Chapter 16 The Value of Re-socializing Boys and Men for Positive Gender Relations to Curb Gender-Based Violence and Femicide in South Africa

In: Does the UN Model Still Work? Challenges and Prospects for the Future of Multilateralism
Christopher Isike
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Recognizing the gravity of gender inequality and gender-based violence phenomena that date back to the apartheid era, successive post-1994 governments in South Africa have enacted several legislative and policy frameworks to address these challenges. From the 1996 Constitution, which calls for equality of all persons before the law, to several policy and development frameworks such as the Policy for Women Empowerment and Gender Equality and the National Development Plan (NDP 2030), there is no shortage of state interventions rooted in human rights aimed at a non-sexist and gender-equal South Africa. These rights affirm the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom from gender-based violence. In spite of these, women and girls in South Africa continue to suffer from male violence at alarming rates, prompting President Cyril Ramaphosa to declare gender-based violence and femicide a national disaster in 2020. This resulted in the National Gender-Based Violence and Femicide Strategic Plan 2020–2030, which provides a coherent national framework to support South Africa in meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal targets 5.1–5.3 and 16.1–16.2.

However, beyond gender equality policy and legislative provisions, and the usual challenges of implementing them effectively, there has been very little engagement with male mindsets and perceptions of the female gender, which actually fuels gender-based violence and femicide (GBVF) in South Africa. What men think of women informs their behavior toward women. These thoughts include a world view based on African patriarchy, which is also used as a cultural/philosophical basis for resisting the notion of gender equality as a Western imposition that goes against the African patriarchal world view and gender relations. This chapter used secondary and primary data from South Africa to engage with these concerns with a view to making a case for re-socializing boys and young men in the country to change their mental image of girls and women. The overarching goal is to lay the cultural basis for reimagining gender relations to enable positive masculine behavior in ways that will help tackle the scourge of GBVF in South Africa. This is the missing link in the disconnect between policy and practice on gender inequality and gender-based violence in Africa.


Gender-based violence and femicide (GBVF)1 is violence that is directed against a person on the basis of their sex or gender, and it includes acts that inflict emotional, physical, mental or sexual harm or suffering, threats of such acts, coercion and other deprivations of liberty. It is psychological, physical and/or sexual violence perpetrated or condoned within the family, the general community or by the state and its institutions. GBV occurs in all societies, social classes and cultural groups, and it is a global pandemic that affected one in three women in their lifetime in the pre-COVID-19 period (Dlamini 2020). It is prevalent throughout the life cycle stages for women – infancy, girlhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age. The impact of GBV goes beyond the suffering of survivors and their families, and it is estimated that the cost to the economy can amount to 3.7 percent of some countries’ GDP. According to a UN Women 2020 study, the Global cost of violence against women and girls prior to the pandemic stood at 1.5 trillion US dollars, approximately 2 percent of global domestic product (UN Women 2020a; 2020b). The social and economic stress brought by the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing toxic social norms and gender inequality. For example, by July 2020, the number of women and girls between the ages of fifteen and 49 who had been subjected to sexual and/or physical violence perpetrated by an intimate partner (GBV) was no less than 243 million (UN Women 2020a; 2020b).

Africa is not spared the scourge of GBVF. Using rape as an example, Botswana (1st), Lesotho (3rd) and South Africa (4th) are in the top four spots of the global rape statistics by country in 2021 (World Population Review 2021). This is particularly concerning for South Africa given its superior level of women’s political representation in government, parliament and cabinet compared with Botswana and Lesotho.2 Across the country, the problem of GBVF, which takes many forms, is structural and fueled by inequalities that transect race, class, gender, sexuality and age, and the economic costs for the country have been huge.3 With increasing levels of male violence against females in the country, the government has responded by enacting a number of legislative policy interventions including awareness programs and initiatives to curb GBVF in the country. However, instead of abating, male violence against females appears to be getting worse, which indicates a failure of government and society interventions.

On the research front, several studies have sought to explain the structural causes of GBV in South Africa. Many of these fall under four broad categories of inequalities: socio-cultural, economic, legal and political. On the socio-cultural front, patriarchy and the gender inequality it produces stand out as root causes of male violence against women. For instance, studies show that rape is mainly caused by ideas of masculinity that fuel male sexual entitlement to female bodies (Wood 2005). Others highlight how particular understandings of masculinity define and legitimate unequal and often violent relationships with women (Jewkes et al. 2011). Moreover, a number of empirical studies on the causes and nature of GBV in South Africa have shown that culture is indeed a recurring factor (Bhana 2005; Ouzgane and Morrell 2005; Vetten and Bhana 2001; Cock 1993; Kaufman 2001; Leclerc-Madladla 1997). On the economic side, poverty and unemployment are disproportionately borne by females, which makes them vulnerable and susceptible to abuse by male providers (Jewkes, Morrell and Christofides 2009; Isike and Okeke-Uzodike 2011a). Furthermore, women in South Africa struggle to secure livelihoods through employment and even when they manage to do so, they earn less than men. Furthermore, women also struggle to succeed in entrepreneurship (Mtengwane and Khumalo 2020).

