What’s up with all this attention and resources given to boys and masculinities, an associate and the head of a non-governmental organisation (NGO) said to me a few months ago after I informed her about a talk on boys I was preparing to give a few days afterwards?
The person who asked me this, it’s significant to note, is a sexuality and gender equality activist with a specific interest in children and youth rights. In my estimate that implied a likely ally. It suggested that we would be of the same mind about the kind of attention we need to give to boys and girls. Clearly, I am wrong.
Complaints about the funding and space given to the “fashionable topic” of masculinities are nothing new to me of course. I still find them quite, well, disquieting, nevertheless.
Discursive space aside, the funding squeeze experienced by older feminist organisations is something real and painful. However, I am not sure it’s more than a handful of African organisations critically concerned with masculinities that are successful in attracting funding. Indeed much of civil society, whose work remains imperative in contemporary Africa, is facing a crisis of funding.
My associate’s complaint betrays some confusion between men’s rights organisations and profeminist NGOs working with boys and men. They are different creatures, these two.
There is little confusion in my mind, however, about the significance of gender and sexuality as analytical categories in studying boys’ and men’s lives, as well as of course in trying to understand the societal subordination of girls and women.
I am also in no doubt that, as in the case of white representation of black bodies and lives, as a self-avowed scholar on boys and men within feminist spaces, mine is both an invited and privileged position. The position I take in my work depends on the camaraderie of feminist women who have been doing this much longer than men. I rely on African feminists for their on-going, interested critique of my thought. And I am indebted to many African women, feminists, women’s liberationists, and womanists for their philosophical hospitality.
Such solidarity is especially important as some students, activists like my associate, and researchers on gender and women have, from the beginning, raised their eyebrows at my interest in the subject of gender. They see this as usurping the space – there’s that notion again – carved out by women’s liberation movement and feminism. Thus, perhaps like all self-aware white teachers of black children, I have experienced myself as both a stranger and comrade at being invited to teach within women’s and gender studies.
I do then appreciate why there is some reservation against men and women studying and working with boys and men. Much of the history of disciplined enquiry has been studies of men’s knowledge, actually. When philosophers and social scientists spoke about mankind, they weren’t kidding; except the joke, which was also a fib, was half on women and the rest of us outside the corridors of knowledge.
Like references to humankind, scientific ideas about mankind were, as a matter of fact, based nearly all of the time on studies conducted on males by males. That is, the science was, and for the major part still is, fundamentally gender-biased.
However I am convinced that the general argument that tends to support sentiments against the new focus on boys is misplaced.
There is cause to bemoan the dwindling resources for NGOs working on women’s and girls’ issues. But to blame those working on masculinities is not to see the forest for the trees.
It is also incorrect to think that there have been buckets of money specifically allocated to the quality education of impoverished black boys for a productive, creative and meaningful life. Where some money has been thrown at black boys from deprived homes – and isn’t that part of the problem, throwing money -, there still isn’t the kind of close and attentiveness that is required to radically change the world around them. Money without emphathy is like dry humping; something is bound to get torn.
I was reminded of my associate’s displeasure about the attention given to boys when I read the Department of Basic Education’s report on the ‘2009-2010 Annual Surveys for Ordinary Schools’ released last month.
Two numbers that generated several media stories are 109 and 45 276. The first is the number of Grade 3 learners who fell pregnant in 2009 in South Africa, a dramatic increase from 17 in 2008. The second is the number of learners who fell pregnant, which was down from 49 599 in 2008.
These are unbelievable numbers. What they are suggestive of is that, in spite of the rhetoric about women and children, post-apartheid South Africa continues to desperately fail its girl-children. And it’s about much more than schooling.
None but a miracle girl begets herself pregnant while still in Grade 3 or at any other time. There is a boy somewhere in the background. More often it is a boy in the body of a grown man. And there’s the rub.
In turn, sex in Grade 3 suggests rape, does it not.
No girl wants to be sexually violated, however economically desperate, skimpily dressed or drunk she may be. The main cause of all sexual violence is a hegemonic gender traditionalism that underpins men’s social psychologies of sexual entitlement over female bodies.
It is true that in many countries girls and women continue to confront violence and unjust discrimination on daily basis on the basis of age and gender.
It is true too that in many societies, China being the prime but not only example, there is still a preference for sons over daughters.
Furthermore, in many families and societies around the world girls and women still tend to enjoy less self-determination than the other sex. Unlike the latter, they can’t play as freely. Too often they get coerced into their first sexual experience by males. Forced marriage at an early age is not uncommon. They are unable to take a walk without being harassed. Prohibited from leaving their homes unaccompanied by males, they might as well be under house arrest. And girls and women in too many countries can’t dream too big a dream.
This is the daily reality of girls and women in many countries of Africa, Midddle East, and farther afield. For them, a life of gender equality is elsewhere.
It is out of such conditions which characterise girlhood and women’s existence that schoolgirls get left with the baby.
Unless there is more empowering feminist sexuality and gender education for girls, their sisters and mothers, together with appropriate laws and their enforcement, they will continue to be preyed upon by males.
Yet it is ludicrous to believe that male-children are in the same boat as older males. Boys are not men. They are developing beings. Rather than be punished for the sins of their fathers or unfairly advantaged, they ought to be educated for an egalitarian and compassionate society.
Failure to mould boys into fans of equality falls on the shoulders of adults – of their parents and other adults in their society, of teachers, journalists, coaches, imams, priests, business leaders, chiefs and politicians.
Very few boys are born dictators. None runs the world. Usually it is patriarchal traditionalism, with the complicit support of the majority of men and women, which creates the rules and norms that allow heterosexual men as a group to dominate the gender and sexual order.
While they may get some benefit from men’s gendered sexual power, boys also suffer great consequences from the social order. Like girls, boys in many countries face the ravages of social and economic inequalities.
The gender order is not geared to make boys live happier, healthier, and longer lives. In fact, being a boy, a black boy from a poor neighbourhood, puts one at heightened risk of premature death from accidents and violence.
By educating a girl for a feminist, educated, confident, happier and healthier life, without empowering a boy with progressive education to make them egalitarian, democratic, non-violent and healthier life does not just mean we will be faced with the problem of pregnant children for the foreseeable future. It retards the general quality of life in our society.
It would make girls’ present and future lives better if we also gave boys the kind of education that makes them more caring about girls’ needs and aspirations.
Naturally, to work with boys and men only without due regard to the negative effects of the gender order on girls and women is to tacitly support the status quo.
Instead of asking “what’s up with all this attention given to boys”, we ought to be asking, what kind of attention shall we give to boys to make their own lives and as well as girls’ full of worth?
The kind of attention we need to give boys in Africa is one that turns them, in their hearts and brains, into true believers of women’s and girls’ rights to their bodies and ambitions. If we don’t, we will continue to fail many girls, not just boys, but also persist in underachieving as societies.
A slightly different version of this article was published on TimesLive, 13 June 2012