a button of difference unless there’s a reason for your target to act. Therein lies one of the keys to unpicking the vice that binds and blights our women, girls and babies.

These recent tragic events, and many before them, have the nation scratching itscollective head for reasons to explain what lies behind the abominable levels of violence so prevalent in our burdened society. Dozens of theories abound, many meaningful and valid, but I’m not qualified to contribute to that discussion either. I’m not a rape counsellor, a psychologist, an expert of any description or a victim. What I am is experienced in understanding marketing communication, and in taking messages to people who don’t necessarily want to hear them. For example, how many people actually choose to see advertising? If we gave consumers the choice most would eliminate the vast majority of messages desperately vying for their attention. The end game in our business is motivating people to do things they would ordinarily not do or want to do. Perhaps this is something we need to consider in our attempts to deconstruct the problem and advance some way to solutions.

Rape and the concomitant culture of the abuse of women is a dreadfully complex problem that requires a raft of interventions across the board. The statistics are horrific. This opening paragraph on a rape survivor’s website is a spine-chilling introduction to some well publicised facts:  “It is estimated that a woman born in South Africa has a greater chance of being raped than learning how to read.  One in three of the 4,000 women questioned by the Community of Information, Empowerment and Transparency said they had been raped in the past year.  [In] a survey conducted among 1,500 schoolchildren in Soweto, a quarter of all the boys interviewed said that ‘jackrolling’, a term for gang rape, was fun. More than 25% of South African men questioned in a survey admitted to raping someone; of those, nearly half said they had raped more than one person, according to a new study conducted by the Medical Research Council. It is estimated that 500,000 rapes are committed annually in South Africa. A 2010 study led by the government-funded Medical Research Foundation says that in Gauteng province, home to South Africa’s most populous city of Johannesburg, more than 37% of men said they had raped a woman. Nearly 7% of the 487 men surveyed said they had participated in a gang rape.”

Other statistics show the majority of the perpetrators are known to the victim, and are frequently a family member or friend. When a woman cannot trust the very epicentre of her haven of security, it demonstrates just how appalling the extent of the scourge really is. Rape, like cancer, is non-discriminatory in every sense – it crosses all language, colour, age, social, economic, cultural, educational, and even gender lines. The problem lies, quite simply, with men. It lies with how men are raised, with what parental, cultural, social and peer influences are exerted on them. More importantly, as is borne out by the horrifying statistics, what influences are not exerted on them.

I have no doubt that men who are inclined to adopt a superior attitude towards women are more likely to be meaningfully influenced by other men than by women, for the simple reason that they regard women as inferior. Yet the vast majority of activists are women. They preach to the victims and potential victims, and their message is not heard by the perpetrators and potential perpetrators because they choose to ignore it. It’s what we all do – filter out messages we don’t believe are aimed at us or those we just don’t want to hear. Even “good men” – I use the term in this context for men who believe in and practice equality and for whom abuse of any kind is anathema – filter these messages out because they don’t believe the message is intended for them. They don’t abuse women emotionally, or hit them, or rape them. And so the cycles of outrage and abuse continue unabated, and nothing changes.

Every good man should be encumbered with the responsibility to become an activist among men, because they are empowered like nobody else in society to have an impact on abusers and those with the potential to abuse. I wonder how many men witness a chauvinistic put down by one of their friends and remain silent? Do they endure an awkward moment, exchange a few glances of pity, and move right along? I wonder how many witness a form of physical abuse, and turn away in silence? How many actually witness a rape, and do absolutely nothing? A glance at the statistics and an extrapolation of the unreported numbers would suggest a very large majority of South African men do nothing.

Few things put a bigger dent in the male ego than the rejection of his actions by his friends. A woman may rip his ego apart with rejection, but a man’s psyche is most vulnerable in the face of disassociation by his peers, particularly those they regard as role models. I’m not knocking public declarations, these have their place, but it’s time more South African men grew some balls and took an active stance against this scourge lest we all go insane. An active stance suggests speaking not to the converted, to the saturated market segments, but to the ones who least want to hear it. It’s no longer a choice. DM


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