Sonke helps Traditional Leaders heal community ills

In early 2008, Sonke Gender Justice began a local One Man Can campaign together with traditional leaders in Mabeskraal Municipality in South Africa’s North West Province. In this rural area, HIV, AIDS and gender-based violence have torn families apart. Under Apartheid, Mabeskraal formed part of the Bophuthatswana ‘homeland’, notorious for its social and economic underdevelopment. The resulting unemployment and widespread poverty continue to negatively shape male identity and gender relations.

“Most HIV and AIDS prevention programmes have focused on risk reduction methods, like condom distribution and voluntary counselling and testing,” said Mbuyiselo Botha, Sonke’s Media and Government Relations Manager, who has steered the Mabeskraal campaign. “Little has been done to address the socio-economic and cultural dimensions of the epidemic”. With the North West House of Traditional Leaders, the Mabeskraal Tribal office, local schools and various community organisations, Sonke has organized numerous workshops, trainings and community gatherings in Mabeskraal during the past two years.In Mabeskraal, as in many areas of South Africa, high alcohol and drug abuse fuel domestic violence. “When men are under the influence of drugs, they commit violent crimes and perpetuate violence against women and children,” Botha explained. “These issues have been identified as pressing and need to be addressed urgently – the social fabric of the entire community could be at stake.’

Mabeskraal is a ‘traditional’ area, overseen by Chief (or Kgosi) Mabe, the head of the North West House of Traditional Leaders. (‘Kgosi’ is Tswana for ‘Chief’.) To date, more than one hundred traditional and religious leaders have gotten involved in the Mabeskraal campaign, according to Botha. Botha said he believes these leaders, who are now campaign ‘ambassadors’, are committed to seeing more gender equitable relationships and more local men treating women with respect.Sonke quickly helped establish a ‘Community Action Team’ (CAT) taskforce of ten traditional leaders, which now helps ‘empower’ and educate community members on gender issues, including ‘manhood’. Traditional leaders in South Africa see themselves and are seen as ‘duty bearers’ in the traditional realm and help constituents deal social problems. They often participate in HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention campaigns and help their communities combat crime, including gender-based violence.Spearheaded by Kgosi Mabe, Mabeskraal’s Taskforce has led community efforts to question current gender roles and harmful aspects of traditional masculinity. That masculinity and those roles have helped spread HIV/AIDS infection and have severely limited women’s participation in public life. Together they have hindered local economic and political development. The taskforce has also tried to steer men and boys toward being allies with women and girls in creating healthier relationships and greater gender equality, thereby reducing the spread and impact of HIV and AIDS.

Mass media typically do not delve deeply into local community problems. When they do, they too often fail to understand the cultural aspects or context of social ills. In contrast, Sonke and its OMC campaign tries to develop context-appropriate messages and trainings that address the specific social, cultural and economic factors affecting men and gender relations.Men’s imbizos (traditional community meetings) have aided community discussion of gender issues. In Mabeskraal and elsewhere, they are part of Sonke community education and advocacy strategy.

More than one thousand boys and men – from teenagers to the elderly – attended an imbizo early in the year. Facilitated by Sonke’s Botha and Kgosi Mabe, the imbizo introduced participants to new ideas about gender and helped deepened discussions and ties among those who had been at earlier events. Discussion centred on what it means to be a man and on the factors shaping manhood in communities like Mabeskraal. When some men defended the current form of masculinity – which many find oppressive of women – heated debate ensued.The imbizo also deeply touched its organizers, Botha said: “They realised that being involved in planning and carrying out progressive initiatives concerning gender-based issues and HIV and AIDS also helps them to stay true to themselves.”