In the northern areas of South Africa’s Western Cape almost half of the population is jobless. Liquor stores in the towns provide a predictable outlet for people’s boredom and frustrations—and contribute to a range of social problems: fighting and aggression, substance abuse, domestic and sexual violence, child abuse and absent parenting.

Lenie Januarie, acting supervisor for the Children and Families Program at the Department of Social Development (DSD), cites parental neglect as a major problem and says that cases of child abuse constitute the highest intake for her office. Assault is the most common crime in Vredendal, one of the biggest cities in the rural area, and there are many cases of sexual and domestic violence each year. Januarie says she has been living in this area for 30 years. She represents DSD in the Matzikama Men and Boys Network—a partnership between Sonke Gender Justice, the Gender Transformation Network, and DSD. It’s a new initiative in the area and the first of its kind.

The network aims to promote gender equality and to encourage men and boys to play a positive role in their families and communities. “We have set a platform for men and boys and families and redirecting their vision in terms of their own lifestyle and how to go about their everyday living,” explains Andrew Julies, a local councilor, pastor, and chairperson of the Matzikama Men and Boys Network steering committee. Leigh Kordom, a youth coach at a local school, says the network encourages men and boys to play an active role in promoting gender equality: “It gives them a platform to stand up as men because the men in the community are mostly the ones that [get] talked about badly.”

Since it was created in August 2012, the network has been actively implementing Sonke’s MenCare campaign, a campaign Sonke cochairs together with Instituto Promundo in Brazil and other global partners. The MenCare Campaign recognizes that nearly 80 percent of all men will be fathers in their lifetime and aims to increase men’s healthy involvement in nonviolent, equitable parenting. This is important work in South Africa, where studies show that 48 percent of children have absent fathers, a number that was on the upward trend when MenCare was launched.

The program works through media, program development, policy advocacy, and community trainings to involve men in fathers’ groups and as advocates for participatory fatherhood. From logos on T-shirts resembling construction signs saying “Men At Work” and showing a man changing a diaper, to billboards and posters depicting active fathers, the MenCare project works to change how everyone sees men, including how they see themselves.

Across Matzikama, people now wear MenCare T-shirts sparking conversation and contributing to gradually shifting social norms. MenCare’s “My Dad Can” program uses media to promote positive local role models as examples of good, involved fathers. And MenCare fatherhood groups create safe and supportive spaces for men to explore the role of their own fathers in their lives and to reflect upon how they can be involved fathers in the lives of their own children. Reflecting on the personal impact the training has had on his life, Johannes Cyster, a barber from Vanrhynsdorp says “Becoming a father was difficult for me because I didn’t have a father in my life, so I must learn it for myself. In Vanrhynsdorp it is difficult because some of the fathers don’t take fatherhood very seriously; people don’t know how to be a father. They only know ‘I have a baby; now I’m a father,’ but they don’t act like fathers.”

Other participants echoed similar sentiments, and the sessions are proving to be valuable even to those without children. “It gave me an advantage because we don’t have children and we can start now already, and plan the future and put away money,” Kordom says.

Rodney Fortuin, who runs the Matzikama Men and Boys Network (and is Sonke’s Western Cape Community Education and Mobilization Manager), says the network produced MenCare posters were enthusiastically received by the community. Part of the success was due to the beautifully engaging photos and messages in the language predominantly spoken in the area, Afrikaans—both of which connected with the people of the Matzikama municipality.

The posters show a man kissing his child, another man with his hand on his pregnant wife’s stomach, a family playing cards, a man reading to his five children—all people from the Matzikama community. The poster of a man preparing his baby’s bottle reads, Jy Help My Om Gesond Te Bly. Jy Is My Pa. “You Help Me Stay Healthy. You Are My Father.”

Fortuin says Januarie even cried during the poster launch. When asked why she was crying, she said was shedding “tears of joy” because she was so touched that local community members were positively involved with their families and were featured in these posters. Januarie says seeing the community’s reaction to these posters has been one of her best moments working for the network so far. Even though she’s one of the lead organizers, she says she’s learning as well. Januarie, a trained social worker, says she is changing her attitude and opening up her mind around LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex) issues: “You see we were traditional, oldfashioned on the roles of men…”

While the steering committee and the network have been busy, the consensus is that there’s still much more to do. “You can never take for granted that the little resources that are poured into rural communities make a huge difference to people’s lives. People within the community have shown a hunger and a desire to bring about change within their community,” says Fortuin, noting that there is a sense of immense gratitude expressed by the community in the workshops and events. He says they are eager to see what development opportunities will come next and how they can participate.

Matzikama is a deeply religious community and, as such, the churches have an important role to play in making gender equality a reality there. Churches are playing an integral part in the network, effectively mobilizing people to attend workshops.  Julies speaks of how his work with the network has influenced his life as a pastor. “Over three or four Sundays I’ve talked about families in the church because people come into church…with family issues.” He says he has to deal with the issues there and then, or else his parishioners go back home with the issues unresolved.

Jonathan Matthews, a pastor at the New Apostolic Church, who is also studying community development, says the network is breaking all sorts of gender, and sex-related taboos. “I brought my wife and my mother-in-law with me. My mother-in-law is 63, and after one session… they couldn’t stop talking about it. I mean someone at 63 didn’t know about gender and gender equality and about sex and the different sex you get… Before this experience she wouldn’t talk about such things because it would be taboo … It just goes to show that through the network people start feeling free to talk about stuff. So in that sense, the Men and Boys Network is making a great change…my mother-in-law goes with other seniors and she talks about it there with them.”

Teen pregnancy and young parenting is also a major issue in Matzikama. The MenCare workshops provide young fathers with the skills they need to be involved, equitable parents. Students also appreciate the open nature of the discussions afforded by the “Teenage Gender, Sex and Sexuality” training sessions that the network holds with high school students. Teenage pregnancy is an issue affecting both boys and girls, and the training addresses male and female sexuality. “I got the opportunity to explore more of what a boy needs to know in terms of sexuality so when I get to the point where I have to say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ I will know what to do,” says student Jeremy Matthews. The students also expressed a desire for this type of education to be rolled out into the community and for it to be offered to students in the lower grades so they have necessary information before they start having sex.

Both organizers and participants say that because of their involvement, they have to pay attention to what kind of role models they are. “They know, ‘Oh, these are the guys that are on that program—manhood and fatherhood’ so they are watching us. Are we doing what we are supposed to be doing?” says Cyster.  Julies concurs: “I can’t be a part of this network, attending the programs, then going out there and doing negative stuff. It keeps me in line personally… People look at me and they must see, this [guy] is the example. And I want to follow this example.”

As the Matzikama Men and Boys Network promotes gender equality, it also promotes human rights. Some of Matzikama’s faith communities have come out in support of gay rights and gender equality since the network was established. Franklen Ludick, a member of the Flame and Fire Prayer Warriors, shared openly that his opinions on gender, sexuality, and fatherhood have changed because of the network’s work: “My [mindset] changed a lot.”

The MenCare program demonstrates that healthy and functional families set the stage for healthy and functional communities.  In an area that for decades has had consistently high levels of absentee fathers, targeting men and boys to play a significant part in making gender equality a reality is vital in the work of turning  bad news into good.

Colin Adam Young is a freelance writer who has done consultancy work for Sonke Gender Justice. He lives in Cape Town.