In terms of law, there is a difference between the public and the private spaces that gender equality legislation and policies do not cover (Isike and Okeke-Uzodike 2011a). For example, the Domestic Violence Act (South African Government 1998) has not deterred male violence against women, which occurs in the informal and personal spaces of gender relations (Jewkes 2009). Additionally, there is the difficulty of women extracting justice from the law in divorce, maintenance and GBVF cases. Lastly, although there is a political will to create gender equality legislation and policies, there is little or no desire, especially at lower levels of government (provinces and municipalities), to implement them. For instance, male political leaders themselves commit GBV with support from their political parties, sometimes including the women’s wings.4 A fifth driver of male violence against women in South Africa is the national lockdown occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic (Farber 2020).5 An important point to note, however, is that no single factor can explain male violence against women in South Africa – or any society for that matter. A myriad of factors contributes to the phenomenon, and their interplay lies at the root of the problem.

However, these studies, some of which inform government policy interventions that are failing to address the scourge of GBVF given its increasing prevalence, also indicate a gap in the literature on the causes of the scourge. They show that little or no attention has been paid to its psychosocial causes – the interrelation of social factors and individual thought and behavior. In this case, they are the thought patterns that explain how men and boys see women and girls, and how these perceptions turn into violent masculine behavior toward women and girls. Neglecting these causes has implications for addressing the problem by all stakeholders of society. For example, this gap in the literature is also reflected in the responses by government, activists and civil society, which have failed to arrest the problem in spite of the efforts and resources put into it since democracy in 1994.

This chapter therefore argues that if the aim of all government, civil society and private sector efforts to address GBVF is to change the violent behavior of men and boys toward women and girls, then the ideational factors that drive GBVF should also be addressed. South Africans wish for men and boys to change their violent behavior toward women and girls to stem the worsening tide of male violence against females in the country, which itself indicates that government and societal interventions are not working. One reason for this is the failure to identify and address the thought patterns that inform male conceptions of females, and how these perceptions in turn inform violent masculine behavior toward females. The chapter uses secondary and primary data from South Africa to engage with these concerns with a view to making a case for re-socializing boys and young men in the country in order to change their mental image of girls and women. Therefore, the main argument is that changing what men think of women is critical to stopping male violent behavior against women. The overarching goal is to lay the cultural basis for reimagining gender relations to enable positive masculine behavior in ways that will help tackle the scourge of GBVF in South Africa. This is the missing link in the disconnect between policy and practice on gender inequality and gender-based violence in Africa.

The next section provides an overview of GBVF in South Africa and an appraisal of the government’s responses through legislation and policy aligned with international law and resolutions on women’s rights and gender equality. The third section uses empirical findings from previous studies on KwaZulu-Natal to make a case for why what men think of women matters in the fight to curb GBVF in South Africa. Based on that analysis, the fourth section offers some suggestions for re-socializing boys and men to see and treat girls and women differently. While these suggestions are particular to South Africa in the context of this chapter, they are also applicable to countries elsewhere in the world with high levels of GBVF, and some multilateral action are useful in this regard.

Overview of Gender-Based Violence and Femicide in South Africa

Gender-based violence and femicide, which manifests itself mainly as male violence against females in South Africa, has reached epidemic proportions. This violence comes in many forms, including sexual violence, domestic violence and intimate partner killings, harmful traditional practices (such as forced/early marriage), hate crimes against sexual and gender minorities, trafficking, physical and verbal harassment including sexual harassment, and violence against vulnerable women groups including sex workers, migrants and refugees. In June 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared male violence against women a second pandemic in South Africa (Ellis 2020), adding that one woman is killed every three hours in the country. The country has one of the highest rates of rape in the world, with 72.10 incidents per 100,000 people (World Population Review 2021). This is not a new phenomenon: a 2011 cross-sectional study in three South African districts in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal found that 27.6 percent of all men had raped a woman or girl. Of all the men who were interviewed, almost half (42.4 percent) had been physically violent to an intimate partner (Jewkes et al. 2011). Almost ten years later, between 2019 and 2020, there was an average increase of 146 sexual offenses and 116 specifically rape cases per day, compared with the same period between 2018 and 2019 across the country (Mail & Guardian 2020).

