Teaching men how to unlearn violent behaviour

MEN’s violence is a near universal phenomenon, but SA has one of the highest incidences of intimate partner violence in the world.

Violence like this has been learned. Men are often socialised into violence, and come to be violent because it is set up as a viable expression of their masculinity. So violence can be unlearned.

According to the South African Medical Research Council, intimate partner violence — which may include physical, sexual, emotional, or economic abuse by a former or current partner — is one of the most common forms of violence experienced by women in SA.

It is said one in every four South African women will experience intimate partner violence at some point during her life. Such violence is primarily carried out by men.

The Domestic Violence Act provides sufferers of domestic violence with an instrument to prevent abuses. Despite this being progressive, accessible, and necessary legislation, it does little in the way of its commitment to “the elimination of domestic violence” due to its neglect of SA’s socioeconomic context — the setting in which such violence is learned.

Boys are taught from a young age that being aggressive is central to expressions of masculinity. Violence is a masculine choice available to men and it is seen as an acceptable, socially sanctioned presentation of manhood, which attempts to take back any component of traditional manhood which has been undermined.

Intimate partner violence can be understood as a crime of power, which SA’s patriarchal society has awarded to all men who live within it. However, violence is not the only kind of destructive reaction to feelings of masculine disarmament. For example, men may also assume a “cool pose” in an attempt to disengage with the shame of not fulfilling gendered expectations.

I am not arguing for a simplistic explanation of the undoubtedly complicated social, psychological, and economic factors which influence gender-based violence. Nor am I suggesting that violent men be absolved of responsibility.

I AM also not emphasising the victimhood status of women who suffer from gender-based violence, or neglecting the agency of these women, who are not necessarily passive receivers of violence.

Rather, I believe that pathologising violent men can act simplistically to fix the problem of violence to maleness. Demonising men does little to address the social contexts that foster violence, and in which men learn violence.

Legislation that commits itself to the “elimination” of gender-based violence needs to consider the social environment in which such violence is embedded and learned.

Considering violence as a reaction to feelings of humiliation at not embodying traditional manhood allows us to begin to think about ways in which we can unlearn the gendered expectations that limit the manner in which we engage with our environments — as well as with each other — so that the lived reality of South African women begins to reflect the reality described in the Constitution.

The vast majority of family or fatherhood programmes do not recognise that men are able to contribute to a family beyond finances.

These programmes, along with myriad media depictions and educational norms, act to further entrench notions of traditional (and often dangerous) masculinities as normal or healthy ways for men to conceptualise and perform manhood.

UNDERSTANDINGS of “successful” masculine performance must be reimagined as consisting of numerous positive behaviours.

For instance, men who cannot financially provide for their families should be urged to perform a number of other caregiving roles, many of which may be associated with traditional femininity.

If men are able to step into alternative gender roles, and are able to do so without discrimination, the social conditions that foster gender-based violence, and position such violence as condoned and accessible, may begin to be meaningfully addressed.

Lessons of violence as masculine begin from a young age. The home is one of the important spaces in which boys begin to learn that violence is an acceptable form of masculine expression, and it is therefore the home that is an important site of departure for unlearning violence.

Boys need to learn and assimilate non-violence into their identities, and learn to like non-violent behaviour. This is perhaps easier said than done in a patriarchal society that says otherwise. Boys must be reprimanded when they exhibit any kind of behaviour that invites violence into the construction of their identities.

Violence should not be silenced or celebrated; it needs to be challenged in every sort of overt or implicit form it embodies.

The common understanding of violence as inherent to men does little to meaningfully address violent behaviour, and may in fact reinforce notions of “real men” having to embody such violence. Instead, by conceptualising violence as something to be unlearned, we may begin to dismantle dangerous gendered performances and understandings, thereby making compatible non-violent behaviour with successful masculine identities.

• Malherbe is a researcher in the violence, injury and peace research unit at the Medical Research Council

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