On a recent trip to South Africa, I was appalled to learn about a surge of sexual and gender-based violence sweeping the country. Story after story in the news revealed a broad range of violence among intimate partners, kidnappings and abductions, so-called “corrective rape” against lesbian women, and even gruesome violations against small children. The levels of violence have reached epic proportions, and the sense of danger and fear is palpable.
South Africa, a middle-income country, has the greatest wealth disparity in the world. It is also known for having one of the highest rates of violent crime worldwide, along with high rates of femicide: the violent and deliberate killing of women.
While the causes of violence are complex and multifaceted, it is clear that gender inequality and rampant sexism are related dynamics behind the recent surge. Misogyny is prevalent in contemporary South African culture. Any deviation from socially accepted gender norms is considered unacceptable; an individual who dares to transgress is made into an example. Young men prove their masculinity through sexist, dangerous, and sometimes fatal acts against women and girls.
Negotiating authority and resolving conflict within relationships should occur without resorting to violence, let alone murder. But this requires unlearning the harmful examples that abound in today’s South Africa, and it means starting early—reaching children and youth before social norms and behavior patterns set in. One important way to do this is by providing young people with comprehensive sexuality education, which encompasses not just lessons about reproduction but discussions of gender and power in relationships. Teaching young people to critically examine and question social norms, including gender identity and expression, will equip them with the tools and life skills to better navigate relationships.
This type of education is lacking in South Africa. The official “Life Orientation” curriculum is meant to be offered in all 12 grades but is inconsistently delivered. It combines citizenship, life skills, HIV/AIDS awareness, physical education, and diversity, among other topics, but takes a biomedical approach. Teachers do not discuss issues of sexuality, contraception, or other topics in a comprehensive or rights-based way. Where the curriculum is implemented, it is focused on disease prevention and projects a binary, heteronormative view of gender and sexuality, with only minimal LGBTI perspective.
But there are efforts to change this. During my visit, I attended a few sexuality education and life skills sessions at public schools, organized by the National Teen Pregnancy Partnership, which is led by IWHC partner Ibis Reproductive Health. The sessions are part of the Mmoho campaign, which aims to raise awareness of adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rights. At one session outside of Johannesburg, a group called the Dynamic Youth Crew performed a powerful skit dramatizing the difficult issues facing young people. They explored romantic and sexual relationships, sexual and gender identity, peer pressure, teen pregnancy, stigma by health providers and community members, conflict with parents, and more—all in the context of preventing violence and fear. After the performance, students discussed these issues and explored possible causes and solutions. This kind of participatory, experiential learning encourages deeper reflection and problem solving than a typical classroom lesson and is necessary to change social norms and end violence.
Sexuality education alone will not stop this epidemic of violence, but it establishes a solid basis to build on. Ibis Reproductive Health is keeping its eye on the prize by working to improve the national sexuality and life skills curriculum. It won’t happen overnight, but we are hopeful this effort will help to root out harmful habits and create a better future for young South Africans. They deserve it.