Likewise, a comparative study of female homicide and intimate partner violence rates between 1999 and 2009 showed that although female homicide per 100,000 people in South Africa had decreased from 24.7 to 12.9, this figure was still five times the global average, and rates of intimate partner femicide had not significantly decreased; researchers highlighted the urgency of these figures for policy-driven prevention (Abrahams et al. 2013). However, in 2020, the government’s Gender-Based Violence Command Centre, a call center to support victims of GBV, recorded more than 120,000 victims in the first three weeks of the lockdown alone (Farber 2020). Just weeks later in Pretoria, a similar call center was receiving up to 1,000 calls a day from women and children who were confined to abusive homes seeking urgent help (Lebogang Ramafoko, quoted in Mail & Guardian 2020). Lebogang Ramafoko, a gender equality activist and Chief Executive Officer at Atlantic Fellows for Health Equity, aptly summarizes the “pandemic” of GBVF and its effect on women in South Africa:

The truth is, women live in fear all the time. We are afraid in our homes, we fear walking in our neighborhoods, we fear exercising alone, taking public transport, expressing our views on social media and speaking against injustice in schools, places of worship and workplaces. Simply put, women live in fear.

Mail & Guardian 2020

Violence as a reinforcement of dominant norms of manhood and patriarchal social power has an impact on all South Africans, irrespective of gender or sexual orientation. For example, boys and men also suffer from rape by other boys and men, and the violent punishment of people who transgress heteronormative gender roles and identities is an increasing concern in South Africa. For lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, queer and intersex (LGBTQI) persons, this translates into the very real experience of homophobic violence, including homicide and rape as a form of persecution (Lewin, Williams and Thomas 2013; Wells and Polders 2006). Men, women and people that transit genders in South Africa are impacted by violence in multiple and intersecting ways.

Schools are not spared either, as school-related GBV (violence perpetrated against girls in particular) is pervasive across South Africa, and it occurs in and around schools (de Lange and Mitchell 2014). Cases include harassment and inappropriate touching, as well as forced sexual relationships with teachers, which often lead to teenage pregnancies and school dropouts. Both boys and girls can be perpetrators or victims of school-related GBV, which suggests that programming to address the problem should include both boys and girls (Khuzwayo, Taylor and Connolly 2018; UNESCO n.d). According to Khuzwayo, Taylor and Connolly (2018), students are also vulnerable to other forms of violence, which they experience while commuting to and from school.

How has the South African government responded to the structural challenge of gender inequality that is at the root of male violence against women in the country?

National Government Responses

Given the socio-cultural, economic, legal and political inequalities that drive GBVF in South Africa, successive post-1994 governments have put several legislative and policy frameworks in place to address the issue. The rights of everyone who lives in South Africa are enshrined in the Constitution (Act No. 108 of 1996), particularly in Chapter 2 (the Bill of Rights). These rights affirm the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom from GBV. In addition, the state and all its organs are required to respect, protect, promote and fulfill the rights mentioned in the Bill of Rights, which also protects the rights of women and other gender-nonconforming persons. Some specific legislative and policy frameworks that underscore the government’s response to the GBV that is rooted in gender inequality in South Africa include:

  • Establishment of the National Gender Machinery and existence of a National Gender Policy Framework

  • Establishment of the Department of Women in the Presidency

  • Women Empowerment and Gender Equality (WEGE) Bill of 2013

  • Criminal Law (Sexual Offenses and related matters) and Amendment Act 32/2007

  • Older Persons Act, No. 13 of 2006 (Chapter 3)

  • Children’s Act No. 38 of 2005

  • Prevention of and Treatment for Substance Abuse Act No. 70 of 2008

  • Child Justice Act No. 75 of 2008

  • Protection from Harassment Act No. 17 of 2011

  • Domestic Violence Act No. 116 of 1998

  • Prevention and Combating of Trafficking in Persons Act No. 7 of 2013

  • Victim Support Services Bill 2018

  • Combating and Prevention of Hate Crime and Hate Speech Bill 2018

  • Gender-Based Violence and Femicide National Strategic Plan 2020–2030.

