Women must liberate themselves from patriarchy

Recently, I was asked to talk to the South African National Aids Council (SANAC) on the topic of Engaging Men and Boys in the overall goals of eradicating HIV and AIDS, and the role that men can play in the struggle for gender equality.

Given that this is Women’s Month it is important to reflect on women’s agency in the struggle against patriarchy and the role that feminist men can play in that struggle.

South Africa recently hosted the International AIDS Conference, and HIV and AIDS provided us with a useful lens to look at the issue of intersectionalities and the women’s human rights agenda in general.

The intersection between gender inequality and the fact that young women bear the brunt of the HIV and AIDS epidemic is precisely why we have a men’s forum within SANAC.

Men through their activism in  all organizations, should play a role in changing the toxic masculinities that underpin violence against women and the inequities that have historically fueled the HIV and AIDS epidemic.

In supporting the work of the Men’s Forum and also other initiatives such as Men Engage, as women and women’s organizations, we must do so mindful of the fact this forms part of a broader struggle against the ideology of male supremacy (patriarchy) and, that it is critical all of society to engage in actions that fully realize a society wherein all people are equal.

In South Africa, we are lucky that we have a Constitution and legal framework that formally recognizes this equality.

Section 9(3) of the South African Constitution states unequivocally that the state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, color, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.

Section 8 (2) of the constitution binds the executive of the state to respect the Bill of Rights and it is expected that  South African citizens are also bound by the spirit and letter of the Bill of Rights.

It is clear though that these constitutional injunctions are still aspirational.

This year again, in the midst of Women’s month we read about a six-year-old boy who was murdered while trying to defend his mother from being raped.

Last year, during this same period there were media reports about a 70-year-old man arrested for raping his seven-year-old daughter, a report about a judge correctly giving a long-term jail sentence to a young man who sexually assaulted and murdered a young lesbian woman and also an article about the despair of a young woman who had acid thrown in her face by an intimate male partner.

In 2014 South African media was spellbound by the trial of a celebrity athlete who shot and killed his girlfriend.

These few cases highlighted in the media provide us with a brief insight into the nature of violence against women and the kinds of attitudes and actions that are intertwined with the nature of the HIV and AIDS pandemic in South Africa.

Women of all races and classes are victims of violence and the profile of perpetrators also cuts across race and class. The thing that the vast majority of women victims of violence have in common are that their attackers were not strangers but people that they know such as intimate partners, family members, friends and acquaintances.

The same applies to HIV and AIDS. Many women are unable to negotiate safe sex in their own homes with their intimate partners and are thereby exposed to HIV and AIDS.

The higher incidence of poverty amongst women also gives rise to higher levels of transactional sex and the so-called sugar daddy syndrome.  All of these are key risk factors for contracting HIV and AIDS for especially younger women. Poverty and ongoing stigmatization also make it difficult for women to access treatment and prevention programmes.

Poverty, inequality, drugs and alcohol abuse do not cause violence against women or increase their risks to HIV and AIDS.

These are aggravating factors  with the root causes being patriarchy.

The root causes of violence against women are therefore political.

The environment that places women at increased risk stems from and is nurtured by patriarchy, the ideology of male superiority that has rendered women second-class and subservient to males and male power in South Africa and across the globe.

Patriarchy creates a sense of entitlement amongst men. It makes men feel entitled to be the head of the household, the boss in the business world, and the head of a village, the president of political parties and presidents of countries.

Many men also feel entitled to sex and do not believe that women have the right to bodily integrity and autonomy and the right to choose whom to have sex with, when to have sex, to have sex, when to have children and how many children they wish to have.

It is this system of patriarchy that also excludes women from the economic mainstream rendering them dependent on patriarchal family structures dominated economically and socially by men.

Therefore, any strategy that seeks to eradicate HIV and AIDS and violence against women must deal with a patriarchal system that is hegemonic and propagated through the economic, social, political, cultural and religious institutions of this and other societies.

