Thursday, October 21, 2010

boys vs girls

One thing I think about and talk about a lot, but have not shared really on this blog is how gender plays out where we live in South Africa. My experience in Chad was extreme. In our village, I knew two women who had salaried jobs (and maybe 20 men). My students were only about 20% female, and there were less and less girls as they went on in schooling. Everyone told me and believed that men were smarter than women. My host father one day would say 'of course, men are smarter' and the next day would say 'wow, you know so much more French than me' but did not see those two statements as being in contrast to each other So I felt like doing a girls' club and working with the girls at the school was a valuable use of my time. Though I naively tried to extoll the equality of genders, that wasn't really something that I was going to get through to people about. I was happy to at least motivate the girls to stay in school and to take part in activities outside of the home (though they didn't really need my motivation since they loved playing soccer so much).

Here in South Africa, you can say that there are issues of gender inequity and there certainly are. The rape rate is extremely high. The HIV prevalence rate is higher in women then men (partially for biological reasons as women have more Langerhans cells in their vagina than men who have been circumsized do on their penis). It is difficult for women to exert control over their sexual lives – to say no or to say to use a condom. Transactional sex is also an issue.

That being said, I know many more formally employed women than men in our village. Of course, many men who are employed live outside of our village, but among those who do stay in the village and those who come to our village to work – teachers, nurses, etc – there are more women then men. Of the men who stay in our village, many are employed informally in different types of labor. Some of these men and some who are not employed at all spend a good amount of their days drinking at informal bars. So the children of our village can choose male role models who are unemployed and suffer from alcoholism or female role models who are teachers or retired women who are busy taking care of their households and grandchildren.

So it comes as no surprise that the girls in our schools do better than the boys. Even in grade 6, the vast majority of the girls are engaged in their studies and are doing well or at least passing. About half the boys are completely withdrawn, some do not know how to read, and are struggling if they are still trying. Some are already smoking marijuana after school. On the other hand, there are a group of boys who are motivated and love to spend time in the library or computer lab. I worry even for them as they go to middle school next year and will face increased peer pressure to try the myriad of drugs available to them (marijuana, huffing glue, and nyope – a mixture of heroin and marijuana – are the most popular) and not to be nerdy. When boys make the decision to drop out of school, they shape a future for themselves that mirrors what they see around them. Sexual encounters are one place where they can exert control in their lives and from that reality come the public health and safety disasters of rape and lack of condom use.

These boys need role models, and there is only so much we can do to encourage them. We know a few young men who are acting in this way for them, but in a culture (like that of rural America) where success is equated with getting out, these successful young men are mostly in Jo'burg. But one thing is for sure, these boys need to be educated and motivated to see a different future for themselves if people want to see change in the future of South Africa. Ironically, as I type this, I am watching a rerun of Oprah (we get them a few months late here) where she signed the One Goal petition that was happening during the World Cup and declares that we should educate our girls. Oprah, of course, has a boarding school for girls here in South Africa. Though her school presents a great opportunity for those girls, I would argue that what South Africa needs is the opposite. We must educate and empower the boys to live productive and healthy lives.

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