The most recent of these policy interventions, the GBVF National Strategic Plan (NSP) 2020–2030, sets out to provide a cohesive strategic framework to guide the national response to male violence against females. This was a direct national response to the call by activists for the government and all stakeholders in South Africa to make the country a safe place for women, children and gender-nonconforming individuals. This resulted in a national summit on gender-based violence, convened by President Ramaphosa in November 2018, which produced the National Summit Resolutions of the Gender-Based Violence Summit. And, in September 2019, President Ramaphosa addressed a joint sitting of parliament on the crisis of GBVF in South Africa. These processes inspired the GBVF NSP 2020–2030, which also gives impetus to Outcome 3 of the National Development Plan, that is, that “all people in South Africa are and feel safe.” The GBVF NSP also provides a coherent national framework to support South Africa in meeting Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 5.1–5.3 (eliminating all forms of violence against women and girls) and 16.1–16.2 (ending abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence against and torture of children). Indeed, the legislative and policy frameworks put in place by the national government build on and reinforce global multilateral instruments such as the Beijing P4A, which comprises a set of twelve critical areas for achieving women’s empowerment, including a commitment to combat violence, as well as General Recommendations 12, 19 and 30 of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) of 1989, 1993 and 2013.6 Some regional multilateral initiatives with which the South African responses are aligned include the African Union Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Protocol on Women Empowerment and Gender Equality. Both protocols advocate equal access to work and to economic opportunities for women in Africa to address the socio-cultural and economic basis of GBVF.

In spite of these policy and legislative interventions borne from international and regional multilateral efforts, women and girls in South Africa continue to suffer from male violence at alarming rates, which prompted President Ramaphosa to declare that GBVF represented a “second pandemic” in 2020. Why is this so? Beyond policy and legislative provisions, and the usual challenges of implementing them effectively, there has been very little engagement with male mindsets and perceptions of the female gender that fuel GBVF in South Africa. What men think of women informs their behavior toward women. These thoughts include a world view of African patriarchy, which is also used as a cultural/philosophical basis for resisting the notion of gender equality as a Western imposition that goes against the African patriarchal world view and gender relations. The neglect of the ideation that drives GBVF in both research and policy is a gap that accounts for why the issue remains unresolved. For example, the GBVF NSP 2020–2030, which has significant activist and civil society inputs, reflects this gap as its six pillars focus on leadership accountability, prevention, enforcing justice, victim support, economic empowerment and research. As argued elsewhere, “these are useful priorities, but none of these six pillars and their intended outcomes reflect a psychosocial priority” (Isike 2021). To reiterate the proposition of this chapter: the bottom line of all government, civil society and private sector efforts at addressing GBVF is to change the violent behavior of men and boys towards women and girls. In this regard, changing what men think of women becomes critical. This has formed part of intervention efforts to address and curb the scourge of male violence against females in South Africa.

What Men Think of Women and Why It Matters

The relationship between self-perception and violence is well documented in the literature. Much earlier, Thucydides, Machiavelli and Clausewitz variously detailed the nexus between self-perceptions of national interests/capabilities and peace in international politics. The seminal study of Rudolph Rummel (1975), which discussed the interrelationships between perception, personality and behavior, has theoretical relevance to male violence against women. This is because people are products of their cultural environments, which define their behavior. Rummel (1975) argues that perception and behavior are mediated by a cultural schema that gives meanings and values to human actions. In other words, our cultural learning largely determines what we are consciously aware of and how we conceptually structure that awareness into behavior. Behavior, here, is defined in relation to the subjective perceptions, expectations, occasions and dispositions of the actor, which are mediated by culture and environment at different points. In the context of this chapter, explaining violent behavior, and possibly controlling or eradicating it, requires uncovering the linkage between our perception of situations and our behavior. Since cultural meanings and the values ascribed to them frame our cognition and perception of reality, perceptions therefore influence our responses (behavior), and these can be violent or nonviolent depending on our perceptual reading of the situation. This implies that a perceptual distortion of a cultural reality can lead to a distorted or aggressive behavior (Baumeister 1989). Chinweizu highlights this by using a quote from Lerone Bennett that draws the connection between perception and behavior. According to Bennett:

Men act out of their images, they respond, not to the situation, but to the situation transformed by the images they carry in their minds. In short, they respond … to the ideas they have of themselves in the situation. The image sees … the image feels … the image acts, and if you want to change a situation you have to change the image men have of themselves and of their situation.

Chinweizu 1987, 211

This is profoundly relevant to understanding and addressing GBV at two levels. First, culture shapes perception, which in turn shapes behavior. Second, it tells us that to change bad behavior, we must first change the wrong perceptions that produce the bad behavior in the first place. How do South African men perceive women? And how do these perceptions lead to violent male behavior against females?

