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A safe and equal space for women in the world

| January 22, 2020 | 0 Comments


I recently had the privilege of being invited to St Benedict’s College to be
part of an important commitment ceremony, during which the collective
submissions made by boys throughout the school on how women should be
treated were compiled into a pledge under the title, A Manifesto on

I was impressed with the honesty and insight of the declaration, which I – like all the boys of the school and all male staff members and male guests – signed. It was an honour to be in the audience to hear Alison Botha’s
harrowing account, which she chronicles in her book, I Have Life: Alison’s Journey,1 of her ordeal at the hands of monstrous men. What struck me most, was that 20 years has elapsed since she was the victim of this horrid crime and yet, only recently, at our 2019 SAHISA conference, we held a moment’s silence for another young woman who did not escape her gruesome fate: Uyinene Mrwetyana, an alumnus of Kingswood College.2 Why are we still a country where women cannot exist without fear?

However, finally, it seems that public sentiment is ready to become public action. More and more of our schools are making gender relations a central topic; and are engaging with these difficult realities and taking action to ensure new attitudes towards women among young people. While our schools are to be congratulated on these efforts, it is my hope that these
conversations become standing items on agendas and result in real societal change.

A pervasive problem

When I contemplate events over the past few years and consider how the issue of violence against women has come to the fore, I am overwhelmed by the pervasive nature of this problem. The #MeToo and Time’s Up movements3 have left us few heroes as more and more powerful men, many of them considered role models, have been named and shamed. And
one gets the sense that this is the tip of the iceberg. If this is a systemic problem, isolated or sporadic attempts to eradicate such aggression will, without exception, fail to rid us of this scourge that negatively affects the quality of life enjoyed by over half the world’s population.

If we are to weed this scourge out of our society, we need to start at the place where the seeds of difference and differentiated value germinate – and that means starting in the home. We parents need to actively evaluate our home behaviours to become aware of unconscious biases. How do we
treat our girl children that is different from how we treat our boy children? Is there equal value and equitable treatment? To share an observation, when I was growing up, girls did more chores and were more responsible for menial tasks, while their brothers were given free rein to be more selfish and less accountable because, ‘Boys will be boys’. How do children see their parents treat one another? Boy children will absorb much of their attitudes towards women from watching their fathers interact with women: their mothers, their sisters, female relatives and women in public spaces.

It is an onerous responsibility to accept that we, as parents, are shaping attitudes towards gender every day through a myriad of seemingly minor interactions. Who cooks, clears the plates and washes the dishes, considering that eating is a daily activity in which all people participate? Does the generally weekend-only work of washing cars and doing the garden fall to the boys? Are girls in the family expected to meet some
standard of femininity? Are they expected to be ‘lady-like’? This is a concept which often means not having views, being ‘nice’, suffering in silence, blaming oneself for the bad behaviour of others and being subjected to ‘How dare she?” outrage if one resists.

What do students see at school?

Out of this environment, boys and girls move into the school space where existing attitudes are either challenged and adapted or reinforced. Schools play a vital role in providing real learning opportunities and places for enquiry. Also, we know that children do not do what adults say, they do what adults do. They are keen observers of everything. Do they see females
represented at every level of staff? Do they see (and experience) women in power? What do they hear when adult males interact, speak to and, more importantly, speak about women? Are pupils taught that we are all people first? Before we are women and men, girls and boys, of different races, religions, shapes and sizes, we are connected by a common humanity and
that is the strongest deterrent to violence against others in all its forms.

If we can identify another as ‘just like us’, then we are psychologically unable to treat them cruelly. It is only if we have a disconnection, a separation that allows us to say this person is not ‘just like me’ – they are ‘other’, they are ‘different’ – then, and only then, can we treat them in ‘an-OTHER’ way – treat them differently. Empathy comes from the ability to put yourself into the experience of another person. If you can do that and say,
‘Would I want to be treated this way?’ and the answer is ‘no’, then you are able to see clearly what the right thing is to do. A myriad of spiritual texts teach us the importance of our one-ness.

