Dean Peacock
Ashoka Fellow since 2013   |   South Africa

Dean Peacock

Sonke Gender Justice
Dean Peacock is challenging entrenched gender inequality in South Africa by engaging men as change agents to tackle health and violence issues that stem from the way they relate to women and, in doing…
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This description of Dean Peacock's work was prepared when Dean Peacock was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2013.


Dean Peacock is challenging entrenched gender inequality in South Africa by engaging men as change agents to tackle health and violence issues that stem from the way they relate to women and, in doing so, is building a broad civic movement to re-shape the framework of manhood in Africa.

The New Idea

Dean created Sonke Gender Justice with the conviction that men can be mobilized to play an important role in achieving gender equality, preventing domestic and sexual violence, improving their health and that of women, as well as contributing to a society in which all are healthier, happier and more able to access and enjoy their rights. He has seen how men also benefit in real and tangible ways from a world with less rigid and less violent models of manhood and thus should engage directly in ending violence against women and in promoting gender equality. Through the organization’s core methodology Community Action Teams (CAT) and his mass campaign, One Man Can, Sonke combines delivery mechanisms and a framework change approach which comprises, annually, an average of 230 workshops, 80 community events, 150 stakeholder meetings and a range of community activities reaching almost 42,000 people per year. Research showed that this strategy leads to important behavioral change in men. In addition, Sonke’s media and policy change strategies further consolidate the model.

The Problem

Africa has among the highest levels of domestic violence and rape of any region in the world. According to the Centre for Social Science Research, in South Africa, nearly half of all men say they’ve assaulted an intimate partner, and nearly one in six says they have done so in the last twelve months. 27 percent of men say they’ve raped a woman, nearly one in twenty in the last twelve months. Furthermore, there is clear indication that male supremacy is entrenched in institutions. Only one out of nine victims of rape reports it, and fewer than 10 percent of reported rapes lead to conviction, that is, over 90 percent of rapists and nearly two-thirds of men who kill their intimate partner go unpunished in South Africa (Department of Justice and Department of Correctional Services).

Despite legislation in South Africa prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of gender, little has changed regarding how men and women relate to each other. Various scholars and researchers point to the deep-rooted patriarchal society which accommodates women superficially. South African society is highly religious and traditional beliefs preach the concept of ‘patriarch’ as ‘the father and ruler of the family and the tribe.’ This is not unique, as across much of the world, cultures are influenced by the idea of the supremacy of fathers. This ideology is referred to in religious books as well as in traditional social practices as a system of domination of men over women regardless of economic class; elevating the idea of leadership of the fathers to a position of paramount importance in society. The problem arises when this once positive ideal of the father as the head and protector of the family extends to all spheres of life in gender relations perpetuating the notion that women are generally inferior and thus developing an uneven power-relationship of supremacy and subordination. The intrinsic authority of women in various areas have been suppressed fueling harmful perceptions that encourage men to engage in high risk behaviors, condone violence against women, grant men the power to initiate and dictate the terms of sex, and make it difficult for women to protect themselves from either HIV/AIDS infection or violence.

A growing body of research shows that these wayward definitions of manhood are not the only causes of gender-based violence, alcohol, and drug abuse also exacerbate the spread and impact of HIV and AIDS. Almost one-third of sexually experienced women reported that they did not want to have their first sexual encounter and that they were coerced into sex. As a result, young women in South Africa are much more likely to be infected by HIV than their male peers. When men equate manhood with dominance and aggression, sexual conquest and fearlessness, research shows they are also likely to exhibit more negative condom attitudes and less consistent condom use. Men who hold rigid and inequitable beliefs about manhood also tend to have far more sexual partners than women, placing both themselves and their partners at high risk for HIV infection.

Men’s violence against women does not occur because men lose their temper or because they have no impulse control. Men who use violence do so because they live in a world that all too often equates manhood with aggression, dominance over women and with sexual conquest. This is why men’s behaviors are significantly influenced by exaggerated and distorted notions of what they think other men do and think. Furthermore, popular representations of men in the media make it easy to believe that most men have many sexual partners each year. Often men are afraid that they will be viewed as less than a “real” man if they apologize, compromise, or share power. So instead of finding ways to resolve conflict, many men resort to violence. These definitions of manhood can lead to high levels of violence against women but also contribute to high levels of men’s violence against each other.

