Opinionista Kenneth Diole 18 May 2017

Unlearning toxic behaviour

Over the past couple of weeks we have seen horrific gender-based violence, in particular rape, hit the front pages of papers. We gasped as a nation in shock at the brutal death of Karabo Mokoena, the numerous cases of kidnapping of young women, and the gang-rape of a 22-year-old pregnant women by 11 men. These incidents, among thousands of others, require of us to re-analyse a few critical social values that we lack as a society, and for us to address the ongoing violent culture that permeates South Africa.

According to Statistics South Africa, only one in nine rape cases is reported to the police. This, coupled with the fact that 38% of men have admitted to having forced themselves sexually on a woman, creates a worrisome picture.

For us to understand and thus effectively deal with this crisis, we need to have an in-depth understanding of the teaching or lack thereof that has led to such a violent culture. I posit that at the foundation are four key issues that have allowed this.

First, whether we admit it or not, many men hold a number of patriarchal and misogynistic views against women. This in turn leads to a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, and when rejected, the fragile masculinity of most is displayed through violent and gruesome attacks such as murder, physical abuse and rape. This culture is created through a number of ways. Many young men, particularly black men, state that they have never engaged in conversations of relationships, mutual respect and equality with their parents. What they then model is learnt socially, through people in their proximity; colleagues, friends and neighbours influence their perception, good or bad, of how to treat women. It therefore indicates that a lot of unlearning is critical in order to create safer spaces for women in South Africa.

Second, in recent conversations with friends, colleagues and random individuals, one realises that part of what has allowed this violent culture against women to continue is the issue of toxic friendship circles. An alarming factor regarding gender-based violence is how many people – men, and at times women themselves – know of a person in close proximity to them who is or has been verbally, emotionally and at times physically abused by a person close to them. Yet they have said nothing about it and continue to keep those friends while doing precious little to ensure it never occurs again. This, I would argue, is what allows for gender-based violence in all its manifestations to be perpetuated. When abusers are not called out and exposed, they in turn develop a mindset which states that what they are doing is permissible and somehow socially acceptable.

Third, as a society we like to individualise issues in order not to take collective responsibility of a situation that is by and large created by us all, whether actively or passively. The #menaretrash trend is a prime example of how as men we like to individualise a systematic problem. The movement tries to show that even though as an individual you might not be an abuser, you are but a microcosm of a gender which largely abuses women. It remains imperative not to individualise a movement like this, but to understand that by mere existence, however good a man you are, to another woman you are a potential rapist, thug, and common criminal among other things. This should rather be a call to action to play a part in creating a conducive and safe space for women and children.

Last, it is of paramount importance that as a society we take a moment of reflection on how we have actively or passively participated in creating such a toxic culture. The way forward must be created through a number of ways. Parents must start engaging and modelling to their children, from a young age, good practices and values. Police officers should be constantly retrained and conscientised in how to treat victims of gender-based violence in the most delicate and compassionate ways and arguably most important is the need for us constantly to be learning, unlearning and relearning. It is no longer enough for us to just complain on various social media platforms, but collectively work to reshape this violent narrative into one of shared values in the promotion and protection of women. DM


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