‘I was involved in anti-apartheid and anti-US imperialism activism in Central America. It never occurred to me in my late teens or early twenties that gender equality work was something that I, as a man, should be concerned about.’
Dean Peacock has clearly changed his mind. In his sharp South African accent, he declares the importance for men of gender equality: ‘Men have both a role and an investment in this work. We stand to gain an enormous amount by living in a world where gender roles are freer and less suffocating.’ As Director of Sonke Gender Justice Network, a Cape Town-based organization that works across Africa to engage men and boys to end violence against women, Peacock spends his life challenging patriarchal and violent notions of masculinity.
‘We exist in a country with violence in all forms, with very high levels of men’s violence against women,’ he explains. Sonke was established in 2006 to tackle gender violence and its close connection to HIV in South Africa, where 17.3 per cent of the country’s adults are HIV positive.
But South African women bear the greater burden. In 2011, 30.2 per cent of women aged 15 to 49 were recorded as living with the virus. This prevalence is, Peacock explains, ‘because of situations where women don’t have the ability to negotiate the terms of sex’. He gives an example: ‘A woman will know her partner is unfaithful to her and practicing unsafe sex but in a society where there's pressure on women to stay in relationships and insufficient housing and employment options, she'll often be forced to stay despite the risk of contracting HIV.’
Peacock describes South Africa’s violence against women as ‘off the charts’. Domestic and sexual violence is widespread, with statistics estimating that over 30 per cent of girls have been raped by the age of 18, and three women are murdered by their partner each day. Sonke targets men and boys to put an end to this brutality.
As well as providing community education to men on health and violence prevention, Sonke brings together lawyers, policymakers and community activists to halt the pandemic of gender violence in South Africa and other African states. The charity employs strategies including community outreach and mobilization that encourage men to redefine social constructions of masculinity. It also works on policy development and global network building with similar organizations to lobby for change at the international level.
However, Peacock is cautious of the government’s willingness to act: ‘If you adopt law and policy you then have to monitor and demand its implementation. There we’ve got a lot to learn from AIDS activists, who have tracked global policies and laws at country level, and kept the pressure on to demand proper implementation.’
Sonke also faces contentious issues with the nature of its work: ‘When you put work with men and boys on the table, there’s sometimes a sense of relief that’s coupled with conservatism: “Oh, we’re not just talking about women’s rights any more.” We’ve got to be really careful that the work with men and boys doesn’t inadvertently fuel that.’
Peacock gives an example of an event for Sonke’s Brothers for Life campaign: ‘The language at the event was very conservative: “Women are weak and vulnerable and frail; men must protect them.” That’s the kind of language that we challenge all the time.’
Reflecting on the involvement of men within gender equality campaigns, Peacock asserts: ‘It’s relatively recent that men have joined the conversation and activist movements. There was the assumption that all men benefited so much from patriarchy that no man could be committed to challenge it. But many men also pay a significant cost in a patriarchal society. Expectations around manhood are really bad for men too, for the most part. What we’ve added to the discussion is to say “There isn’t a neat binary here between women’s interests and men’s interests; we experience patriarchy and constructions of manhood as problematic”.’
Despite the challenges that Sonke faces, Peacock remains determined. ‘We exist in an interesting and exciting moment where there is a growing understanding that you have to engage men,’ he says. ‘And they’re increasingly stepping forward, saying, “I want to, and have to, be a part of the solution. It would be unethical not to”.’