Struggling to be a real man: Young people’s perspectives of gender inequality and gender-based violence

02 Jan 15
South Africa

by Alice Clarfelt

In the society that we grow up in we have been told by our parents that men need to be strong, the man is the provider of the family, men don’t cry, if they feel the pain, they cry from inside.

- Young participant

Research conducted with young people from Restless Development in the rural Eastern Cape, found that there is a great deal of pressure on young men to live up to certain standards of manhood. What is perhaps less clear is how such understandings are linked to gender inequality and the high prevalence of gender-based violence in our society.

For example, the expectations on men to be dominant and powerful, and women to be passive and subservient in relationships can lead to the acceptance of intimate partner violence. As one young woman stated: “We think that it’s normal, when he hits me, he loves me. We are not aware that person is supposed to respect you.”

The pressure on men to be financial providers in relationships and families can also lead to situations of violence. Facing the realities of poverty and unemployment, many young men experience feelings of disempowerment and frustration at not being able to provide, as one young person stated:

You feel useless, like you cannot fulfil your role as a man. That can turn into violence. You get frustrated, you get stressed, and then you can be very abusive emotionally. And then when you get home – just a small thing, you become aggressive.

While it is true that women are mostly affected by gender-based violence, there is a need to appreciate that men can also be abused, emotionally, sexually and physically. Young people said that boys are often raped, but that these acts are stigmatized, meaning they are kept hidden and unreported. Men are abused by their women partners, but this is not understood to be a reality. In general it is difficult for men to speak out about sexual and other forms of abuse because the attitude is that men are tough and invulnerable, and that they do not express their pain or suffering. Reporting to the police is particularly difficult because men will be laughed at and ridiculed – “the police think you cannot be abused as a man”.

There are particular forms of gender based violence carried out against young men who do not participate in the cultural practice of traditional circumcision, or who end up having to go to hospital during the ritual because of injury, infection or other medical problems.

A man who is not traditionally circumcised will not be considered “a real man”. He is very likely to face discrimination in the form of emotional and physical abuse. As one young woman explained, “you will be ostracized. You will not drink with men, or eat with men.” In essence this means that there is little “choice” about whether or not to go the mountain, because not going is equivalent to social death.

Efforts to address gender-based violence must reach out and engage with young men as well as women, supporting them to challenge ideas of what it means to be a man that perpetuate gender based violence. One can look to the approaches of organizations such as Sonke Gender Justice and Restless Development, which strive to involve men and boys as well as women and girls in their programmes.

Listening to the voice of youth provides a hopeful perspective of young people’s ability to critically reflect on their roles as men and women, and to be agents of change towards a more gender equitable society.

Men and boys and sexual and gender based violenceREAD THE FULL REPORT