07.24.10

Africa's Men Fight for Women's Rights

Man Up, a provocative campaign to convince men to fight violence against women, kicked off in South Africa during the World Cup. Dayo Olopade reports from Johannesburg.

Lewis Kasindi Kilongo, 26, has always believed that women are equal to men. At home in South Kivu, a war-torn province in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, that makes him a rare breed. “My friends in different villages consider women an object of pleasure,” he said. “Many guys think they can’t marry a really educated woman because it will be like having two men in the house. It’s a fear for them. They just want someone they can control.”

Kilongo is a rare male voice in the movement to halt his home country’s mass rape epidemic, and one of 85 youth delegates who traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa this month for Man Up, a one-week conference intended to get men and boys involved in women’s rights activism.

Jimmie Briggs, an American journalist, founded Man Up after writing Innocents Lost, a book about the child soldiers forced to fight and rape in the wars of Central Africa. Briggs was burnt out as a reporter, depressed by endless tales of sexual violence. “I did not see men standing up on this issue in a real way—and not just standing up on this issue, but standing alongside women on this issue,” he said. “We needed to create something to bridge that gap.”

Man Up, though, was by no means the most obvious way to combat problems like rape, female genital mutilation, and women’s political disenfranchisement. Even the group’s name itself is controversial, knowingly embracing a phrase that has often played to sexist stereotypes about men being tougher, stronger, braver, and more independent than their sisters, mothers, daughters, or female partners.

But Man Up also takes advantage of a traditional male bias toward protecting the vulnerable; in places like Congo, those same sisters, mothers, and daughters are potential victims who could be saved from trauma if men simply chose not to rape. Briggs, who brought his own mother and daughter to the conference, believes he can reclaim “man up,” borrowing a term used in the African American community to signal male responsibility and transforming it into a worldwide movement.

“The men in this effort are men who are aware of their responsibilities to their families and to themselves,” he explained, “who are comfortable using their strength in a non-traditional way—not for sexual conquest or physical overpowering, but to be leaders and advocates for nonviolence.”

It was no accident that the conference took place in Johannesburg during the last week of the first African World Cup. As a way of reaching young men with a message of nonviolence, Man Up has emphasized the connection between athletics and activism.

“The men in this effort are…comfortable using their strength in a non-traditional way…to be leaders and advocates for non-violence,” said Jimmie Briggs.

“Sport is the beginning of the conversation,” said Jon McCullough, a member of the U.S. Soccer Federation who spoke on his experience in post-conflict zones. “In some cases [within] the sports culture it’s not considered masculine enough. But I’ve seen it allows you to open up and be more comfortable with the issues of violence, particularly against women.”

The delegates were male and female; from Liberia, the United States, Uganda and more than 20 other countries; and young, ranging in age from 18 to 30. But they had plenty of experience to draw from. Many had been touched by the violence they now aim to fight, whether it was abuse at the hands of relatives or the loss of family members to torture and war. “All of us believe that violence against women and girls is the human rights issue of our time,” said Karen Robinson-Cloete, a longtime human rights activist and Man Up’s executive director.

One in three women worldwide will be the victim of some kind of violence in her lifetime. Laws against domestic violence and rape are not uniform, and often rarely enforced. There are 27 million slaves in the world today—mostly women trafficked into forced sex work, which is more than twice as many as during 350 years of trans-Atlantic slavery. What’s more, says Robinson-Cloete, “We haven’t seen the statistics change in years.”

Though U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made the status of women in the developing world a key plank of her foreign-policy agenda, and the United Nations recently launched a new agency for women’s issues, there is a sense in the global advocacy community that women’s rights have long come last in development efforts.

Given the growing body of data and argument—from Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn to Eve Ensler and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—suggesting that the empowerment and education of women is the key to raising standards of living, this is particularly galling.

The weeklong summit offered the delegates unique access to academics, activists and experts in the field of conflict resolution and human rights. They sang songs and composed proverbs, laughed and cried together at a screening of Pray the Devil Back to Hell, the prize-winning documentary about Liberian women working to end their country’s civil war and fight rape. A member of the Brazilian delegation scrawled the summit’s unofficial motto on a wall: “Young people are the key for social development and change.”

The World Cup offered the perfect backdrop for Man Up’s message. “Football is the international sport and hip hop is the global soundtrack,” Briggs said. “We’re training people to use these tools to engage their peers to build their organizations and initiatives. Being able to draw attention from the Cup to our cause is essential.”

Each of the national teams devised strategies—working inside schools, engaging parents, using new media and video—to get the word out that women deserve peace.

Toni Blackman, a Brooklyn-based hip hop emcee who uses music to empower and honor “Invisible Women”—young girls whose social status is too often defined by silence—also believes “there is nothing more important than meeting someone where they are.” Daniel Lima, a Brazilian participant, led a conversation on how prejudice obstructs change. “Young men from poor communities, mostly black, come with so many preconceptions—they’re reckless, they’re violent, they don’t want to engage,” he said. “But people can tell when you’re looking down on them, that approach just won’t work.”

Sex discrimination is so deep-seated and resistant to change that Briggs insisted each of the delegates leave the Man Up summit with a concrete action plan. “We talk about violence against women, but it also means addressing economic disempowerment, political disengagement, addressing cultural and religious discrimination, all these different facets,” he told the summit.

Kilongo, for one, was thrilled to be a part of something larger than himself: “I’m much more confident that when I go back I am ready to face anything,” he said. “We are not alone.”

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Dayo Olopade is a political reporter for The Daily Beast and a Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation.