June 16 offers the opportunity to take stock of the work that needs to be done if we are to build a country that provides a nurturing environment for its young men and women to fully pursue their aspirations.
We know that our women and girls experience appallingly high levels of physical, sexual and emotional abuse. This not only violates their fundamental human rights but also hinders their ability to fully participate in society, pursue education and achieve their potential.
And the hard truth is that many of our boys grow up to be abusers — which is why it’s critical that there needs to be a particular focus on our young men if we are to make any meaningful headway in tackling gender-based violence and femicide (GBVF) in the country.
The causes of GBV are various, complex and interlinked, but men’s understanding of gender norms and expression of what it is to be a man is undoubtedly part of the problem. Addressing these with boys has to be one of the focus areas in order to create a change in behaviour.
The inaugural Primestars’ “What About the Boys?” project set out to create this change. Launched in 2022, it was created to tackle GBV by teaching boys to share emotions in healthy ways, accept and connect with others, stand up and speak out against bullying and inequality and break free from rigid stereotypes.
It targets male high-school learners on a national level through curriculum content that is further entrenched via hands-on elements such as mentorship. Last year it reached 15,000 boys across the country.
Critical to the programme’s success is the qualitative and quantitative data gathered before and after the programme’s implementation. The sources for the data include a pre-assessment and post-assessment questionnaire, as well as feedback from mentors and focus groups. It has provided a critical insight into boys’ attitudes to a range of topics around gender and masculinity – and also illustrates how these attitudes can be positively changed with the right guidance and hands-on mentorship.
For example, the pre-assessment phase found that:
- 16% of boys agreed with the statement: “There are times when a woman deserves to be beaten”;
- 30% agreed with the statement: “It is okay for a man to hit his girlfriend or wife if she won’t have sex with him”; and
- 74% agreed with the statement: “A man can have sex with his wife whenever he wants.”
Post-assessment showed that the percentages of those still in agreement had dropped to 2%, 2% and 18% respectively. This is a small sample of the 40 pre- and post-assessment questions, but the change in responses indicates a marked influence on learners’ outlook by the end of the programme, and shifts are observed in many of the educational areas focused on via the film and the educational booklet.
Evaluation of the programme’s input also indicated that there is a need for expanded support, which will be tackled in this year’s programme rollout, including:
- Breaking down stereotypical gender roles and understanding gender bias;
- The use of violence to resolve issues between boys and between genders;
- The use of gender double standards; and
- Prevalent homophobia and gender inequality.
If we encourage men and boys to become allies with women and girls, we have a chance of making progress in tackling GBVF. We can only achieve these objectives together — but with the right support, South Africa’s youth can turn the vision into reality.
And when young people, regardless of their gender, feel safe and respected, they are more likely to participate fully in society and contribute positively to their communities. DM