The odds are stacked against men. There are about 750 million sperm per ejaculate, yet only one sperm can fertilise the single egg a woman produces once a month. A male foetus is less likely to survive full-term pregnancy than a female, and boys are more likely to die in infancy. Boys are more likely to injure themselves in accidents, and regardless of where they live in the world, young men aged 15 to 29 are more likely to die violently.

In counselling men who are HIV+ I’ve found a common denominator: what I call a father wound. Men, who have absent fathers, whether physically or emotionally, are more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviour usually through high-risk conduct such as extreme sports, promiscuity, heavy drinking or drug abuse. They often find ways to demean themselves and place themselves in danger as if saying: If my father didn’t value me, how can I be of value? And so they go out of their way to prove they are of no value.

There are obviously many exceptions to this rule, Barack Obama is a great example of a man who had an absent father and used that pain to become a great dad to his girls, but this commonality prevails in men who place themselves at risk.

Aristotle believed that virtue was an aspect of choice between two vices, so, for example, courage is poised between recklessness and cowardice. But why are so many men reckless about sex and cowardly about taking responsibility for parenting? Why have so many men voluntarily relinquished masculinity by failing to take on the spiritual and biological roles masculinity imposes — of being reliable partners and responsible fathers?

The figures for disengaged fathers in South Africa are astronomical, either as people who have no contact with their offspring or refuse to pay maintenance and their children in turn will often grow up with mothers who can’t make ends meet and are often overstretched.

Poverty harms men and women in different ways. Girls will often display more stoicism than boys, who frequently become dispirited and give up. Culturally, boys are persuaded that achievement and providing is their responsibility. When they cannot, they often feel they have failed as men too and are more likely to become involved in violent acts.

Scientific evidence also suggests some people may be genetically predisposed to violence and they have different brain structures, according to research by Dr Daniel Weinberger of the US National Institute of Mental Health. His research suggests that there are neural mechanisms associated with a gene, monoamine oxidase A (MAOA), epidemiologically linked to a risk of violent and impulsive behaviour. The gene, which is carried on the X (male) chromosome, produces an enzyme that mops up stress hormones in the brain.

Australian neurogeneticist Professor Peter Schofield, who heads the Prince of Wales Medical Research Institute, says the most profound demonstration of the link was a study in the 1990s of a family in the Netherlands that had a rare and catastrophic mutation in that gene. “All the males in that family with that mutation were arsonists and rapists.”

We all have the gene which expresses the enzyme at very low levels or high levels. The low-expressing form creates problems but only in some cases. A study of a thousand men in Dunedin, New Zealand, found that only those men who had the low-expressing version of the MAOA gene and had been abused as children were prone to violent behaviour. In other words, genetic predispositions lie dormant until triggered by the experience of harm.

Violent video games have also been shown to influence aggressive conduct. Research by Dr Sonya Brady of the University of California, San Francisco, and Professor Karen Matthews at the University of Pittsburgh show that young men are more likely to believe others are hostile if they’ve just played a violent game.

Brady says young men are also more likely to think it’s acceptable to smoke marijuana and drink alcohol after playing a violent game. Playing violent games appears to have a greater effect on those who came from violent homes or communities, making them less cooperative and more competitive.

Alex Kotlowitz, a New York Times writer, wrote something profound in an essay looking at the impact of Chicago anti-gun violence organisation CeaseFire, Kotlowitz observed: “People who have little expectation for the future live recklessly.” In economically deprived areas violence is always high, along with drug addiction, alcoholism and sexually transmitted diseases.

CeaseFire was started by epidemiologist Gary Slutkin, who worked in Africa for ten years battling HIV and Aids. He returned to Chicago at a time of prevalent gun violence. For 25 years, murder has been the leading cause of death among African American men between the ages of 15 and 34, according to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, which analysed data up to 2005.

In South Africa there are on average 50 murders a day. Victims are usually shot.

How do we reverse these trends? An obvious answer is tighter gun control, but as the United Kingdom shows where knife killings are on a sharp rise, if you remove guns violent citizens will use other weapons. We need to eliminate causes; nothing less than societal transformation is needed. Childcare for working parents must be made a greater priority by governments and companies. A parent who is an accessory to a child being harmed deserves stiff penalties — as harsh as those meted out to the perpetrator. Teachers need to be paid far more and given the respect they deserve. And in the home, we have to work harder at developing a culture of respect and tolerance between parent and child — it cannot go one way only; it has to flow in both directions.

What CeaseFire violence interrupters — as the ex-gang lords, now peacemakers are called — do, is scan communities for potential trouble. When they hear of violence brewing, they intervene. They don’t try to stop the drug trade or to reform gangsters, but focus on preventing killings. CeaseFire also holds rallies at the sites of killings. They spend considerable time and often put themselves at risk to negotiate an end to conflict; it’s a slow process, but in Chicago and at least three other major US cities that have high levels of violent crime it is seeing a reduction in murder.

And belonging is an essential need too. One man I interviewed said: “There were more guys at the London school reunion of my South African school than in South Africa. In South Africa opportunities for black men have increased at the expense of opportunities for white men. There is an imbalance and so one feels it is a country that would rather you did not succeed as a man and yet you know you are integral to the success of that nation.” You see that frustration expressed over and over in blog comments, why are we ignoring it? No form of deliberate exclusion can ever be acceptable.

There is so much work that needs to be done in South Africa to help men but it is still way too little.

  • Organisations and men doing particularly good work: Sonke Gender Justice Network (Mbuyiselo Botha), Engender (Dean Peacock).
  • View more on our special report on 16 days of activism here.
  • Author

    • Charlene Smith is a multi-award-winning journalist, author and media consultant. She has had 14 books published, one of which was shortlisted for an Alan Paton award. Television documentaries for which she has worked have also won awards. She has worked as a broadcast journalist and radio-station manager. Smith's areas of expertise are politics, economics, women's and children's issues and HIV. She lives and works in Cambridge, USA.


    Charlene Smith

    Charlene Smith is a multi-award-winning journalist, author and media consultant. She has had 14 books published, one of which was shortlisted for an Alan Paton award. Television documentaries for which...

    Leave a comment