FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Gender inequality and disparity plagues cultures all over the world. Post-colonial African countries are no exception. Dumisani Rebombo is one of a growing number of African men who are changing their ethics and behavior when it comes to how they treat women. Dumisani is part of a South African human rights group called Men As Partners. I asked him why South Africa still has such a problem with gender inequality, which expresses itself too often in the form of rape.

Mr. DUMISANI REBOMBO (Program Manager, Men As Partners): Well, there are many reasons. I think you can repeal laws from the books, but, you know, some people still carry certain things in their hearts. For instance, the Apartheid system got so many people into thinking that you could only solve conflicts, you know, through violent means. Yes, we have the constitution, which is very, very progressive. I think one of the reasons that some people in our society just want the government to be the director of this change alone, and I think in a democracy, everyone should get involved. And this is where the Men As Partners program come into play and say, how do we cascade those beautiful human rights from the constitution down to the ground?

CHIDEYA: Let's talk very specifically about your life. You grew up in Limpopo, in the northern part of South Africa, and at age 15, you actually participated in a sexual assault. What happened? Take me to who you were at that age, and then what you did.

Mr. REBOMBO: The Apartheid system had this migrant system, which resulted in many fathers being absent from, you know, from homes, having to go to the cities for work. And as a result, as boys, you learned about who a man is from other boys. And so the expectations from, you know, other boys played a bigger role. Those men that were there were not that exemplary. You know, for instance, I've seen a lot of violence around me on women. And this was not talked about, you know, into the religious cycles as well, I would witness how women were treated differently.

Personally, I was jeered at as a boy because I just have two sisters, and I helped at home. The socialization then was that a boy should not help at home, you know. You're just like a sissy. So I was constantly jeered at. It was more of saying, prove to us that you're a boy. I mean, a cousin of mine sort of gave me an ultimatum to say, if you want this to stop, there's this girl that think she's better off than anybody else. We need to teach her a lesson, meaning that we need to, you know, sexually molest her.

And I was terrified, and they gave me beer and weed to smoke. And I succumbed to the pressure. I'm not saying in no way that I shouldn't have owned up to my own actions, but the pressure was there. I think it's important that I mention that. And that's what happened 15 years ago. And it never bothered me for, like, 20 years that I've done something wrong. And I just went on with my life.

CHIDEYA: So let me stop you for a second.

Mr. REBOMBO: All right.

CHIDEYA: So, you were 15, she was 14?

Mr. REBOMBO: Mm hmm.

CHIDEYA: And how many boys were there?

Mr. REBOMBO: Three.

CHIDEYA: So there were three of you, and you were drunk and high. And you say that you had felt a sense of relief because you were finally off the hook for not being the kind of young man that your friends thought you should be. Did you talk to your family at all about it - what had happened?

Mr. REBOMBO: No. I didn't actually, until later on in the years when I got involved in the Men as Partners program. And I think I should mention also that it wasn't because we were high. I mean, this was a decision that was made when we're all sober. It was just that I was afraid to do it and hence, the use of alcohol and weed. So it wasn't because we're high. I wouldn't - I wouldn't say that.

CHIDEYA: How did you get along with women after that experience?

Mr. REBOMBO: Well, I - just like the boys during my time - most of them - I still regarded women as, you know, second-class citizens. But from time to time, I'd question why women were treated differently than men and, you know, why wouldn't they be seen as important as I was seen as a boy?

And then religion played a bit of a part towards transformation as well, you know. Messages about love. If you love someone, why would you hurt them and that? But, yeah, - but from time to time, you know, I would carry those prejudices that made me think I'm better off than girls. I mean, in fact, the girl that I married can count several times when, you know, I had sex with her when she didn't even want to. So because the belief was that, you know, I could have it any time I wanted to, and she just had to comply.

So yeah, growing up, that's the kind of man I've been and - but my life started changing. And when I met the Men as Partners program, that's when I would say, you know, like, the last nail was hit in to say, look, I cannot just live by perceptions or, you know, allowing to sex - societal expectation to rule my life. I need to be Dumisani, and do what is right for me and the people around me.

CHIDEYA: You went back. You apologized to the woman who you had raped when she was a young teenager.

Mr. REBOMBO: Yes.

CHIDEYA: What - you know, what unfolded? What was that scene like? Did you tell her why you were - you wanted to talk to her?

Mr. REBOMBO: Yeah. First I told my pastor and said, look, I was in this training, and I just go to realize that I needed to live my life differently from now on and so forth. I want to go back and apologize to this girl, this woman, that, you know, I raped, you know, 20 years ago. He was like, no. Why do you do that? Why go back to the mud? You're saved now. You know the truth and all of that talk. I remember him asking me, what if the girl goes to the authorities? And I said, yeah, I'm ready for that, because that will be justice for her.

And against that advice, I went back, and then I told her how sorry I was for what I did 20 years ago. She just looked at me, and she started crying. And she said to me, you know, after you and your cousin, two other men did the same thing to me, and I've never spoken about this, not even to my husband. Sometimes he wonders why, you know, I, like, cringe when he touches me, because, you know, my life has never been the same since then.

And I remember feeling like, whoa, this is like another heaviest, you know, heavy load just being added to me, because I thought when I speak to her, I won't go around feeling guilty anymore. But I think when she told me that, you know, for the past 20 years, her life was so terrible emotionally because of my actions, that was too much to bear, because I was thinking, wow, I just went on with my life after that and never thought of it. You know, I never thought that I've done something wrong.

It just dawned to me right then that, look, I have to stand up and do something about sexual violence. She then said, look, I forgive you, and I'll do my best to try and forgive the other men. But hey, this has been a very rough thing, and she just stood up and went away.

CHIDEYA: That was Dumisani Rebombo. He's a South African activist for gender equality, and he joined us from our New York studios.

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