On this cold and rainy Tuesday, Bafana Khumalo stood in front of the White House with a controversial demand for President Obama: The U.S. should provide foreign aid to fund abortions for women who’ve been raped during conflicts and in other circumstances. Currently, the 1973 Helms Amendment, prohibits the use of foreign aid money for abortions as “family planning.” About 200 protesters joined Khumalo.
On Wednesday morning, the South African activist will be in New York City, rubbing shoulders with Vice President Joe Biden. They are two of the four men being honored with the first Vital Voices Solidarity Award, presented to men who speak out to stop violence against women. “I know Vice President Biden’s history is very luminous in terms of his engagement in gender-based violence,” says Khumalo. “I will be calling on him to use his influence.”
Khumalo is cofounder of the nonprofit Sonke Gender Justice in South Africa.. Sonke means “all” in the Nguni language; the group is dedicated to building a world in which all men, women and children can have “equitable, healthy and happy relationships.” Its efforts include community workshops, political advocacy and media outreach.
So how did a man become involved in urging action to improve the lives of women? We spoke with him after the demonstration.
What drew you to women’s rights?
Women suffer at the hands of men. Leaders who have an opportunity to make a difference in terms of legislation and policies tend to be men. Therefore, I think we need more male voices coming out and speaking out on these issues, so we challenge the patriarchy and its consequences on the lives of women and girls.
Did anyone ever question whether these issues might be better addressed by women?
I’ve been in this game for more than 20 years. When we first started as men talking about this issue there was a lot of skepticism. But I think we have proved we are not in this just as a fluke. For me, it’s a no brainer. I couldn’t struggle against apartheid, which was a crime against humanity, and then ignore crimes against women.
The demonstration today had a strong focus on the plight of women who’ve been raped during war.
Having come from a history where I have been on the receiving end of policies that were against black people in South Africa, I think it would be amiss for me to ignore the stark reality that is faced by women everywhere, every day in terms of their safety, in terms of how women’s bodies are used in conflict settings as weapons of war.
How are women used as weapons of war?
Men rape women as a way of showing other men that they are weak and cannot even protect women in their community. We think world leaders look the other way on these issues.
What else do you think world leaders should speak out about?
We just had the situation of over 200 girls [abducted] in Nigeria. With all the technology we have these days, it’s scandalous that we are not able to move quickly to bring back these girls to their parents.
In our society women are there to be seen and not heard, and therefore what are 200 girls? Life can go on without them. I’m sure the world would have woken up if it was young boys who had been abducted. And so we think there isn’t enough anger to move leaders to respond to this challenge in Nigeria and elsewhere in the world.
In the U.S., there is currently a debate about an article in Rolling Stone, detailing the rape of a college student – and whether the story is accurately reported.
I’m shocked that it’s happening in the U.S., given the democratic nature of this society. But this is the problem in our society. When women are raped, people first don’t believe them or begin to question: Have you done something to encourage this kind of response? Were you flirting with a man? What were you wearing? We just had an incident in Nairobi, Kenya, in which young women who were wearing miniskirts were stripped naked by men in that society. Those men believe when you wear [clothing] like that you are asking for trouble. This kind of behavior — dictating what women wear, where they can walk — reduces women to children.
Are you looking forward to the award ceremony in New York.
I’m humbled about the event tomorrow because I have to stand not just as an individual but on behalf of the many young people in our organization who are passionate about these issues. It’s in that context that I am almost approaching tomorrow with trepidation considering that we have a long way to go in transforming the world.