Brotherhood of Silence …your silence will not save you

Esther A. Armah

“I witnessed a rape at 17 years old. The girl was 14 years, the younger sister of a friend. There were 8 to 10 guys there. I felt helpless and guilty. I did nothing. We all feared the rapist. I felt terrible. That moment is seared into my memory. This is an experience I regret to this very day. I learned to speak up. I had to unlearn silence,” says Kwesi, a Ghanaian man in an interview for #IAmUNLEARNING, a groundbreaking three-year project on African manhood and masculinity here in Ghana.

Kwesi felt the cost of his silence as a witness to a rape as a teen boy. Together with the other 8 to 10 guys there, they created a brotherhood of silence. The one rapist and the 10 silent witnesses. This is how sexual violence flourishes. What happened to that 14-year-old girl? Who did she become? What happened to the rapist? Who did he become? What happened to the other 9 young guys – who did they become? Kwesi became a professor who is also an advocate against sexual violence due to this incident that continues to haunt him.

Kwesi is not alone. There is a brotherhood of bystanders. Those who are silent witness, whose silence makes them complicit in acts of violence. It creates and maintains our culture of complicity. It needs particular attention and unlearning by the millions of men who engage it.

There are the millions of fathers, uncles, husbands, sons, friends, colleagues, brothers – good men. We know them. We love them. They know us. They love us. These are the millions who love, live, lead in myriad ways. It is your work to engage, challenge and change those of your brethren who consider power as theirs to wield and weaponize – especially against women and girls. It is this specific action and engagement by men towards other men that is the work of unsilencing. And there are those who are everyday dudes, who go about their business and their life wanting neither drama or trouble. This brotherhood of ‘it’s none of my business’ is also pervasive and problematic.

And, of course, there are the flawed ones; the family patriarchs who will pay school fees because they believe in higher education, and support a generation getting that higher education –  but demand some kind of sexual transaction in exchange. There are those who do well by a whole group of people and maltreat another group of people. The truth of individuals goodness or badness is always complicated, it is rarely black and white.

What is black and white is silence vs speaking up.

This nation is drowning in good and great men. The violence we have normalized and culturalized that is happening in classrooms, homes and workplaces across our country is the result of two things; those who commit it and those who condone and sanction it when they stay silent.

Evil, corruption and violence – physical and sexual – flourish when good men maintain their silence and solidarity in the presence of heinous acts. That’s the big lesson nation-building requires all men to learn.

Your silence cannot save you. What it can do – what it does do – is hurt, harm and traumatize others; individuals, families, community, society and a nation’s progress. Such is its power.

Silence is action. It is the decision to act in support of what is wrong. Boys learn to be silent in the presence of men’s violent behavior, as an act of fear, of solidarity, a toxic masculinity, a brotherhood where betrayal means speaking up, speaking out. Boys who become men learn power relies on this silence as solidarity. They privilege that kind of power over progress and people. They join a community of complicity. They must unlearn this solidarity which is a guide for adult behavior that has long-term costs and consequences. It is not the only kind of power.

Who pays? Who profits?

Speaking out and up takes courage.  There are, of course, those who speak up. Not enough do. We know this from the list of sexual violence scandals in schools across Ghana. We know this because of the levels of corruption stories that clog up our airwaves and hit our screens so regularly. Speaking up sometimes comes with a cost, your silence comes with a greater cost. It costs a nation speedier progress – one where mediocrity silences excellence in places and spaces of leadership and power.

Silence can be unlearned. Speaking up and out can be taught. It can be learned, it is process and then it must become practice. Imagine an African masculinity that celebrates speaking up and out against violence, and taking action with your fellow brethren to actively end such violence. What if we normalized this?

Speaking up about issues of violence in our communities, our schools and our homes is not the same as speaking out in critique of our politicians. The latter is a national sport that the whole country plays regularly. We can – and often do – critique our politicians all day and all night. We do so from the comfort and quiet of homes, cars, trotros, places of work. We do not necessarily do so when we are in a position of power and our silence may mean the undoing of someone in power’s corruption.

Programs have been created encouraging men to engage by pledging to end violence against women, by adding their name to a particular cause. There is the UN’s #HeForShe where nations get men to sign up and make such pledges. Ghana has signed up to this, and during the now infamous ‘Women Deliver Conference’ in Canada, the President lauded the 3,000 men who had signed up.

Such pledges require action to mean anything. There is the visible act of the pledge, but  no other action follows. It is too often the appearance of change, without the process and the practice of it.

19th November was International Men’s Day. Celebrated since 1991 in 80 nations around the world, it has six pillars that include boys and men’s health, becoming a better humanitarian, anti-suicide work and engaging in the fight for equality. Of course, there are lots of jokes about such a day named for men. That’s because, in a world where patriarchy dominates, men evade accountability and women are subject to the scrutiny, actions, violence, coercion, corruption of men, every day is considered men’s day.

Let’s create a culture in which so many more of us flourish, not one where some flounder and are used as a ladder on which others climb.

What could an exit from the brotherhood of silence do to transform sectors, families, communities, society? What could the breaking of your silence change, what could it lead you to become?

We teach girls they should speak out and up against violence. We need to teach boys to do the same. Unlearning silence to end violence against girls and women should not be gendered.

To men, it is beyond time to leave your brotherhood of silence. It is not brethren. It is a betrayal of a nation’s safety, wellbeing and progress.


#IAmUNLEARNING: an Emotional Justice project on African men and masculinity by EAA Media Productions in partnership with Eli Tetteh, White Ribbon Ghana and The Safe Space Foundation on 19th November which is named as International Men’s Day.

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