The project, called Stepping Stones, was originally a series of workshops with men and women in separate groups discussing - among other things - HIV / AIDS and Safer Sex. However, Stepping Stones also addressed gender issues in relationships and has brought a reduction in violence against women.
The program began in Uganda but was adapted for South Africa by Professor Rachel Jewkes, the director of the Gender and Health Research Unit at South Africa's Medical Research Council.
She says Stepping Stones "tries to build better relationships, improve communication, specifically communication skills training, and tries to get people to reflect on why they behave the way they do…." That consciousness-raising effort is combined with the message that it's not okay to batter women.
"There's a proportion of men," she says, "who use violence and feel uncomfortable about it, and there's a proportion of men who have not really given thought to whether what they are doing is right or wrong. And I think that putting forth the position that this is something that is not acceptable is helpful."
In just over a dozen three-hour-long sessions, couples are also taught to communicate their feelings in order to ward off violence. "Violence is often used by men when they feel angry and powerless," Jewkes says. "By helping men and women talk about their relationship issues, we help reduce the use of violence."
For example, she continues, a man may tell his partner: " 'I feel anxious when I come to your home and I find you are not there, because I am worried. I feel jealous, and that's why I'm angry. And the woman would be taught to say (something like): 'I feel you are upsetting me when you get angry because I'm out when you come by. I am a child in the household, and if my grandmother asks me to buy bread, I must buy bread. I am not seeing other men.'"
Jewkes says besides reducing violence, the Stepping Stones workshop has also been shown to reduce the number of partners men have, perhaps, she says because the quality of the relationships has improved with better communication, and the commitment has deepened.
Why Men Batter
Jewkes says population studies in South Africa show about 25 percent of all women may have been beaten by their boyfriends or husbands, and that about 10 percent were beaten in the last year. Other estimates say as many as half of all women may have been assaulted.
Jewkes says violence is seen as a means of male control over women among all races. "South Africa as a society," she says, "has a very pronounced gender hierarchy and…quite strong ideas that men should be in a position of control over women."
However, one study shows that of the country's ethnic groups, coloured women are more likely to be killed by a partner. She says alcohol may be behind that figure in at least one area where coloureds live - the Western Cape Province - though, Jewkes adds that alcohol abuse does not cause violence against women, it merely contributes to it.
History may also play a role in the violence. She says apartheid, or racial segregation, enforced the migrant labor system, in which men left women to raise families as they went to work in mining and other industries. "With the precarious economic position Africans were put in, increasingly, families changed their structures," says Jewkes, "and women had children…outside of marriage, or even within marriage (many) women with few economic opportunities (sent) children to live with other relatives. So, in South Africa, it's common for children to grow up spending much time living without either of their parents."
The coming of all-race democracy and black leadership in 1994 has also brought renewed cultural and political changes that present new challenges for men and women of all races. For some, it's a time of stress as well as opportunity as the roles of men and women in the marketplace and political arena are redefined. Jewkes says, "As women (go) from a position of a particularly low level of power to a higher one, they actually move through a stage of increased risk of being beaten."
Boys at Risk
Studies show that boys who are emotionally traumatized, abandoned and abused are more likely to rape as adults.
History and economics, then, may have helped set the stage for women's current predicament. There's an assumption, Jewkes says, that there's no need to worry about boys "because they are not going to be raped or abused, and they often aren't expected to do any household chores, so they are allowed to run around in the community all day. After school, they aren't given a lot of attention because people don't think harm will come to them." If they are left in the care of relatives, very often very little attention is paid to their emotional needs.
In addition, she continues, "(Single) mothers (in particular), being very anxious that they try to do as well as possible for their children, (may) react in a harsh way to behavior they see as threatening the rule they are trying to impose on the home and her precarious hold over discipline." The result may be frequent beatings.
Understanding the social causes for violence against women may help policymakers find answers to it.
Jewkes says, however, that public education campaigns against gender violence have not necessarily proved effective. For now, she says the Stepping Stones approach may be the best - teaching communication skills rather than slogans.
The program has been successfully tried in South Africa, Uganda, and Tanzania. Efforts are underway to have the program tried in other communities in South Africa.