Findings from focus group discussions (FGDs) with working-class men (average age 45 years) and university students (average age twenty years) in KwaZulu-Natal show what males think of females. The analysis of the findings also shows how male perceptions of the female influence dangerous masculine behavior (Isike 2012). Both groups of men were interviewed in five FGDs that took place between 2006 and 2015 in Pietermaritzburg (University of KwaZulu-Natal 2006),7 KwaDlangezwa (University of Zululand 2009)8 and Richards Bay (working-class men in 2011).9 The last two FGDs, for young boys between nine and seventeen years old, were done in Ladysmith (2015)10 and Durban (2015).11 All five groups were asked the same question: How do you perceive women/girls? The responses were categorized into themes, and of the many that emerged, two themes that relate to the analysis of GBVF in this chapter are the perception of females in oppositional terms and the perception of females as male property. At the end, they were also asked to suggest how their perceptions of women/girls could be changed to engender more positive gender relations, and some of their views feature in the suggestions made for re-socializing males accordingly.

Perception of Females in Oppositional Terms

Across all the groups, the boys and men saw girls and women in oppositional terms to them. According to one of the older men, “I see women (and my wife) as public enemy number one who must be curtailed always.”

Another saw his wife as “a necessary evil that must be kept at arm’s length at all times and tolerated when needed.”

The younger men (on average twenty years old) also expressed similar views of women. For one of them, “a girl is tricky and deceptive, and must always be handled with caution.” For another, “a girl can never be trusted to be faithful, so she needs to be policed all the time.”

Another voiced a similar sentiment, claiming that “girls can never be loyal to one guy”; this view of females was widespread among both younger and older males that participated in the FGDs. Clearly, even though males also engage in multiple partner relationships with females, they conveniently use culture to problematize females having similar rights or needs as humans. Other oppositional perceptions of females that were common among the responses include females as “snakes,” “gold diggers,” “control freaks” and “untrustworthy.”

An important theme to highlight from these perceptions is how males think about gender equality measures, such as affirmative action policies that empower women economically and embolden women to challenge male authority within the home. Many of the married males in the working-class group talked of how their wives changed after being empowered either through employment equity measures or affirmative action schemes that give special consideration to women who do business with the government.12 According to one of them:

I knew I could not trust her if she had her own money and I was proved right when she got a better job than me. She started dictating how things should happen in the family and kept her money away from me. She had a secret account.

FGD, 2011

The men agreed that this was a common challenge that caused friction, which often resulted in them beating up their wives. One of them said, “what gets to me is not the money really, but how she comes home anytime she likes and says it’s work.” Another, however, told the group that these issues depended on “how you treated your wife before she got employed and how much respect you give her to have some say on how she spends her money for herself and the family.” This view was further discussed and the men agreed they may also have contributed to their wives’ behavior changing toward them after they were empowered economically. This culpability includes how they treated their wives before in terms of providing for her personal needs and how the family purse was managed by the men. The question of fragile egos and personal insecurities, which lead to mistrust and jealousy, was also acknowledged by some of the men as a failing on their part, which may have caused or worsened violence at home. What these narratives show is that even when she is economically empowered, a woman is still subject to violent abuse by her husband because of his thought patterns about her or about women generally. This stems from the inability of some of the men to recognize and accept women’s agency as capable thinkers, actors and leaders.

Perception of Females as Male Property

Across all five groups, an overwhelming perception was that of females as male property. Boys and men across the age ranges of respondents conceived girls and women as things men own and control. University boys saw their female counterparts as sex objects for their use. According to one view: “Girls exist for my pleasure only and my girl must submit whenever and however I want her.” For another, “[a] woman belongs to a man and she must always obey her man.”

Other such perceptions of male “ownership” of females include women as “little children,” “irrational beings” and “dependent on males.” These perceptions fuel the use of violence as a tool to “keep females in their place (subordinate to men),” and they were echoed very strongly by all five groups of respondents over the ten-year period of the different group discussions. It emerged that these perceptions drive the use of violence to regulate and restrict women’s sexuality and ensure that women are confined by and subordinated to patriarchal gender roles in society. This violence is also used to maintain the status quo of female subordination to males and to resist women’s empowerment and gender equality initiatives put in place by the government.

At the end of the FGDs, when asked to suggest how their perceptions of women/girls could be changed to produce more positive gender relations, all five groups were in agreement that men/boys need to talk with each other more to share experiences and knowledge. According to one of the men:

Anger management is one benefit of such men-to-men talk as talking will help provide an outlet for letting anger out instead of suppressing until we explode one day in a very terrible way for all involved (see also Isike 2012, 31).

Apart from using it to learn from each other, such men’s/boys’ forums can be a platform for working with them to advocate for positive masculinities across South Africa.

