“If we are going to talk about gender inequality, we need to talk about masculinities, ” stated Helena Wahlström Henriksson, Professor in Gender Studies at the Uppsala University Centre for Gender Research (Sweden) at the start of a discussion on challenging harmful constructions of masculinities, organized by the UNESCO Regional Office for Southern Africa in Harare, Zimbabwe.
In 2018, UNESCO is implementing a project on gender equality and male identities in Zimbabwe entitled “Challenging constructions of masculinity that exacerbate marginalization of women and youth”, in partnership with the Southern Africa HIV and AIDS Information Dissemination Service (SAfAIDS). In this context, the roundtable examined how strengthening male involvement in addressing the marginalization of women and youth can facilitate more gender equitable and equal communities.
Musa Hove, coordinator of MenEngage Zimbabwe, moderated a youth panel in which participants were able to share their experiences of male engagement within their communities.
“We cannot think of resolving gender inequality without first going to men and boys,” says Dr. Lois Chingandu, Executive Director of SAfAIDS.
Isaac Weston, Tichaona Madziwa and Tanyaradzwa Mashumba, three students from the Seke District, each described their unique journeys to becoming gender activists through the SAfAIDS Youth Changing the River Flow programme.
Isaac Weston grew up in a predominantly male household, yet it was primarily the duty of the few girls in the family to do all the chores: the cooking, cleaning, and everything in between.
“We were a big family and that was a big load of work for the girls, but it was considered to be expected. I was not conscious at how this was wrong. Growing up, gender is something you hear only in passing. Most people didn’t understand what gender-based violence is.”
The same sentiment was reflected at Isaac’s school. During lunchtime, it was common for boys to sit around, observe the girls that passed them, discuss their appearances, and bully them.
“I had not realized how problematic this was at the time and how this was making girls so uncomfortable that they stopped eating lunch in the same area as us,” said Isaac.
One particular afternoon, Isaac’s teacher approached him and introduced the Youth Changing the River Flow programme to him and his friends. Intrigued by the concept, he agreed to go through the training process.
“It was only during training that I really began to understand what this whole thing [gender equality and stereotypes] is about; the bigger issue now was to actually change my behavior and to show my friends that I had changed.”
Isaac began to distance himself from the traditional lunchtime activities and became a facilitator for the programme. At home, his family questioned why he was giving a helping hand and doing the chores. Both of Isaac’s worlds were riddled with confusion, and perhaps even irritation, at his new lifestyle.
“On a personal level, I wanted to take this step and change,” Isaac reiterated with a tone that hinted that this was non-negotiable.
When asked how he had dealt with the criticisms, Isaac replied with sage advice for any youth wanting to make a difference in their community.
“The moment you commit yourself to change and really get into your deeper conscience about what is right and what is wrong is when it becomes much easier. With time, my friends and family began to understand the whole essence of what I was doing. All of a sudden, their behaviors started to change. It led to them being better people.”
This is demonstrated by the fact that there has been an uptick in participation within the gender equality programme; no boys engage any longer in criticizing girls’ appearances during lunch; and a level of respect between both boys and girls has been established.
A greater awareness on gender-based violence and the importance of male engagement in preventing such occurrences has also led Isaac to become more active in his own life decisions. Since his involvement in the Youth Changing the River Flow programme, he has went on to complete his Ordinary and Advanced levels examinations and will be attending university in August – a feat he felt he could not have achieved without learning about gender equality and becoming an active player in reframing masculinities and fighting against the discrimination of women and girls in his community.
Tichaona Madziwa’s story is one that resonated with a substantial number of participants during the roundtable discussion. He had been involved in a number of programmes on HIV intervention, but as programme officer for Youth Changing the River Flow programme, he felt this experience would be quite different.
Key to his role was conducting trainings and initiating a dialogue within communities about topics ranging from gender transformation to positive parenting.
“I felt I was truly making a change, but I then began to ask myself ‘what am I doing to my wife?’ I am talking about…how to treat your wife and kids, and I am doing the opposite,” he said.
This revelation was what drove Tichaona to change his mindset.
“It’s behavioral too. I started to see my wife as a partner, a shareholder in this household.”
Tichaona started playing a bigger role in the household, such as by cooking dinner and taking care of his daughter.
“I really started to respect my wife’s decisions and perspectives—something that was not considered the norm,” said Tichaona.
These changes did not come without reproach. Tichaona experienced a myriad of backlashes from his parents, who expected his wife to do things for him. When questioned on how he responded, Tichaona said, “sometimes you have to actually change your mindset in order to avoid that backlash, and to resist…I saw more positive benefits than ever before by engaging with my wife. I have a very strong bond with my daughter because I was with her from the very beginning… changing her diaper and waking up in the middle of the night to take care of her. Had I not changed my mindset and learned the importance of gender equality, I don’t think I would have had as strong of a relationship with my child as I do now.”
Tanyaradzwa Mashumba’s ability to come to UNESCO and share her experience with participants is a testament to her resilience and courage, and how male involvement is a necessity in achieving a total gender transformation. Her story is merely a snippet of how the repercussions of gender-based violence can manifest themselves in a horrifying manner.
At age two, Tanyaradzwa became an orphan and was sent to live with her aunt and uncle. From an early age, her uncle began to sexually abuse her on a frequent basis and threatened her if she told anyone.
“I used to cry at school a lot. When I told my friend what happened, she referred me to the SAfAIDS programme and club. I was first really embarrassed and shy, because this is a school and there is a lot of rumor and gossip around this kind of stuff. But there was a facilitator that helped me a lot and counseled me. We went home, and they talked to my uncle. He was eventually arrested.”
Tanyaradzwa is now a regular member of the Changing the River Flow programme, attending meetings every Tuesday.
“I used to feel that I didn’t have a right to live. I am an orphan and have been sexually abused. But this club helped me realize that I can follow my dreams and go to university. I am writing O-levels this year. My dream job is to be an air hostess.”
Her journey to fighting gender-based violence was rooted from personal experience, but Tanyaradzwa has now made it her mission to spread awareness and educate others on the harmful effects of certain constructions of masculinities on women and girls. She is an advocate on promoting participation of males in the fight towards gender equality, and doesn’t plan on stopping just in her community.
“I as an individual learned that we should not keep quiet. You have a right to speak out. It doesn’t matter whether it is family or a man; they do not have the right to abuse you.”
In line with UNESCO’s mandate on gender equality, the accounts above are testimony to a greater need for strengthening the capacity of civil society to implement male and youth participation programmes to reduce the marginalization of women.
As such, the project and roundtable have underlined the importance of the strategic partnership between UNESCO and SAfAIDS by committing to train men on positive masculinities, conduct research on the impact of culture and religion on gender equality in Zimbabwe, and create sustainable dialogue through a set of materials for advocacy.