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Where are the men in the battle for equality?

Brandon Hamber

"Look South" Column published on Polity, 6 October 2006

In the song There is a War, by Leonard Cohen, there are the lines: “There is a war...between the man and the woman. There is a war between the ones who say there is a war and the ones who say there isn’t.” These words capture the essence of research colleagues and I carried out over the last two years on gender and security in a number of countries in transition. As part of the study, we looked at whether the security of women has increased or decreased since 1994 in South Africa. Security includes, according to the United Nations, not only freedom from fear, but also freedom from need or want. So security is tied up with economic and social security, not just protecting yourself from physical harm.

If we think about the security of women in this broad sense, South Africa has made advances with greater representation of women in government and business. Disturbingly, however, our research found that many men think that women have advanced disproportionately. These men argue that the so-called war between men and women Cohen speaks of was over years ago. Some think the victors (women) are now taking their revenge on men and excluding them, making men the new victims. But statistical evidence shows this view is desperately mistaken. It is true that 30% of parliamentarians are now women, positioning South Africa eighth in the world in terms of gender equality in government. This means the country jumped 133 places in world rankings from 1994. A greater number of women are also now moving into managerial positions. But the changes are still miles off 50:50 representation. In the business field, for example, 80% of senior management positions are held by men.

So the war is hardly over and inequality exists on a massive scale. But where does this leave the men in our society who feel they are the victims of the transition? On one level, we have to take their views seriously and listen to what they have to say because some men may have lost their jobs since 1994. But, on the other level, we cannot back away from an agenda that wants equal representation of women. Surely, if we want South Africa to be everything it can be, we must harness the potential of all citizens, regardless of gender or race for that matter.

But furthering this agenda can have devastating consequences. Many of the women and some of the men we interviewed believe that the frustration some men are feeling at being challenged by women in the workplace, or being usurped as the breadwinner in a home, is causing them to act violently towards women. This goes some way towards explaining the high levels of domestic violence in South Africa. At least 50% of women report experiencing domestic violence, whether psychological, physical or financial. This is sickeningly high.

Feeling frustrated or challenged by social developments cannot justify violence. This means that, although we must seek to understand the challenges some men are feeling and address their economic hardships too, we cannot pander to violence as a justifiable reaction to the advancement of one sector of society.

So the war between men and women rages, but the time has come for new alliances. Men need to stand up and be counted. This means not only speaking out about violence against women, but also addressing some of the root causes of it. Inequality is one of these. It is not enough, my fellow brothers, to be horrified at domestic violence or shake your head knowingly next time some awful statistics hit the headline. We have to begin to actively promote gender equality. So let us stop pretending it is someone else’s problem and be man enough to bring this war to an end.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity, see http://www.polity.co.za/pol/opinion/brandon/.

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