How Male Perceptions Foster Violent Behavior against Females

Given the link between perception and behavior, it is understandable how oppositional and essentialist perceptions that men hold of women can foster violent masculinist behavior. For example, having an oppositional stance toward females even before engaging with them at any level already conditions males for conflictual gender relations with females. Similarly, seeing females as “property” can produce an entitlement mentality among males that makes it difficult for them to let females go when they end romantic or marital relationships. It is this feeling of “ownership” that gives males the audacity to want to keep controlling and brutalizing females they are no longer involved with. Such perceptions of ownership and the entitlement it gives males evoke a feeling of power and dominance that males routinely exercise over females. Frequently, when such power is challenged, even in the most unintended and subtle ways, males respond with physical and other forms of violence. Therefore, how males see females matters if society seeks behavioral change from males toward females. In this sense, to change and possibly eradicate male violence against women in South Africa, intervention efforts must be targeted at changing how males see females.

However, another important question to answer in this regard is: Where do these oppositional and essentialist perceptions of women come from? The majority of respondents in each of the five focus groups referred to “our African culture,” which defines gender roles and subordinate females to males. In essence, their conceptions of women in relation to them are defined by patriarchy. However, in the older men’s group (whose average was 35 years), the six men who were above 50 indicated a consciousness of the fluid nature of patriarchies that enables a distinction between patriarchies “as they knew it” 50 years ago and now. This was an acknowledgment of the dichotomy between patriarchies in precolonial and colonial/postcolonial eras in Africa. Although both are oppressive of women, they are vastly different (Isike 2012). In some of these precolonial societies, gender was defined in flexible terms in ways that allowed men and women to straddle socially constructed male and female spaces interchangeably (Isike 2012).

In terms of how women were perceived and therefore treated, the patriarchies of many precolonial African societies considered women as communal humans, whereas in capitalist patriarchies introduced by colonialism, women were regarded as property and commodities. All of the men aged 50 and over reminisced about positive gender relations between men and women, where it was “unfathomable for a man to strike a woman as women were largely regarded as sacred beings” (FGD Perceptions of Women and Girls among South African Males 2011).13 According to them, women were seen as “custodians of culture” through their role as primary teachers and nurturers. They were perceived as “peace mediators” through their conflict intervention roles within families, clans and communities, and as an “embodiment of love, care and compassion.” These conceptions of women enabled positive gender relations, where women were respected both as humans and as unequal partners working toward a communal goal of the common good, which is supported in the literature on precolonial gender relations. For instance, Diop (1989) describes gender relations during this time as “harmonious dualism” between men and women, which Amadiume (1997, 93) refers to as “fluid demarcation.” According to her, this “embodied two oppositional or contesting systems, the balance tilting and changing all the time” in ways that enabled community stability and order based on justice, equity and fairness (Amadiume 1997, 93–94). It is in this light that Isike and Okeke-Uzodike (2011b, 50) reports on the sanctity women carried, such that if a woman fell between two fighting Zulu men, they would stop fighting immediately out of respect for the intervening woman, whoever she was. If this were to happen in 2021, such a woman would become the object of both men’s fury, and it is an indicator of how perceptions of women have changed over time based on the evolution of patriarchies in Africa.

Re-socializing Males to Perceive and Treat Females Differently

How males perceive females generally matters, and if the essence of policy interventions to curb male violence against females in South Africa is to change violent male behavior, then males need to be re-socialized to start seeing females differently. When males are socialized to start seeing females as equal humans with rights, they will start treating females with the decency, due regard and respect that they deserve. This is a preventive approach that will help to curb and eventually eradicate the problem, as opposed to the reactive approach of containment, which is not working.

Changing perceptions cannot be legislated. This also explains why a legalistic or policy approach alone will not cut it. Changing perceptions to change behavior, which usually occurs at the private and personal levels of gender relations, will require specific interventions aimed at re-socializing boys and men. A number of doable suggestions on how to re-socialize males to have more positive gender relations with females that eschew violence are discussed below. These short- and long-term suggestions can be implemented alongside other interventions to combat male violence against females in South Africa.

Engaging Traditional Institutions on Cultural Re-socialization in African Patriarchies

Boys and young men in South Africa, like their African counterparts elsewhere in the continent, have little or no knowledge of what manhood means in the precolonial African sense. Their view of African patriarchy and manhood is rooted in postcolonial capitalist patriarchies that regarded women as reproductive objects and commodities without their own agency. This misconception of patriarchies, which they use to justify dominance over females, makes them unable to imagine and see females in ways that foster positive gender relations. It is also used as a basis for resisting women’s rights, women’s empowerment and gender equality, which they consider “Western.” It would therefore help to enlighten and re-socialize boys and young men using their own traditional institutions. Such institutions have the locus standi to make them understand that perceiving females positively and respecting their rights is not alien or un-African. This enlightenment can be done through community conversations that teach positive masculinities rooted in precolonial African culture without romanticizing it.

