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Activists Ask Government to Integrate Men and Boys in Gender Policies

Kristin Palitza

DURBAN, Apr 24 (IPS) - Gender activists are calling on the new South African government to improve the country's gender legislation. Current gender policies focus on women, ignoring the rights, roles and responsibility of men and boys, they say.

"Not a single political party has made gender equality part of their manifesto, let alone focused on how they might involve men and boys in achieving this," said Bafana Khumalo, co-director of the Sonke Gender Justice Network, an NGO working with boys and men. "This has to change with utmost urgency."

During the run up to the national presidential elections on Apr. 22, South Africa's political parties, including the ruling African National Congress (ANC), kept mum on issues of gender equality. Politicians' only explicit commitment has been calls for a 50-50 representation of men and women in parliament.

But equity in numbers is not good enough, gender activists and researchers say. "Power sharing is just one of many aspects of gender equality," explained Rabi Govind, chairperson of the South African National AIDS Council (SANAC) men's sector. "Gender equality must become a national priority and progress must be accelerated."

"Equal representation is not really about gender equality. It gives women power on paper. This is a complete misinterpretation of what gender equality is about," agreed Medical Research Council (MRC) researcher Dr. Sibusiso Sifunda.

Instead, activists would like to see government honour existing commitments to international gender policy recommendations. Although South Africa is signatory to a number of global treaties on gender, such as the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Beijing Platform of Action, none of these protocols have been translated into national gender legislation as yet.

"We have very little to show in terms of gender policy development in South Africa," lamented Khumalo. "We have to streamline political processes and ensure policies are finally put into practice."

In addition, the South African constitution clearly states that government has a duty to proactively implement measures to promote gender transformation, protect its citizens from violence, including domestic and sexual violence, reduce the spread and impact of HIV/AIDS and ensure that all South Africans have access to essential health services.

"Government needs to come to the party if we want to achieve massive transformation, and policies need clear budget allocations," added Khumalo.

He believes government should also pay attention to social structures that compromise men's health and reinforce rigid notions of masculinity, such as men's poor access to health services, the migrant labour system, institutionalised homophobia and rigid traditional practices.

"It is critical that government moves away from relating gender only to women's rights. Gender also needs to include men," said Khumalo.

Excluding men

For example, the South African Department of Health has a maternal health policy, while there is none that covers men's health, including HIV/AIDS, family planning as well as sexual and reproductive rights.

The ANC needs to quickly implement strategies that increase men's use of HIV services and consider new paternity leave policies that encourage men to be fully involved in the lives of their children, from birth to adulthood, gender activists demand.

"Government should collaborate with civil society to ensure swift and comprehensive implementation of existing policies and plans, like the Domestic Violence Act, the Sexual Offences Act and the National Strategic Plan on HIV and AIDS," Khumalo further explained.

He points out that government will have to collaborate with both men's and women's organisations to achieve those goals. "At the moment, most work is done by civil society organisations alone, and with very meagre resources," he said.

Andile Ngamlana, a caregiver of Siyakhanyisa HIV/AIDS support group in Qumbu in the Eastern Cape, an organisation that focuses on integrating men in care giving, a task usually expected from women, agrees with Khumalo: "I would like to see government support our work with men and boys. Right now, there is no support for our programmes. We have to do it all on our own."

Public consultation

Sifunda believes government's cooperation with NGOs should start even earlier, when gender policies are formulated. "We need comprehensive, multi-faceted programmes based on input not only from government, but also from civil society, religious groups and traditional leaders," he explained. "People only take ownership of policies if they have been involved in their making."

As a first step towards such collaboration, SANAC is planning to hold a national men's summit in Gauteng province in early June. "We will review existing gender policies within the different government departments and hold a public consultation process on how to create better policies," promised Govind. "It will be particularly important to involve men more actively in these processes."

On the summit's agenda will be an evaluation of the concept paper for the establishment of a Ministry for Women and Gender Affairs, which was presented to Cabinet for consideration in March. If approved, the women's ministry will be tasked with advocating women's rights, providing leadership in domesticating international conventions as well as leading policy formulation.

"We want to establish how men can be part of this, too. Masculinity needs to become an integral part of gender," stressed Govind.

Another aim of the summit is to create numerous SANAC men's sector committees throughout the country. "This is our call to action to mobilise South African men. We want to make sure gender policy is not only discussed at national level but take it to provincial and right down to ward level," he explained.

Govind hopes the committees will be set up by the end of the year.

***** + GENDER-ZIMBABWE: Religion and Poverty Force Girls into Early Marriages ( ) + NAMIBIA: Gender Legislation Futile If Not Implemented ( ) + ZIMBABWE: New Cabinet Ignores Quota for Women ( ) + GENDER-SOUTH AFRICA: 'A Real Man Does Provide Care' ( ) + Q&A: Failure to Translate Women's Legal Rights into Action ( )