The Sunday Mail
At the occasion to mark International Women’s Day (IWD) last year, I wrote about sexual harassment at the workplace, in a piece which drew much inspiration from Reason Wafawarova’s legendary piece titled “Discrediting women oppression fallacious”, which appeared in The Herald eight years ago.
Wafawarova’s notable and emotive piece paid tribute to women, who have had to endure a historical and continuing legacy of subjugation and other vices, which are symptomatic of an entrenched patriarchal society that devalues women’s capabilities simply because of their sex, and not intellect.
Yet they soldier on with their plural roles both at family and professional level.
For today, dear reader, let us focus on men, who are often guilty of endangering the very same cause of our young girls and women.
Every woman out there has a dream. She decides what is good for her out of the rational choices she makes.
But we are forced to look at today’s men, especially after the highly successful imaginary Men’s Conference, which played out on social media a fortnight ago.
Well, it reminded us of the virtues of the ideal man of integrity.
Even scriptural texts making reference to great men who lived before us were quoted.
Down the memory lane
In making reference to men of integrity, who have well-grounded values, I will equally draw from my fond experiences as a gender officer — my first assignment after leaving university — in Muzarabani South (Mashonaland Central) some years ago.
My assignment became an unexpected encounter with gender issues, which, like many others, I had initially trivialised as civil society — and feminist-sponsored Western agenda.
My experiences in Muzarabani, in particular, were quite profound as they opened my eyes to the reality of heavily marginalised rural women, some of whom have to bear the brunt of gender-based violence (GBV), which is quite endemic in the district.
So it became the norm to see women with visible and telling scars of physical violence.
Encounters with women who were knowingly infected by their partners were also saddening.
And there were also heart-breaking cases of women who lacked self-belief on account of psychological abuse. Fortunately, in our community engagement process, we managed to identify the reason behind the abuses.
They ranged from social and religious belief system(s), lack of access to education, generally fewer opportunities and, of course, the entrenched patriarchal value system, which Reason Wafawarova dealt with well.
We, therefore, held counselling sessions and community dialogue, which were complemented by sectorial interventions from bodies such as the National Aids Council (NAC) and St Alberts Hospital, among many other stakeholders.
But there was one problem: men did not show up for the meetings.
We then came up with a programme that was dubbed “Men of Integrity”, which we jointly held with NAC and other organisations such as the Zimbabwe AIDS Prevention and Support Organisation (ZAPSO).
It was modelled along the lines of a traditional male-only forum, and we used it to discuss various issues on sex, HIV/AIDS, women’s and men’s rights, among other hot issues.
We targeted young men, traditional and religious leaders, and village elders. We covered the length and breadth of the district, even far-flung areas such as Chiwenga and Kairezi.
Our programmes were meant to help men appreciate the importance of dialogue over confrontation.
We also endeavoured to create men who protected the girl-child as opposed to abusing her.
Through the “Girls not brides” programme, we also sought to put an end to the practice of marrying off girls at a tender age.
We also sought to educate rural men on the sensibility of having women who work to sustain the family.
Some of the problems were largely economic.
It seems as if some insecure men felt threatened by empowered women.
While our programming targeted rural men who we profiled as likely to abuse women, there is, however, a realisation that urban men are equally culpable of these heinous acts.
When urban men are compared to their rural counterparts, the discrepancies are quite apparent. The former have a modicum of civility, which ultimately shapes their views on women.
They are often family man. They are professional, educated and have reasonable jobs.
Yet they, too, abuse young girls and women. Unlike some rural men who have official polygamous marriages, urban men usually do not institutionalise their propensity for multiple sex partners.
Rural folks are quite open about their views on sex, while those in urban areas are largely hypocritical.
This is precisely the reason why we had targeted programmes to educate them about their vulnerabilities.
It is, however, unfortunate that urban men are not targeted by specific programmes on gender.
In any case, they find it difficult to find spare time for such programmes.
While they fully appreciate rights of the girl-child, they hypocritically pay for sex with vulnerable girls.
Also, while it might be transactional sex, where two parties consent, it shows the deficit of integrity from men who are ordinarily supposed to be fatherly.
Curiously, these men always have ready answers on why they engage in adulterous relationships.
Unfortunately, the same men who purport to be Christian and dignified, are the same men who frequent our red-light districts.
Two years ago, one of our local radio stations carried a programme on minors who were doing commercial sex work in Epworth, Caledonia and Hopley.
Of course, there were ethical concerns about interviewing minors, adherence to research ethics and reservations on some of the allegations made in the report, but I was part of the team which went to these areas.
We engaged young girls who were neglected, marginalised and continuously abused. It was quite sad.
The men who were abusing these girls were not your ordinary criminals, delinquents, psychopaths and paedophiles — they seemed to be normal family men, professionals and other high-profile individuals.
What is, however, saddening is the fact that our society demands more from young women and less from the escapist men who buy sex from young girls for one reason or another.
In most countries, women are likely to be arrested for soliciting than men.
Judging by the sheer number of human and vehicular traffic that frequents our red-light districts, one can be forgiven for mistaking it to a major centre of serious economic activity.
The actions of men are usually justified as acts of masculinity, while those of women are seen otherwise.
Our fathers knew well what integrity meant.
They actively protected young girls and women.
But this no longer happens.
The scale of the problem seems to suggest that we are still living in medieval times.
Our societies have evolved and we now have the laws to protect women, but it seems we always conspire to scuttle the momentous progress that has been made.
As our societies have become advanced, so, too, has the abuse of women grown.
This explains the transnational networks of human trafficking.
It is not uncommon that given the scale of the problem and the normalisation of relations with young girls and women, those who frown upon the behaviour are condemned and attacked.
Laws alone will not help. Our integrity can help us as a people.
Our challenge today is to have men of integrity; men who are prepared to advance the cause of the girl-child.
Francis Mupazviriho writes in his personal capacity. His Twitter handle is @ FMupah.