The Golden Rule

We need to follow the Golden Rule, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’4 Simon Blackburn, an academic known for his work in metaethics, has stated that the Golden Rule can be found in some form in almost every ethical tradition, from the ancient cultures of Egypt, Greece and to all major religions in the world.5 Buddhism says, ‘Hurt not others
with that which pains yourself.’6Whilst Judaism’s admonishes,
‘Love your neighbour as yourself,7 Islam cautions, ‘Pay… as you would love to be paid, and be just as you would love to have justice!’8 This applies to all situations. The Golden Rule was proclaimed the common principle of many religions at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1993.9 The Initial Declaration was signed by 143 leaders from the world’s major faiths.10 The Golden Rule is universal and a humanitarian maxim that binds us.

The phrase ‘toxic masculinity’ is in vogue these days, but it’s always been around. We need to model ‘healthy humanity’ as the antidote, saying: ‘Bhutu, Umbuntu’: (I am because you are.)11 Each one of us has immense power to do good in the world. Peer correction limits anti-social behaviour. We all need to commit to speak up and stand up against ugly comments,
actions or behaviours towards women – even if the perpetrators are those we regard as friends.

How distasteful it is to see that, as we approach 2020, corrosive attitudes towards women and proudly professed sexism are still to be found in the highest positions of power around the world. This needs to be condemned by all people, irrespective of their backgrounds and culture. And we can no
longer hide behind culture, since we know, sadly, that sexism is deadly if a cultural practice advocates the denigration of women and such practices must be expunged from that culture. The lethalness of sexism resulted in the Pakistani girl activist, Malala Yousafzai being shot in the head for having the temerity to advocate that girl children be permitted to go to school.12 In South Africa, a woman is five times more likely to be murdered
than if she lived anywhere else in the world.13

Boys are hurt as well

It is my personal view that, while fully understanding the perspective of Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg,14 sexism does not only hurt girls, it can be very damaging to boys and men as well. Now that I am an uncle, I am requested to participate in traditional lobola (marriage) negotiations.15 On such occasions, I am taken aback by some of the anti-feminine perspectives
embedded in a ritual which is supposed to be joyous. Words such as damages and price are freely bandied about whilst speaking about women’s bodies. Do we continue to emboss the ‘scarlet letter’ on women and judge them as ‘pure’ or ‘impure’ with impunity? I have sometimes seen unsuccessful lobola negotiations predicated on misogyny, resulting in the potential marriage and the love enjoyed by young people being destroyed. This does not hurt women only, but men as well.

What we know is that language is consequential. We must accept that, saying, ‘But I’m not like that – I don’t hurt women’ is a statement we should re-evaluate, for the attitudes and ideas that result in the assault and murder of women, have far more benign beginnings. All prejudice starts in the mind as something ethereal, intangible. Those thoughts become words – light as air and transient as a cloud. But words eventually become deeds –
visible and hard as concrete. And so, what you think, you will say; and what you think and say will give you impetus to act. And those actions have consequences for others and humanity. We all need to be more accountable, not for our deeds alone but for their progenitors – our words and the fountainhead of our thoughts.

Let us call all to account

I always pity bullies. You would be surprised to know that, even as the executive director of ISASA, I, too, encounter bullies. I feel sorry for bullies because if you mistreat another human being, it reflects more on your being than the person you think you are harming. Only broken people need to break others. Bullies need to be stopped, especially when they are young,
otherwise we cultivate the monsters of tomorrow, who harm and sometimes kill others, particularly those perceived as more vulnerable in society: women and children. In addition, victims become victimisers.

If we are to address the scourge of violence against women and children, we have a bigger task ahead – that of eradicating unequal treatment – for that results in fairness and greater levels of justice. As one of the founders of the Time’s Up movement, Christy Haubegger, says: ‘If you want to eradicate sexual harassment, first you have to solve inequality, because power imbalances are at the root of harassment behaviour.’16. Let us all
continue to work towards a more equal society that is committed to the wellbeing of every individual.


Thamm, M. (2016: updated edition) I have life: Alison’s journey. South
Africa: Penguin Random House.


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See:, M. (2013) I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up For Education and Was Shot By the Taliban. New York City: Little, Brown and Company.

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Category: Summer 2019

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