A real man does provide care.
Sonwabo Qathula puts on his apron and starts peeling a pile of butternuts, while a pot of rice boils on the stove next to him. The 50-year-old is preparing lunch for poor and orphaned children who attend a rural school in the Eastern Cape. When the meal is ready, he dishes out the food and serves it to the boys and girls. Later, he collects the empty plates and washes the dishes.
A man in the kitchen makes for an unusual sight in most places in South Africa, urban or rural, and is often accompanied by snide comments, mocking laughter or a shaking of heads in disapproval--from men as well as from women. Patriarchy remains the widely accepted social norm and gender roles are clearly divided into how men are supposed to act and how women have to behave.
In one rural area in the Eastern Cape, however, all this has started to change. A group of seven men is working as home-based caregivers with the Siyakhanyisa HIV/AIDS support group in Qumbu, 60 kilometres outside of Mthatha, to make a positive contribution to the welfare of their community. Initially ridiculed for doing work traditionally reserved for women, they have quickly become role models and earned respect for their courage to do things differently and take responsibility for the goings-on in their villages.
The men decided to get actively involved in helping others after they learnt about gender stereotypes, understandings of manhood and fatherhood during workshops run by NGO Sonke Gender Justice earlier this year. They now care for people living with HIV, bathe the bedridden, counsel, educate about HIV prevention and transmission, facilitate access to anti-retroviral treatment, refer patients to social services and assist sick persons in writing their will.
They also encourage community members to test for HIV, distribute condoms and help disadvantaged school children with their homework and cook for them.
"In most places in South Africa, gender stereotypes are present and practised," said Sonke Eastern Cape project manager PatrickGodana. "Men's and women's roles in society are divided, and as a result, men are often left out of community initiatives, particularly care and the upbringing of children."
In South Africa, studies show that women still do ten times more care work than men, added Sonke co-director Dean Peacock, but he is convinced that this imbalance is gradually shifting towards a more equal approach to caring and rearing. "There are a few men that have become role models and practise gender equality. Not many, but they are there," he said.
Now, almost one third of Siyakhanyisa staff, which used to be an exclusively women-run organisation, is male. "Since men got involved in home-based care, we have seen many benefits and a great change of social dynamics in our community. Our aim is to get a half men, half women team," noted Siyakhanyisa project coordinator Siphokazi Makaula.
She said the numbers of people coming for voluntary counselling and testing (VCT) for HIV has increased and children, especially orphans, were better looked after: "These men are a great example for other men."
Men caring for others is a relatively new phenomenon in South Africa and elsewhere on the continent. "In African society, it is seen as culturally incorrect to involve men in care. Men are seen as financial providers, while women are supposed to be the nurturers of the community," explained Godana. "Men don't even take care of their own health. Going to the clinic is regarded as a sign of weakness, of being 'not man enough'."
That's why it is "highly unusual" to have men working as caregivers, Godana explained, "but the story of the men from Qumbu shows that men can change. It's a break-through."
Becoming community leaders
Men who were previously unemployed and had little to contribute to their families and communities have now become community leaders. "Initially, people were sceptical about men getting involved in care work, but when they saw the positive impact their involvement had on the community, they quickly changed their attitudes," he added.
The first man to go through Sonke gender training, join the Siyakhanyisa support group and become a caregiver was Qathula. A few years ago, the widower lost his wife to HIV-related illnesses, fell sick shortly thereafter and found out that he, like his wife, was HIV-positive after testing for the virus. He decided to seek help, became a member of the support group and soonsaw an opportunity to not only be helped but help others as well.
Today, Qathula publicly discloses his HIV status and educates others about the virus, the importance of testing and of positive living. For the past two years, he was the only man working with Siyakhanyisa, until, by positive example, he managed to convince six others to join the organisation in mid-2008.
Ridicule turns into respect
Qathula says he initially received derogatory remarks from other men in his community who questioned his manhood because he was doing "women's work". "It was not easy to take such comments, but I was never deterred," he explained.
Now, Qathula, who said he used to be a "traditional" man who had not ever done housework in his entire life, does not hesitate to put on an apron to cook, wash dishes and help women in the kitchen.
Over time, those who used to ridicule him have taken note of the positive impact of his work and started to show him respect. "People's attitudes are changing. I get recognition from the school principal, the chief of my area and many men and women in my community," said Qathula. "Being able to help people makes me proud and that's what keeps me going."
Source: Inter Press Service News Agency
Story and photo by Kristin Palitza.