Google the term “masculine traits” and what pops up is “strength, courage, independence, leadership, and assertiveness”.
Try “feminine traits” and you get “gentleness, empathy, humility, and sensitivity”. Apparently, according to Wikipedia, men are defined by front-footed strength and women are essentially soft.
Now in truth, all the traits listed are potentially great qualities when combined (for example, wouldn’t you love to have a parent who is both strong and gentle? And don’t you think a humble leader is the best sort?), but divided in the way Wikipedia would have you believe the genders are expressed, they have the potential to be awful.
Unfortunately, too many of us believe these to be the siloed definitions of masculinity and femininity.
Too many men were brought up believing that “men don’t cry” (in fact, 14 men commit suicide in South Africa daily, that’s 5 times as high as the amount of women). Make no mistake, men are sensitive. They’re just seldom allowed to express it.
Similarly, women are strong on every conceivable level, they just don’t feel the need to continually advertise it. You know this if you have a mother, a wife, or a daughter.
Since the lockdown began on 27 March, Lifeline SA has reported a 500% increase in calls to their gender-based violence distress line. There have been various initiatives aimed at encouraging women to access help when threatened, but comparatively little aimed at the perpetrators themselves.
The reality is that we need to stop making women responsible for the actions of men.
Toxic masculinity is at the root of gender-based violence and despite our multicultural nation, it seems to be prevalent throughout South African society.
This is what needs to change.
We can and must introduce policies that protect women and children from violence, we can and must have functioning judicial systems that punish perpetrators, we can and must embark on awareness campaigns, but all of these remain a drop in the ocean unless men themselves commit to taking responsibility for their behaviour.
A call to positive masculinity
Imagine a South Africa in which we were known for positive masculinity.
Imagine a South Africa in which men were protectors rather than perpetrators.
Imagine a South Africa in which men acknowledged the influence of various substances on their behaviour and chose to abstain rather than to abuse.
Imagine a South African in which men recognised their power and their privilege and determined to use it for the good of others.
Positive masculinity is seen in men who promote gender equity and equality at home, in the workplace, in places of learning and in broader society. These men have the restraint to resolve conflict through respectful conversation rather than violence. They respect people from different backgrounds. They see protection, love and care as worthy masculine traits. They are confident enough to express their emotions. They are proud to share the responsibility of parenting and homemaking with their partner. They are honourable and honouring. And they take care of their own physical, emotional and mental health, recognising that in order to be strong for others, they need to take care of themselves.
If we are to journey towards such a South Africa, it will take time. Many things will need to be unlearnt. The nation will need to commit to a journey of psychosocial learning and healing. A culture shift takes time. In this case, it would take intentionality and mutual support and encouragement across the gender divide.
A psychosocial approach looks at individuals in the context of the combined influence of psychological factors and the surrounding social environment have on their wellness and ability to flourish. Psychosocial support builds stronger homes and communities, it effectively promotes positive masculinity.
It’s time for a culture shift towards positive masculinity and men; it’s on us to lead it.
Eric Motau is Country Director for REPSSI (Regional Psychosocial Support Initiative), which leads in mainstreaming psychosocial support into programmes and services for girls, boys and youth in East and Southern Africa.