I left my aux cable at home, and so it was one of the rare mornings when the soundtrack to the school commute was provided by talk radio. I usually use the twenty-minute drive to try and convince my six-year old son that the music of my generation was better than anything that he will hear today. We experience mixed results in his persuasion levels. But this particular morning had a news report playing that I couldn't turn off. I didn't want him to hear it, but I also didn't want to prevent him from hearing it.
An eight-year old girl had been raped in a primary school in our neighbourhood. A young pregnant woman had been raped, and eleven men were being held for it. Eleven? The bodies of four young women had been discovered and many others were missing. My son listened in the back and I wasn't sure of how much he understood or how much he should understand.
Then the talk show host said it. #MenAreTrash
Then callers phoning in began to say it. #menaretrash
He understood that.
"We aren't trash, are we dad?" he asked.
"Of course not buddy", I replied glibly.
"Then why do they keep saying it dad?"
"Because we have a real problem buddy. A real problem. Women aren't safe in our country."
"Well what are we going to do dad?"
"I don't know buddy. I don't know."
I dropped him off at school, kissed him on the head and told him I would think of some things we could do together to try to help. I drove to my office, closed my door, prayed and then took out a notepad and wrote...Six things to teach my six-year old boy about being a man who will make a safer world for women.
This is that list.
1. Get educated
The only possible redemptive characteristic of this current publicly acknowledged violent streak is that it is drawing attention to something that is happening every day, unnoticed by those who don't have to face the continual fear, threats, taunts and real possibilities of experiencing gender based violence. I am reading more than ever on the topic and asking more questions of women I encounter in my life about their stories. This is uncomfortable as it forces one to understand the privileged position of masculinity in never or rarely having to deal with these same situations, and it brings one to the undeniable acceptance of the frequency and prevalence of these stories of violence that makes one fully understand the hashtag. I want to teach my son the things that I am learning.
2. Own it
I was quick to dismiss the hashtag with my son, because I don't think that he is trash and don't want him to think he is. But, gender based violence against women is actually a men's issue, and I can't separate myself from that. South African men have a problem. And while we should and must make a distinction between those who perpetrate this sort of violence and those who never would, I do have to acknowledge that I fit in the category of "South African male", and South African males have an undeniable reputation for violence against women. I must therefore own the hashtag, and instead of fighting with it as an affront against men, I must strive to influence the men in my life until the hashtag could no longer be said to be true. I am now teaching my son that we need to live in a way that the hashtag changes for us and those around us.
3. Be an advocate
The education and ownership shouldn't stop with us but should extend from us. We need to educate friends and family around us and need to take firm stands against any forms of abuse, intimidation and violence we see, even in root form...especially in root form. If this is a men's issue, then it needs men's voices. We must add ours.
4. Create safe spaces
The communities in which we operate should be safe for women. Our home, extended family, church family and friendship group should all be spaces where women are free from any of the pressures that men may exert upon them in other spaces. The Scriptures that we believe in speak in Psalm 128 of Godly men creating spaces where women and children thrive, grow and flourish. That takes thoughtful work and commitment.
5. Commit to live differently
We mustn't just commit to be men who aren't violent to women, but we must be men who refuse to treat women as objects for our own pleasure in any area of our lives. This would include respecting boundaries, dating with dignity, critiquing cultural norms and entertainment that glorifies jock dominance and refusing to fund or partake in industries that glamorous and exemplify dominance, violence and the flattening of women into one dimensional sexual service providers.
6. Fight for the flourishing of your baby sister
My wife and I have a daughter. My son has a sister who is four years younger than he is. I want him to think of the sort of world that he wants her to grow up in. When we have actual people in mind, then it adds a powerful humanity to our motivation to continue.
I am trying to teach my boy these principles in our drives to school now. I have to adjust language for him, but I want him to understand what it means to be male, and the responsibilities it comes with. I think back on our initial conversation in the car. I wish I could replay it back to when he first asked me the question.
"We aren't trash, are we dad?"
"Let's not be, bud. Let's not be."