Furthermore, other socialization institutions such as churches, mosques and the media can be useful in cultural re-enlightenment dialogues and advocacy to make boys and young men start embracing gender equality as African. In this way, they will see that by identifying and promoting progressive virtues of masculinity, African men are returning to their roots while also laying the foundation for safer, more peaceful and productive African communities (Isike 2012, 30). These require concerted efforts from all stakeholders in society, but the push needs to come from the national, provincial and municipal governments, given that government is still the primary mode of organization in much of the developing world. Furthermore, different levels of government should implement gender equality policies and programs through coordinated intergovernmental relations to ensure uniformity in the engagement with relevant socialization agents.

Changing Basic Education Curricula

The social studies and history subjects in primary and high schools can be redesigned with a gender-sensitivity focus that places male and female political heroes of the past side by side. As argued by Isike (2012), apart from pedagogy, curricula content that equally carries stories and images of female heroines in history can influence the way both boys and girls think about women in society. This intentionality in nurturing the boy child into adulthood is essential, because if young boys and girls grow up already used to the idea of women and men complementing each other in society, the kinds of oppositional and essentialist perceptions of women that were expressed by university students in this study will be significantly reduced. Similarly, universities across Africa should look toward having university-wide general studies courses on Africa that will instill positive gender consciousness in students. The national government, education institutions and academics need to collaborate to make these curricula changes: this is a low-hanging fruit that can be implemented in the short term if the political will is there.

Formalizing Support for Co-parenting

At the basic family and community levels, childrearing has a bearing on gender relations, as children are socialized from childhood through differentiated childrearing practices on how to perceive and relate across sexes (Isike 2012, 31). In this way, patriarchy becomes firmly entrenched, which shapes the perceptions that define male behavior. Balbus (1987, 110) argues that the pre-Oedipal experience of a male child in “mother-dominated” childrearing prepares him to assume oppositional stances and withdrawal attitudes toward his mother in the absence of a parent of his gender (father) with whom he can identify. Co-parenting therefore becomes

[the] key that can unlock the possibility of a society in which the nurturance and caring that have thus far been largely restricted to the arena of the family come to inform the entire field of human interaction.

Balbus 1987, 119

In this light, to break the societal backbone of patriarchy, co-parenting should be encouraged within families in South Africa. This is a possible long-term strategy but may already be happening in varying ways as gender role norms on parenting are changing fast, with more women also working to bring in income for the family. However, this needs to be supported by government-mandated public and private institutions that grant a minimum of four weeks’ paternity leave for all new fathers. Enforcement needs to be monitored through an incentive system that provides avenues for verification as well. Paternity leave does not lead directly to co-parenting, but it is a good starting point to socialize fathers to be involved in their young children’s lives, which could also spark the beginning of new forms of gender relationships.

Establish New Men’s/Boys’ Clubs and Support Existing Ones

One of the findings from the focus group discussions was that men don’t have networking platforms where they can engage gender relations challenges and learn from each other. Across the country, there are cases of men’s forums in workplaces that have worked well in enlightening men on the imperatives of gender mainstreaming in the workplace. These can be replicated at various societal levels including places of worship; community-based organizations; universities; colleges; vocational, primary and high schools across South Africa; and so forth. Men’s and boys’ clubs already exist, but they also need to be supported by the government and their model should be replicated across the country.

One club already working effectively in this regard is the Men Care + program in KwaZulu-Natal, which aims to increase parents’ confidence and caregiving skills by providing a platform for answering critical question on issues around gender roles, reproductive decision-making, fatherhood and nonviolence, and the promotion of communication between couples and their children. It provides opportunities for members to support each other as they reflect on their own experience, attitudes, values and behavior regarding their roles as parents and caregivers. There is also the Isibaya Samadoda group, which is a platform that promotes a behavior change approach aimed at influencing the attitude of men toward women, diseases and lifestyle. In this context, it should be pivotal in preventing GBV. It is also a platform where young boys are engaged and taught about good behavior. It is a safe space for men to talk about their own challenges and be taught positive masculine behavior. Although run by the KwaZulu-Natal government, these should be studied and used as benchmarks by civil society and private sector stakeholders to replicate them across the country, to revive positive indigenous cultural values that would make men more responsible partners of societal progress.

