Dean Peacock is co-founder and Executive Director of the Sonke Gender Justice Network, a South African NGO working to promote gender transformation, human rights, and social justice across Africa. Dean’s work and activism over the last 20 years have focused on issues related to gender equality, men and constructions of masculinities, HIV and AIDS, and social justice. He is a co-founder and co-chair of the Global MenEngage Alliance, a member of the United Nations Secretary General’s Network of Men Leaders (formed to advise Ban Ki-Moon on gender-based violence prevention), and serves on the Nobel Women’s Advisory Committee on ending sexual violence in conflict settings. An honorary senior lecturer at the University of Cape Town’s School of Public Health and an Ashoka Fellow, Peacock’s writing has been published in numerous books and peer-reviewed journals. He holds a BA in Development Studies from the University of California Berkeley and an MA in Social Welfare from San Francisco State University. Shari L. Dworkin, Vice Chair of the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of California at San Francisco, talks to Peacock about his work and activism.
Shari L. Dworkin: Why did you go into work that attempts to reshape norms of masculinities to improve gender inequalities, violence, and HIV?
Dean Peacock: My earliest engagement with issues of men, masculinities, and violence was through my connection with the End Conscription campaign when I was in my final year of high school in South Africa. The campaign was focused on getting white men to challenge apartheid militarism by refusing to serve in the army. That was in 1985, the year that the state of emergency was imposed in South Africa and a lot of young white men like myself were finishing high school and then serving in the army (either in the covert war that was being fought against Cuban and Angolan troops in Angola, or in the townships in South Africa itself). I lived on the campus of the University of Cape Town, and I was introduced to activism there.
I began to think about the kind of deliberate targeting of men for a particular set of gendered roles. In that case, participation in militaries—a military that was overtly and explicitly oppressive, as most militaries, of course, are. So that was my very earliest exposure to the work. The other trajectory to this work was from the relationships I had with women who were feminist activists concerned about a range of different human rights and social justice and women’s rights issues.
SD: So does the work resonate not just politically, but on a personal level?
DP: Yes, definitely. In my early 20s, my partner was working at a battered women’s shelter as a volunteer, and she came back one day from a volunteer training that had been done by the then-director of an organization I hadn’t yet heard of: Men Overcoming Violence (MOVE). She was visibly energized by the training at MOVE and urged me to check it out. When she talked about the work of men engaging men to end men’s violence against women, I immediately thought, “Wow, that’s something that I actually do have a very direct connection to.” I made a commitment to myself that I would learn more about that work and what I could do. So I checked out MOVE, and I had this incredible experience. I was invited to observe a group with perpetrators of domestic violence who were there either because they’d been arrested or because they identified violence as a problem they had to deal with. I listened in, and I was moved by the stories that I heard of men grappling with their own violence, trying to understand it, figure out how stop it, and deal with the aftermath of the destruction caused by violence in their relationships and in their families. I remember the facilitator asking a man how he felt, and he replied, “Well, I think that…” The facilitator stopped him immediately, and he said, “I’m not asking you what you think, I’m asking you how you feel.” At that point in my life, I’d never made that distinction before. Just like the men in the group, I was being exposed to a whole new vocabulary and a set of experiences and insights that my male socialization and socialization of so many men had been deprived of.
SD: Sonke’s work is not only focused on reducing men’s violence against women and men, but also on reducing the spread and impact of HIV.
Sonke Gender Justice addresses problems of gendered violence and HIV across South Africa. Photo by Sonke Gender Justice Network.
Yes. It’s critical to understand that intimate partner violence is common in South Africa, with studies showing that between 25 to 55 percent of women have experienced violence from a male partner. The rate of female homicide by male partners is six times higher than the global average. Studies also show that a large number of men admit to raping women and girls.
In terms of HIV, South Africa has the largest epidemic in the world. And young women’s rate of HIV is far greater than young men’s, though young men do face tremendous HIV vulnerabilities in South Africa—lots of pressure to drink, to have sex, and to not reveal any vulnerabilities or confusions about sex. Models of manhood in South Africa and across the world are a recipe for men acting in sexual ways that put themselves and their partners at significant risk.
Our work at Sonke goes “upstream.” Our work is primary prevention of violence and HIV—to change national laws and policies, to change social norms at a societal level, and to engage men and boys. Our conversations with men help them recognize the harm that contemporary models of masculinity do to everyone. We want them to become active in efforts to change that for their own good and for the health and human rights of women in their lives.
SD: Are these are difficult conversations to have with men?
DP: There are assumptions that men in South Africa (and men generally) would be very resistant to having conversations about masculinity and power and gender equality. But, it doesn’t take much for men to say that they feel tremendous pressure about norms of masculinity and that many of those pressures are quite unbearable and certainly very unrealistic.
We use a number of different strategies to reach men, including media, community mobilization, and workshops. When we run workshops and do dynamic activities, it’s not hard to get the men to feel a sense of outrage about human rights violations, women’s rights, and violence in South Africa. Our task is to turn that outrage into action. We get men to reflect on the invisibility of patriarchy to men and the overt experience of patriarchy that women have all the time. Then we strategize with those men about what they’re going to do to challenge men’s violence.
