As the Program Support and Communications intern at Help Lesotho, a Canadian NGO addressing issues of gender equity, leadership, community empowerment and HIV/AIDS, it was part of my duty to take pictures of the Leaders-in-Training Program (LIT) participants during their journey.
The LIT Program is an intensive, 60-day training program that develops resilient young people (aged 18-30) in Lethoso to become a new generation of leaders by helping them change unhealthy behaviours and providing them with a safe environment to heal, learn and grow. LIT explores gender, sexual violence, HIV/AIDS, leadership, decision-making, communication, self-esteem and grief and loss.
On the first day of LIT, I encountered a group of three young men and asked them, like I had asked everyone else, if I could take a picture of them. They silently stared at me for a few moments and then one of them said, “Wait, I’m drinking water.” As I waited, I began to see that he was purposely drinking slowly, relishing whatever power he thought he held over me by making me wait. When I realized what he was doing, I began to move on to the next group of participants. Once he saw that I was moving on, he quickly downed his water so I could take the picture of him and his friends. I would later learn that his name was Sam.
Over the following weeks, I observed that Sam and some of the other male participants of the LIT program held condescending views towards women. One of the most electrifying modules I facilitated was on gender, where we discussed power relations between men and women and the gender roles society imposes on them. Gender would prove to be the area where I saw the most stunning transformations amongst LIT members.
When conducting interviews with LIT members to assess the impact of the program on their lives, it came time for me to interview Sam. I asked him what he felt he would have missed out on had he not been a part of LIT. In response, he said, “My father was the most important member of the family…he was the boss…that was something that could not be argued with.” He went on to explain how his father beat his mother, prevented her from working but would not share his money with her. “I thought that as a man, I was more important than a woman in life. However, through LIT, I realized that no, we have been created equal, and I have to respect the needs and rights of a woman.”
During another interview, I asked a young man named Masa what he found to be the most interesting thing about LIT and he replied, “Gender equity. I am in love with gender equity because it’s all about everything that is happening in my village, such as gender violence. I need to do something about it. I have to be in love with it so that I can do it with passion, so that I can go to the village and be strong enough to stand for it.”
Gender inequity and the consequent gender violence that follows is literally making Lesotho sick. Many have noted that violence against women is many times both a cause and consequence of HIV. UNAIDS notes that, “Sexual and physical violence is a key determinant of the [Lesotho’s] severe HIV epidemic.” Lesotho has the second highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the world, with more women than men infected with the virus. Issues like the devaluation of women and violence against women cannot be separated from the spread of the pandemic within the country. Hence, it is imperative for men, who are the primary perpetrators of violence against women, to join the fight for gender equity.
The generation of young men like Sam and Masa, who have fallen in love with gender equity, are making it possible to imagine an AIDS-free Lesotho.