Even though domestic and sexual violence are so widespread and the consequences related to violence and HIV/AIDS so devastating, efforts to transform gender roles and relations remain limited, since most COs and governments adopt the short-sighted approach of just condemning men instead of engaging them to address the root causes of their behavior.

The Strategy

Dean created Sonke Gender Justice in 2006 to work across Africa to strengthen government, civil society and citizen capacity to support men and boys to take action to promote gender equality, prevent domestic and sexual violence, and reduce the spread and impact of HIV and AIDS. Sonke Gender Justice’s innovation is that its ultimate goal is not just to change individual behaviors of men—as most such current initiatives do—but change the entire framework of what it is to be a man in Africa today. Sonke recognizes that changing deeply held beliefs about gender roles and relations requires comprehensive, multifaceted strategies addressing the many forces shaping individual and community norms and practices including: traditions and cultures, government policies, laws and institutions, civil society organizations, the media, the family as well as the economic, political, and social pressures that shape and reinforce those values.

To change the framework of masculinity and gender relations in Africa, Sonke employs a methodology called Spectrum of Change to identify seven interlinking tipping strategies that move beyond a reliance on individual or small group change to instead promote changes at the individual level but also in the social, political, and economic aspects of people’s lives. These include: (1) community mobilization via the CATs method; (2) working with government to promote change in policy and practice; (3) organizational development and strengthening; (4) community education including work with media; (5) individual skills building; (6) research, monitoring and evaluation and (7) building effective networks and coalitions. These strategies are implemented by four units.

The first is training and community mobilization. For this, Sonke’s employs a method that is also the core of its organization, CATs. Sonke staff travel across South Africa, in urban and rural communities, to educate men and boys to speak out at provincial policy consultations. Workshops are run at the community level to screen and recruit community members to form a CAT to serve their local areas. These CATs behave as the eyes and ears of the community, encouraging people to report crimes, and to work together to create a safe atmosphere for all, especially for the most vulnerable. In addition, CATs mobilize their communities, rallying people to attend events and engage in local activities. Each CAT has a set menu of around ten engagement activities, which can range from Training modules, Drama, Murals, and Festivals. Another example of activity is the PhotoVoice, a digital storytelling technique. Boys and men in rural communities would tell their stories of what manhood meant to them and the challenges they faced in “representing” their male roles to society. They were then recorded and linked to photographs they took themselves. The audio was broadcasted via community radio networks to an audience of an average 10 million listeners a week. Sonke then trained community radio hosts in how to use these stories and the photographs with highlights of the stories were also featured on mainstream print media.

The concept of “community” that Sonke uses goes beyond the territorial limits and includes working with men in prisons, police stations and taverns, up to traditional councils. The work of the training and community mobilization unit is premised on the notion that men have a personal stake in change and that their change is more likely to endure if they become advocates for change. These workshops are a starting point rather than an end point; as a means to mobilize community members to take action in their own homes and neighborhoods in order to promote active citizenship and strengthen grassroots democracy. This can be done by organizing community campaigns for men to get tested on their HIV status up to creating a local watchdog led by men to monitor gender-based violence at the community level.

The second unit is Communications and Strategic Information. The communications team also broadcast information via radio and print media, as in the previous project. The work of this unit is informed by the fact—corroborated by research—that men’s behaviors are significantly influenced by exaggerated and distorted notions of what they think other men do and think. Sonke’s own research with over 3,000 men in four urban areas challenges this stereotype and indicates that three-quarters of men had had only one sexual partner in the last year and less than 10 percent had more than four partners. Sharing these findings and others like them take the pressure off of men to act out dangerous and exaggerated stereotypes. Thus, Sonke’s media strategy is to challenge distortions about men and offer more accurate representations of men’s real lives and aspirations. One such campaign is called Brothers for Life, a national initiative of Sonke in partnership with Johns Hopkins Health and Education in South Africa, South African National Aids Council and other key stakeholders aimed at addressing the risks associated with having multiple and concurrent partnerships, men’s limited involvement in fatherhood, lack of knowledge of HIV status by many, low levels of testing and disclosure, and insufficient health seeking behaviors in general.

