Changing gender attitudes in South Africa linked to increased access to TV and smartphones

02 September 2020

Researchers evaluating the impact of a community HIV prevention programme observed shifts in gender attitudes, which they linked to the influence of TV dramas.

Girl in South Africa on her phone

A study of the Tsima programme, a three-year community-based HIV prevention trial in Mpumalanga province, has found a significant change in gender attitudes, linked to the rapid spread of television and smartphones.

The study also found a reduction in the proportion of young women experiencing intimate partner violence (IPV) in communities where Tsima operated, linked to the initiative’s work on conflict resolution.

South African NGO Sonke Gender Justice implemented Tsima, which worked with both men and women to address the social barriers to HIV services. Activities included workshops on gender norms, relationship violence and conflict resolution, community-based street theatre and murals, local leader meetings and support groups.

To assess Tsima’s impact, household surveys were conducted before the trial began in 2014 and in 2018 after it had finished. Around 1,100 people (split between men and women) from individual households were questioned. Half of the households were in communities where Tsima ran, and half were not.

Researchers used a sliding scale to assess attitudes towards issues such as men’s right to control women and whether women should be primary caregivers. Those in a relationship (83% of men and 89% of women) were asked about IPV. Interviews and focus groups with 60 community members and 40 programme staff were also conducted.

In 2014, both men and women displayed inequitable gender attitudes. Between 10 and 17% of younger respondents (18-29 years) and 4-6% of older respondents had experienced or perpetrated IPV.

By 2018 around two-thirds of men and just over half of women in Tsima communities had heard of the programme, nearly half of whom had participated in at least one workshop. In comparison, only 15% of people in control communities had heard of Tsima. Yet views among men and women in both Tsima and non-Tsima communities had become significantly more equal. Overall, there was a 17% increase in the endorsement of fair gender norms among men and a 13% increase among women.

These shifts were linked to increased media access, particularly ownership of smartphones and satellite television, the latter of which more than doubled from 20% to 45%. Interviewees spoke of how routinely watching South African serial dramas (known locally as ‘soapies’) and talk shows had a positive influence as these shows were often critical of IPV and showed couples communicating to resolve arguments.

Yet it was only in Tsima communities that actual experiences of IPV fell, as younger women in these areas reported lower levels in 2018 than 2014. Although this was linked to the positive influence of television dramas, interviewees described these media stories as distant. They indicated that it was the communication and conflict resolution skills they had built-in Tsima workshops that helped them actively adopt new relationship patterns.

Interestingly, the study found younger men in both groups reported lower levels of IPV perpetration in 2018, despite younger women in control communities not reporting a reduction in IPV experiences. One possible explanation for this is that younger men underreported IPV perpetration in 2018 due to the general shift in community norms. No significant changes in IPV were found among older participants, possibly due to the lower prevalence level reported in the first place.

These findings show that changes in individual and collective attitudes over a short period of time are possible – but that skills-building in smaller groups may be required to change people’s actual behaviour.

Photo credit:
iStock/davidf. Photos are used for illustrative purposes only, they do not imply health beahviour or status of any individuals depicted.

Written by Hester Phillips