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To break the shackles of patriarchy we must free both girls and boys

Friday, 20 August 2021

Juba Mashaba, Chief Human Resources Officer at Cell C

Moments like Women's Day are vitally important to re-energise efforts to achieve a society where women and girls have equal opportunity, and a world where we have defeated the gender violence pandemic. This is a long road, but it's up to us how long it's going to be. To make any in-roads we must methodically dismantle the toxic patriarchy that distorts male and female socialisation, which permeates many spheres of our society. We cannot dismantle these shackles if we don't include men and boys in the conversation.

Seeing the demographics of most boardrooms, interacting with management at all levels, and reading gut-turning statistics and accounts of gender-based violence, it is an inescapable fact that we are faced with a seemingly insurmountable challenge of achieving gender equity. In our country this challenge is further compounded by our legacy of racial inequality which results in Black women, who constitute the majority of our population, being the most under-represented in those key decision-making structures. But now is not the time to become despondent. It is high time we step up our efforts and start engaging young boys, who themselves are usually also victims of patriarchy as they will grow up to become South Africa's men.

Will they be men who support women climbing the corporate ladder or any other leadership structure; men who can cope with women who lead and earn more money than them; men who don't see masculinity and physical strength as power to oppress or dominate but to protect, nurture and support? As the saying goes: "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." We need to chip away at generation after generation of ingrained beliefs that do more harm than good, to both our girls and boys.

This is obviously a highly complex and nuanced undertaking. There are troves of writings about the effects of single-parent families, about absent or abusive father figures, and about socio-economic factors that work like a complex tapestry to shape young people. We also equally acknowledge the reality that unfortunately some single mothers refuse to give their estranged partners access to their children, which compounds the challenge for both girl and boy children.

What is clear, though, is that by turning all our attention to girls at the exclusion of boys is only half of an important intervention. Similarly, it would be futile, counterproductive and outright incorrect to withdraw focus from girls and women and turn the lens exclusively to boys and men.

Renowned US-based therapist and author, Terry Real was interviewed by Forbes during the initial surge of the #MeToo movement in the United States of America (USA). Real is a member of the senior faculty at the Family Institute of Cambridge and Director of the Gender Relations programme at the Meadows Institute in Arizona.

While speaking from experience in his own country, the USA, his words have resonance. He said, "Misogyny and masculinity are flip sides of the same coin. What it means to be a ‘man' today is to not be a girl. Not be feminine. The contempt for the feminine is part of the patriarchal culture."

He went on to say, "Patriarchy does not only exist in men. The force of patriarchy is the water that we all swim in and we're the fish. Women can be just as patriarchal as men by holding those same types of values and biases."

We do not have to swim in this sea of patriarchy. To change our world into an ocean of opportunity we must ask: what can we possibly do in our own networks and spheres of influence? This is a question that each citizen needs to answer for themselves.

Cell C launched Take a Girl Child to Work Day 19 years ago to give girls a step up, to show them the possibilities that lay ahead of them, to champion gender equality in the workplace and society, and it is a mission we will continue to pursue with unflinching conviction. However, we have recognised that society and its tapestry is highly complex and interwoven and needs to be reconfigured at all levels.

Cell C Take a Girl Child to Work Day started including boys in its programme in 2020 and from 2022, boys will have a dedicated programme that includes constructive mentorship - which is vital in a society where role models may be absent. It is a direct response to the understanding that both girls and boys need specialised interventions to move us forward in our vision of a country where women and men are equal - not just on paper, but in the lived experience of millions. A country where there is mutual respect between men and women and where women need not live in fear  that men  will do them  harm.

Our clarion call is for every business to get involved here or elsewhere and do what they can so that our children can live in the equal world we have - frankly - spoken about for too long but we need to do more.

We must continue to be brave as society, step out of our comfort zones and confront the violence and abuse being meted out on women daily. We must agitate for workplace and family equality. We must stop, think, analyse and change our own behaviour, assess how we as individuals, male and female, are perpetuating patriarchy. We must look in the mirror and disrupt the status quo. Equally, the responsibility is on all our shoulders to ensure we are shaping boys to cope in a world where girls are equal in every sense of the word.

Both men and women need to be free from the shackles of patriarchy and the health of our society, generation to generation depends on it.



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