Can I tell you something that worries me? I want you to know that if you’re a girl, I don’t think you’re safe in this country.
I think this land we call South Africa is stalked by many predators, but men stand out as the biggest predators. They are the ones you should worry about a lot. You only need to look at the news to see what I mean. They hunt little girls. They hunt grown women. No woman is truly safe.
The stories are sickening. A part of me wants to tell you everything, to show you pictures and videos, and let you see for yourself how dangerous South Africa is. A part of me thinks that showing you these pictures and videos will help protect you, if you’re a girl, and that if you’re a boy, it’ll help you grow into a good man. So, imagine, for a moment, a scene that’s played out across South Africa many times. A group of boys are sitting at a park. A girl around their age (or older) walks by. They feel they can’t stop themselves, that they have to say something to her. So they whistle and call after her, catcalling her. Realising that she’s not paying attention to them, one of the boys runs after her and takes her by the hand. She angrily yanks her hand away, clearly feeling like he’d invaded her space. His friends all laugh at him. He becomes very angry and smacks her on the side of the head, making sure to remind her that there’s nothing special about her.
Now imagine if he’d assaulted her, stabbed her even. Imagine if he’d shot her. And that’s exactly what pains me. The boys disrespected the girl by acting like hungry dogs, excitedly barking at her as if she were a piece of meat they craved.
I know you’re probably asking one of two questions (or both):
• Am I saying that boys can also be dangerous or problematic?
• And are all men dangerous or problematic? Because, if so, then that means that I’m also part of the problem since I’m a man.
The answer to the first question is a simple yes. I grew up with boys like the ones in the story above. I was one of those boys, actually. I could’ve easily grown into a man who didn’t take no for an answer, a man who rapes and kills. If boys treat girls disrespectfully, they could very easily grow into men who harm women.
In answering the second question, it’s important that you understand this: all men have played a role in the dangers and difficulties that women face. It’s probably a shocking thing to hear from me, I know, but I really believe it. Even as I write this, I remember all the different times I could’ve been better.
I listen to rap songs that call women the b-word (bitches) and try to justify it by saying women also listen to these songs and don’t seem to mind. I’ve listened and smiled when Lil Wayne, the American rapper, said his male friends and his money are more important than the women he dates. I didn’t stop to think about how calling women the b-word is basically calling them female dogs (since that’s what a b-word actually is). I didn’t think about how calling women b-words, sluts, and hoes (and many others) relegates women to second-class citizens. It makes us think that women are less important than men.
I’ve been part of conversations where we talked about sleeping with women and never calling them again. I’ve complained about how hard it is to find a good woman who likes me, and then proceeded to lie to the decent women who I did find. I’ve cheated (and bragged about it). I’ve convinced myself that I deserve more than just one woman at a time and was prepared to lie to get what I wanted. I didn’t think about how the way we talk about people tends to show how much we respect them, and that if one guy hears how disrespectfully I talk about a woman, he’ll likely have less respect for her.
I’ve seen taxi drivers catcalling women walking past their taxis. When the women ignored the taxi drivers or said something back to show that they didn’t like the catcalling, the taxi drivers got aggressive. Even as recently as two days ago, I saw a taxi driver behaving like a hooligan. I watched him grab and feel a woman’s dreadlocks as she was walking past him into his friend’s taxi. And when she protested, he told her she was sexy so he couldn’t help himself. His nearby taxi driver friends laughed. He didn’t care that she didn’t want to be touched like that, especially by a man. He was basically letting her know that she had no say in what he did or said to her.
It scares me that he didn’t think there was anything wrong with what he did. What if he was alone with that woman and grabbed more than just her hair? What if he had sexually assaulted her?
I didn’t do anything to stop any of these men. In fact, there’ve been times when I’ve laughed along with them and also helped with the catcalling.
But I’m learning. I’m trying to be better. I know I won’t be able to make a difference each and every time I meet a man who does and says these things. But I’m challenging myself to think about what it is that I can do as man to make life better for women.
And that’s the secret I want to share with you. It’s possible for men to be better. If you can, don’t accept anything you don’t approve of. Walk away if you can. Speak up if you can.
If you’re a boy, I hope you’ll grow into a man who respects women in every way possible. I hope you’ll grow into a man who doesn’t hold women’s hands without permission or touch women in other ways that make them feel uncomfortable. I hope you won’t keep quiet and let the men around you mistreat women. I hope you’ll use whatever power you have to make a difference.
I hope you’ll listen to me when I tell you don’t hang out with boys who think a girl’s consent isn’t always important. I know what it’s like to hang out with those boys.
This letter comes from a real place, and I want you to read it. I’m worried. This country is not great for women, and it’ll take each and every one of us to change things.
Tell us: What do you think we can do as a society to teach our boys and men to respect girls and women?
This blog also forms part of our Rights 2.0 – Bridging Divides project. Find out more here.