We need to fundamentally transform all of these systems and institutions to eradicating HIV and AIDS and eliminate violence against women.  This will also have the added benefit of creating new societies that is generally more equal, gentle and peaceful.

The undoing of the ideas, beliefs, values, norms and systems that give rise to and perpetuate violence against women and that place women at increased risk of HIV and AIDS requires the birthing of a new society, a society that we in South Africa have never experienced.

The oppression of women, sexual violence and other forms of violence against women was as bad if not worse under apartheid and colonial rule. In fact the old legal system undergirded the systems oppressing women.

Therefore, it is at best a folly for people to talk about ‘re-building society’, ‘reconstructing communities’, and ‘moral regeneration’, as if a journey to the past where the systems of patriarchy were sharper, and its apparatus for oppression more brutal will make the lives of women better and safer.

Despite the significant problems with violence against women in South Africa and other parts of the world the struggles for human rights and for women’s rights have made the lives of women better here and across the globe.

Human rights also provide the framework for ongoing struggles for justice, equality and peace.

So, if it is not folly for people to harken back to a mythical safer past, it is then a deliberate attempt by those who feel that they have lost some of their powers and privileges in rights based societies and seek to reclaim that power by blaming current levels of violence and social ills on the notion that ‘people have too many human rights’.

We hear this refrain against human rights by traditional leaders, religious leaders and others who seek to ‘rebuild’ stronger more robust patriarchal systems with the promise of a safer environment for women, as long as they know their place and do not demand their rights to equality and dignity.

Despite these gains our struggle must continue. A safer place for women, children and all of society is only possible if we strive to create a new society.

We need to birth a society with new and unprecedented values and belief systems that manifests and accepts the truism that all people are equal without distinction of any kind.

This acceptance will give rise to the implementation of the good laws and policies that we have in South Africa aimed at eliminating HIV and AIDS and violence against women.

These policies and laws are not only poorly implemented because of a lack of capacity, but also because the public officials including those in the health and social sectors tasked with its implementation, like the broader masses in South Africa, have not internalized and accepted that these policy instruments are vital for creating safer and more peaceful societies.

Our challenge, therefore is not legal reform, or only building a capable state but more fundamentally, it’s about building a new consciousness on substantive equality amongst all South Africans.

Building this new consciousness requires us to build strong organizations and movements.

We need strong women’s movements and robust civil society organizations to lead this political struggle for a new society that will be safer, and more equal for women.

This will also create a truly egalitarian society for all. As women, while we welcome the engagement and involvement of men, we cannot and should not delegate this struggle to men.

By doing we this we are actually being complicit with patriarchy as we are suggesting that our freedom and safety are ultimately up to the largesse and agency of men.

The active participation of men in eradicating HIV and AIDS must be seen as part of a broader campaign to engage society about the need to dismantle patriarchy and all its supporting institutions and ideas factories. We still see references to men as being the ‘protectors’ of women and children and the ‘providers’ for families.

This kind of messaging reinforces patriarchal gender roles and will not lead to a better society for women or add value to actions to eradicating HIV and AIDS.

Similarly, as we continue this and other campaigns and programmes to eliminate HIV and AIDS and violence against women, we should not give undue roles and privileges to traditional leaders, pastors, imams, rabbis or temple priests as organized religion, culture and tradition have been key progenitors of the belief systems that have made women second class citizens in all societies across the world over hundreds of years.

We engage them with a view to transforming them as we journey together to a new more equal society.

Complicity with such patriarchal institutions will indeed be folly on the side of those seeking to eradicate HIV and AIDS and violence against women.

So engaging men and the participation of men in the struggle and journey towards a new society requires men to work with women and women’s organizations for a society free from patriarchy, free from discrimination and violence based on gender, sex, race, class, religion, belief, sexual orientation and gendered identities or any other status.


Posted in Phambili
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