A Cape Town educator has started engaging boy learners in his classroom about their role in the fight against gender-based violence in a bid to change the existing narratives around rape. Euwen Etson, a teacher at Bernadino Heights High School, was most so moved by the recent cases of rape and murder of young women in South Africa that he decided to apologise to the girl learners in his class. The brutalisation of 19-year-old UCT student Uyinene Mrwetyana inside a post office in Claremont has been a tipping point for South Africa and sparked a groundswell of protests in Cape Town last week.
In a Facebook post which has gone viral, Etson said he decided to take a different approach with his learners by openly confronting the sensitive issue of rape.
Speaking to VOC this week, the passionate educator said he chose to focus on the socialisation of boys in society.
“I was listening to the radio one morning and my heart literally sank. I got to school and decided to apologise as a man to each class for not doing enough,” he related.
“In my life orientation class, we always teach the learners about consent and rape. However, we don’t tell the boys not to rape or how to assist someone who has been raped. I wanted to start a conversation and the feedback from the learners was unexpected.”
One of the most contentious topics this past week has been the public discourse around the #MenAreTrash movement. The hashtag was started in 2017 to raise awareness around the prevalence of sexual violence in South Africa and the role of men in perpetuating these injustices against women.
While the movement has been effective in tackling uncomfortable truths around rape, many men seem to misunderstand the hashtag. Etson addressed the #MenAreTrash issue in class and as expected, his learners responded with the “not all men” argument.
“When I heard that, I told all the boys to stop speaking during the rest of the period and to listen. I asked every single girl in class what they feared most. Many of them spoke about travelling alone in taxis, coming to school alone and not being able to trust their fathers and brothers. What really broke me was when one girl said: ‘we have so much to look forward to in our future but our dignity is being ripped away before we achieve our goals’,” he related.
“For me, it was to explain that the #MenAreTrash is not an attack on boys and men but an attack on men to spur them into action and stop patriarchy and misogyny. It starts here…with boys catcalling girls while other boys laugh, it starts with boys waiting for a girl to walk so they can watch her backside…it starts with these small things and it ends with rape and murder.”
Sergio September, a learner at the school, related that the increase of attacks on women has sparked fear in him for his own mother’s safety. He said the heightened awareness following the recent headlines of rape has seen boys at his school openly discussing gender-based violence.
“We are trying to now bring other boys to understand their responsibility in stopping violence against girls and women,” he said.
Fellow learner Jill Booysen said she is encouraged by the example set by Mr Etson in educating the boys about their attitudes towards females.
“School is the place that prepares you for the future. If we fix the behaviour now, society will be better off. I am really grateful that we are now having this discussion because our boys need to be made aware.”
The dedicated teacher feels strongly that there should be programmes in school for men and boys to abandon harmful stereotypes and embrace respectful, healthy relationships. Etson believes men should stop excluding themselves from the problem of gender-based violence and femicide.
The school is hoping to change these perceptions by having an entire week of awareness. On Wednesday morning, learners picketed with images of the scores of female victims killed this past month, with their mouths taped shut.
“We have to stop this idea that ‘boys will be boys’. We have hashtags on our teacher’s doors that want to spur the conversation. We hope this will ignite change in just one person,” Etson concluded.
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