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In South Africa, curbing violence starts with showing boys their potential

At an overnight camp an hour outside Cape Town, 13-year-old Ziyaad draws a red cross on a sheet of paper. “It’s my mom’s grave,” he explains. On one side of the paper, the teen has written his deepest concern: “I do not have a mother or a father. I’m afraid I won’t make it in life without them.” In another corner, he has sketched his dream: “I would like to be a President because I want a better South Africa.”

On a recent weekend, Ziyaad and 38 other boys ages 13 to 15 gathered here with an unusual purpose. They were there as part of a mentoring program that aims to turn South African boys into “everyday activists” and defenders of women and girls.

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South Africa has some of the highest rates of gender-based violence in the world. Now, a program for teenage boys is teaching them how to become defenders of women. By doing so, it’s trying to flip the script on what it means to “be a man.”

With almost 11 women killed every day, South Africa has among the highest recorded rates of female homicide in the world. 

The way boys are raised is one of the underlying causes of this gender-based violence epidemic, says Lerato Kossie, program coordinator at the Justice Desk, the human rights nonprofit that organizes this camp. 

“A boy is told, ‘You must never cry; you must be the protector, the provider,’” he says. “We were taught to become robots and disconnect from our emotions.”

Now, the Justice Desk is trying to break the cycle. 

A studious silence descends on the large tent that, minutes earlier, was filled with a whirlwind of activity as two dozen teenagers danced and bantered to loud South African amapiano beats. Now the boys are crouched over tables scattered with glitter and crayons, occasionally glancing up at the question scrawled on a whiteboard: “Who are you?”

Ziyaad, 13 years old, draws a red cross on a sheet of paper. “It’s my mom’s grave,” he explains to junior counselor Lutho Gcelu, who peers over his shoulder. On one side of the paper, the teen has written his deepest concern: “I do not have a mother or a father. I’m afraid I won’t make it in life without them.” In another corner, he has sketched his dream: “I would like to be a President because I want a better South Africa.”

On a recent weekend, Ziyaad was one of 39 boys ages 13 to 15 who gathered at this lush campsite an hour outside Cape Town with an unusual purpose. (Like other boys in this story, Ziyaad is using only his first name.) They were there as part of a mentoring program called iNtsika yeThemba – or Pillars of Hope – that aims to turn South African boys into “everyday activists” and defenders of women and girls.

Julie Bourdin

A camper creatively explores questions about his identity, what “holds him back,” and his dreams, at the Justice Desk weekend camp.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

South Africa has some of the highest rates of gender-based violence in the world. Now, a program for teenage boys is teaching them how to become defenders of women. By doing so, it’s trying to flip the script on what it means to “be a man.”

With almost 11 women killed every day, South Africa has among the highest recorded rates of female homicide in the world. Meanwhile, according to police statistics, over 12,000 rapes were recorded in the last 3 months of 2023 alone. Earlier this year, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa urged all men to sign a pledge committing to end violence against women and girls. But despite decades of campaigning, femicide is still on the rise. 

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