SD: How has social science thinking influenced the work of Sonke Gender Justice?
DP: I think Raewyn Connell’s work highlighting the plurality of masculinities and Judith Butler’s work around the performativity of gender is very helpful in our work. Michael Messner’s work around the costs to men of masculinity is a very useful entry point to talking with men in South Africa about what contemporary notions and norms around manhood mean for men and to help them understand their significant personal investment in challenging norms about manhood that come at such a high price for women—but also for them as men. This and other gender theory has helped us be more nuanced and more optimistic about what’s possible.
For us, part of our theory of change is that it’s not enough to simply run workshops and get men to reflect on their own process of socialization and consider making changes in their own relationship. With a problem as enormous as gender-based violence in South Africa, you then have to get men to think about what they’re going to do at the community level. We help them to figure out how to engage their duty-bearers (local government, provincial government, national government) to make sure that elected representatives are properly implementing the law, whether that’s the Sexual Offenses Act, the Domestic Violence Act, or any number of other laws that are related to ending domestic and sexual violence in South Africa.
SD: Part of what impresses me about the work of Sonke is that violence in the streets and violence in intimate relationships are intertwined, and working on masculinities is the point of intervention for both. Can you comment on why and how you intervene on these simultaneously?
In Sonke, boys and men come together to beat their drums, and to work for gender equality. Photo by Sonke Gender Justice Network.
If a significant part of our strategy is to get men to recognize the costs that men pay for contemporary notions of manhood and for living in a patriarchal society, then of course we want men to reflect on their own experiences of violence at the hands of other men who adhere in particularly rigid ways to those social norms about manhood, right? So, in South Africa, the conversation with men about the costs to men of manhood and the pressures that men face to live up to those notions is an easy one.
This is because the relationship between HIV risk and contemporary ideas about manhood is so clear. If you grow up being told, “As a man, you’re going to have lots of sexual partners, you shouldn’t really be negotiating sex with people, you shouldn’t be exhibiting any kind of fear that you might be exposed to risk,” and you put together the mix of alcohol, ignorance, and pressures to have lots of sexual partners, it’s easy to get men to recognize the ways in which manhood is set up for HIV infection and, subsequently, for not accessing critical health services (testing, treatment, support groups, and the like). The same applies to men’s experiences of or fears of violence. In South Africa, men kill men at seven times the rate that men kill women. So it’s not hard to get men to see these connections.
SD: As you’re talking, I am reminded that you are not just talking about programs but are increasingly becoming active in the policy realm. Give me a sense of some policy work that you’re most proud of at Sonke Gender Justice?
DP: One example of work we’ve done at a policy level was to stop the passage of the Traditional Courts Bill. It would have reinscribed patriarchal powers for tradi tional leaders in rural parts of South Africa and would have affected about 20 million people living mostly in areas that were formerly homelands. It would have essentially created two separate and unequal legal systems: a constitutional democracy, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, a traditional legal system, presided over by unelected traditional leaders, many of them apartheid-era leaders put in place by the apartheid government and not “traditional” in any real sense (and, of course, I think anyone who claims things are “traditional” needs to be asked quite a few questions—“tradition” is so misused and manipulated in many post-colonial settings).
In existing traditional courts, women are usually not allowed to represent themselves or even to speak. Quite often, women are not allowed to be in traditional courts at all. And so we and many of our women’s rights partners were very concerned about what [legitimizing these courts at the national level] would mean for gender equality in South Africa. We saw it as a very dangerous potential erosion of women’s rights as they are enshrined in the South African Constitution and as a reassertion of patriarchal power. We did a lot of work connecting to our partner organizations to educate men and women in rural communities about the bill and to get men and women to speak out against it together. (I think symbolically it was important that men and women be doing this work together—to speak out against the bill in their local communities.) Then, when provincial consultations were held to seek local input and opinion on the bills, we supported and mobilized and encouraged community members to attend those meetings and to speak up forcefully against the bill.
That’s the piece of work I’m really excited about. It’s one of those things that could easily go unremarked upon because we stopped a bill, rather than passed a law, but I think in some parts of the world, that’s the most important work you can do—to resist the encroachment of conservatism and of patriarchal politics.
SD: Dean, you’ve done more work from your 20s to your 40s than most people do in a lifetime. What is your next set of aspirations at Sonke?
DP: At Sonke, we serve as the global co-chair of an alliance made up of organizations like ours that work with men and boys, and we’re now active in 41 countries at last count. Forty-one countries are working to increase men’s and boys support for gender equality! This is an incredible accomplishment and something to really celebrate. Part of what we’re now trying to figure out is how we use the power of a global network to advance shared policy positions.
And now, we’re moving into an interesting period—the Millennium Development Goals have the target of 2015, so we’re fast approaching 2015, and we’re in the middle of the post-MGD deliberations at the moment as to what the next set of indicators should be to measure gender equality. We want to be involved in some of those global discussions—around the first MGDs— about the Beijing Platform for Action 20-Year Review that’s happening in 2015 as well—the ICPD or Cairo Declaration deliberations—the Security Council Resolution 1325 plus 15 deliberations—and figure out how we get networks of organizations working with men and boys to support, in very real ways, the women’s rights agenda in those global deliberative processes.
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