Concluding Thoughts

As perpetrators of violence against females, males are critical to curbing and eventually eradicating this scourge. Hence, as several studies have suggested, they need to be involved in the process. To put a stop to violent male behavior against females in South Africa, the battle needs to be taken to the minds of males, where the negative perceptions that foster violence against women form. This will, however, require a context-specific and holistic approach to prevention that targets boys and men to change the thought patterns that stereotype women in oppositional and essentialist terms.

However, gender-based violence and femicide is not a South African problem alone. It is prevalent in different parts of the world where stagnant patriarchies produce dangerous masculinities. Therefore, changing male perceptions of females to reduce violent male behavior against females is an approach that can be applied not only in South Africa, but also globally. For instance, Africa has a common colonial history, and the distortion of patriarchies brought by colonialism and similarities in cultural world views within African states makes focusing on the psychosocial causes of GBVF a viable solution. This is where multilateral actions by the African Union and subregional organizations in the continent would be required, not only in terms of including a preventive approach in their gender equality and women empowerment policies, but also in championing the reinvention of patriarchies in Africa. Gender-based violence and femicide is an albatross to the African Union’s Agenda 2063 of “the Africa we want” as the continent will be unable to realize its pan-African Renaissance drive for unity, self-determination, freedom, progress and collective prosperity if it remains sexist and unsafe for more than half of its population – women and girls.

Similarly, while global multilateral intervention frameworks such as the Beijing P4A and Goal 5 of the SDGs with its nine targets have correctly focused on protecting and empowering women and girls structurally, multilateral efforts now need to target men and boys with a focus on re-socializing them. Perhaps it is not too late for an SDG 18 in this regard before 2030, since men and boys are critical change agents in arresting and reversing the increasing trend of male violence against women globally.


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The killing of a woman by her intimate partner.


South Africa has 46 percent female representation in parliament, compared with Botswana at 11 percent and Lesotho at 23 percent. In cabinet, the female representation is 50 percent in South Africa, 22 percent in Lesotho and 18 percent in Botswana. Clearly, if numbers alone were to translate to qualitative differences for women’s fortunes, South Africa should be faring better than the other two countries on rape and other forms of GBVF.


According to a KPMG report, GBVF costs South Africa between R28.4 billion and R42.4 billion per year, and individuals and families continue to bear the greatest proportion of costs linked to the problem (KPMG Human and Social Services 2017).


On the women’s wing of the ruling African National Congress, see Polity (2020).


The UN SDG Report 2021 also indicated that the pandemic is adding to the burden of unpaid domestic and care work and squeezing women out of the labor force (UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs 2021). The resulting frustrations impact gender relations at home in ways that exacerbate GBV, which disproportionately affects women.


Articles 2, 5, 11, 12 and 16 of CEDAW require parties (such as South Africa) to act to protect women against violence of any kind occurring within the family, the workplace, or in any other area of social life. Furthermore, General Recommendation No. 30 obliges states to prevent, investigate, punish and ensure redress for crimes against women by nonstate actors (Strachan and Haider 2015).


FGD (Focus Group Discussion) on Perceptions of Women and Girls among South African Males. 2006. Discussion conducted with fifteen male students at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.


FGD (Focus Group Discussion) on Perceptions of Women and Girls among South African Males. 2009. Discussion conducted with 22 undergraduate students in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration, held in faculty board room, D block, KwaDlangezwa, University of Zululand, South Africa.


FGD (Focus Group Discussion) on Perceptions of Women and Girls among South African Males. 2011. Discussion conducted with twelve working-class adult males randomly drawn from rural and urban settlements in Umhlathuze Municipality, held in lecture room A10, Richards Bay Campus, University of Zululand, South Africa.


FGD (Focus Group Discussion) on Perceptions of Women and Girls among South African Males. 2015a. Discussion conducted with fourteen teenagers/young boys (nine – seventeen years old) organized by the Department of Social Development, KwaZulu-Natal Provincial Government in a community hall in Ladysmith, South Africa.


FGD (Focus Group Discussion) on Perceptions of Women and Girls among South African Males. 2015b. Discussion conducted with fourteen teenagers/young boys (nine – seventeen years old) organized by the Department of Social Development, KwaZulu- Natal Provincial Government in a community hall in Durban, South Africa.


Some also complained of female colleagues in the workplace, as they felt that they were less qualified for positions but were nonetheless employed as their bosses. They also underlined how these female bosses undermined their masculinity.


FGD (Focus Group Discussion) on Perceptions of Women and Girls among South African Males. 2011. Discussion conducted with twelve working-class adult males randomly drawn from rural and urban settlements in Umhlathuze Municipality, held in lecture room A10, Richards Bay Campus, University of Zululand, South Africa.

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