By Ute Scheub
A trained theologian, Jonah Gokowa is founder of the antisexist men´s organization „Padare, The Men´s Forum on Gender“, in Zimbabwe. Ute Scheub spoke with him at the international conference „Gender Counts“ in Berlin.
Mr. Gokowa, the organization you founded is called „antisexist“. Why?
Jonah Gokowa: Padare, The Men´s Forum on Gender, is an antisexist men´s organizisation in Zimbabwe that brings men together to discuss gender issues. The idea is to get men to spend time looking at how they are influenced by patriarchal thinking and looking at ways how they can support each other towards change. The organization started in 1995 in Zimbabwe´s capital Harare, now it is spreading in many other parts of the country. We have different departements, working with men in rural areas, with traditional leaders, with school boys and teachers. We also have 18 chapters or branches with, on average, about 50 or 60 members.
What does the word Padare mean?
Padare is a traditional institution of decision making in Zimbabwe. Men would meet in the villages in the evening, sitting around a fire and making decisions – involving men only. Our idea was to take this institution and to open it up and to talk about the participation of women. So our Padare is actually an improvement, a transformation, it promotes positive gender roles for men and women. All our meetings, all our programms encourage men to be open to accept the involvement of women as equal partners in all structures of society. Our branches meet at least once a month. So there are various Padare meetings taking place, for men only but discussing nothing but ways of transforming gender roles. These are spaces that we create for men where they have occasions to challenge other men about their understanding of manhood. We also engage women and their organizations for a constant feedback. Sometimes we also organize meetings where we discuss issues together with women.
What was the reason to found such an organization?
At the beginning six of us were working in a nongovernmental organization. We started casual discussions about the social expectations that we have as men in our society. And we discovered that we all agree in one thing: that we did not go conform to the expectations of the patriarchal images and prescribed roles of men and that we want to change that. At a individual level, we have always been struggeling as men with these social expectations. At that moment I invited some men into my house. We discussed, we cooked together as men, we washed the dishes as men and leaved the place clean. We were exited by our discussions as men. Later on we realized that we need to open up these meetings to all men in our society. In march 1993 we booked a hall of a hotel and made an announcement, inviting all men to participate, that was towards the International Women´s Day celebrations, and we invited all men to discuss the significance of Women´s Day for men. The response was overwhelming. So we decided to form an organization to take our work further.
Zimbabwe experienced a lot of violence in its past. How do you deal with that?
Yes, there was a lot of violence, particularly during the national elections in 2008, also before colonialism, during the colonial period and during the liberation struggle out of colonialism. Our society currently is a very conservative society, very patriarchal in nature and as a result, we are dealing with another form of violence that keeps our women in perpetual subjugation. We are convinced that we have to deal with this past. During the hight of political violence, a lot of women were raped. These are issues that we also need to address as men in our society.
Do you talk also about men as victims of the patriarchal system?
At the beginning our focus was that we are doing work on behalf of women. It was later that we discovered that we are doing this for ourselves, that our work is not about liberation of women, but also about liberation of ourselves from all forms of patriarchal expectations. We as men are not able to deal with stress. As men we are not free to show our emotions in public, even to cry. We say to men: This is also for your own salvation. When you accept that you are able to cry – that´s liberation. When you are able to express your emotions – that´s liberation. Then you behave as a human being and not as a super human being. You don´t have to be a super human being.
Do you have problems that other men do say that you are feminine, you have no balls?
Yes, we have always been accused of compromising manhood and promoting western ideas or wanting to turn men into women. These people are terrified by this idea of men supporting and encouraging women to assert themselves. We say to ourselves that these accusations open up opportunities for engagement. We are discovering that a definition that limits our identity to the possesion of two or more balls is very limiting and humiliating for men!
Can you discover the secret how you convince men to participate in an antisexist movement?
(laughs) First of all we have to open ourselves, to be transparent and genuin. Sometimes we were also accused to be much too hard on men. But I think there is no other way but to begin from a position where you get men to take ownership of their good or bad actions, realizing that they have been collaborators in a system that is oppressing women and tolerating violence against women. And violence also against men.
Do you have funds for your work? I suppose the economic situation in Zimbabwe is very hard.
Fortunately we get support from Bread for the World in Germany, UN organizations, Oxfam, and others.
Do you collaborate also with women´s organizations which take care for victims of violence?
We have a good relationship with women´s organizations. We ask them to connect us with the male perpetrators. When we talk to perpetrators, some of them really regret but they don´t know how to come out of that violent behaviour. So we assist them to come out, we walk through the process of councelling with them where they learn to take responsibility for their actions and begin to realize that these actions were destructive and that they must make a committment to move away from their violent past.
Do they apologize themselves?
They do, to our councellors. And also to their wives. We encourage them to do that openly before their partners, in the presence of witnesses.
Maybe this is more worthful than a criminal procedure?
That´s right. But it is also important that rapists are been prosecuted through the legal system.
If you wear a T-shirt from your organization with the slogan „Real men don´t abuse women and children“, what are the reactions?
In our society that kind of exposure triggers some conversation, positive and negative comments, and sometimes we get also very hostile reactions by men who feel threatened. That has also to do with the insecurity of men, they feel so insecure. But we are able to deal with those issues. Every reaction is an opportunity to open up a conversation.
Men are violent because they are insecure?
Right. It is an unbelievable unpronounced fear of women that you find in men. And this violence is not an expression of male strength but of the weakness of men. That needs to be appreciated as well.
For this work you need braveness.
Yes, a certain level of courage. But we are happy with the progress that we have made. At least we now have men who can stand up. They are not shy or afraid.