To further this strategy, Dean is building on Sonke’s already successful partnerships with national soapies—watched by millions of South Africans—such as “Generations,” “Soul City,” and “Muvhango,” to infuse these new perceptions of men to the masses. A regular presence is also being planned on regional and global media platforms, such as ongoing shows on BBC Africa, Al Jazeera and SABC Africa. The third unit is Policy, Advocacy and Research, whereby Sonke drafts parliamentary submissions and engages with government ministries such as the Department of Women, Children and People with Disabilities. Sonke strongly believes that engaging government assists in reaching enough people and has meaningful and sustained impact. It motivates government to adopt and implement laws, policies, and programs that promote gender transformation using its vast infrastructure and personnel to advance this agenda. The work of the unit goes even further with efforts to monitor government implementation, sometimes supporting government to implement and sometimes using advocacy and public awareness strategies to hold them to account when they do not.

The fourth unit takes care of Sonke’s spread strategy within Africa and also globally. For instance, Sonke works with Ashoka Fellow Gary Barker’s Promundo in Brazil and the US. Together with Gary, Dean co-founded and co-chairs MenEngage, a network of 400 COs and international agencies such as the UN, working in more than thirty countries on engaging men and boys in gender equality and violence prevention. In addition, their organizations are also co-chairs and co-founders of a global campaign, now active in eleven countries, to engage men as involved fathers and caregivers. Another example is Sonke’s program that reports on sexual violence used as a weapon in war-torn regions such as the Kivu province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Sonke has reached more than 250,000 men and women with its approach since its inception in 2006. Through this work, the number of men in South Africa getting tested for HIV/AIDS has increased and so have the community-based forums that address, therapeutically or through mass media, the definition of manhood for men in South Africa. For example, a 2009 report on Sonke’s programming found significant changes in short-term behavior in the weeks following its One Man Can activities: 25 percent of respondents had accessed voluntary counseling and testing, 50 percent reported an act of gender-based violence, 61 percent increased their use of condoms, and over 80 percent talked to friends or family members about HIV, gender, and human rights issues.

Furthermore, Dean’s work has affected national level policy, by recommending models and approaches to be integrated into The National Green Paper on Families by Department of Social Development and the South African 2012-2016 National Strategic Plan on HIV and AIDS, among others. Dean is also changing regional discourse on engaging men in gender equality in sub-Saharan Africa and the global field of male engagement in human rights issues, such as recently working to engage men within the UN system to see themselves as agents of change. In parallel with this regional expansion, Dean is also designing new practical approaches to his methodology in South Africa. One such approach is his ongoing conversation with a major fitness company to set up fitness centers in townships that would employ his CAT method adapted to the fitness environment, so that men and women would relate differently in this space and receive positive reinforcements toward a peaceful and healthy interaction.

The Person

Like so many white, middle-class South African children growing up under apartheid, Dean’s childhood was insular and sheltered from the realities of violence and dislocation experienced by black South Africans. This started to change during his university years as he engaged with the anti-apartheid student movements, an experienced that forged his deep commitment to social justice.

During his graduate studies in San Francisco, US, he joined the Larkin Street Youth Centre. Many of these young men and young women sold sex to survive and a significant percentage contracted HIV and subsequently died of AIDS in an era when ARV medicines were not yet available. It was during this time that Dean realized there was another social injustice that needed urgent attention. He saw a pattern with the street children: almost all the kids had left home to escape domestic violence and child abuse--and most of them now endured great physical and sexual violence on the streets. This inspired him to work for Men Overcoming Violence (MOVE), first in the volunteer training program and progressing to position of Director. Dean figured MOVE needed a youth project and so he created it, and it ended up accounting for 75 percent of the organization’s budget. Dean found tremendous meaning in this work, and decided to focus on health prevention and education, especially related to sexual behavior. This drive was later confirmed through a life-changing event: Dean was assaulted five times in two years in the early 1990s, each time by groups of young men who were involved in gang initiations. He developed many of the symptoms associated with post-trauma disease: hypervigilance on the streets, irrational fears, intrusive thoughts, but gained insight into the effect violence has on people and developed far greater empathy for people who experience violence.

This sealed his conviction that he was to dedicate his life to change the framework of how society perceives men and boys and how, in turn, they perceive themselves. After several years abroad working for international health organizations and movements which he co-founded such as MenEngage Alliance and The Family Violence Prevention Fund, he felt it was time to return to South Africa. Dean managed the local operations of EngenderHealth where he was doing much of their media work. He then helped the Treatment Action Campaign in its policy change approach. Having learned about community outreach from MOVE, media work from EngenderHealth and policy change from TAC, Dean felt he was now ready to start his own organization to do what no other institution was doing in South Africa: change society’s perception of manhood and hence the behavior of men toward women.

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