Gender-based violence is a problem that has been stubbornly persistent all over the world. It is a sensitive and often hidden issue exacerbated by the profound lack of reliable data to inform policies and programs; a challenge common across the board. It is, however, hiding in plain sight in light of the obvious magnitude and pervasiveness of the issue.
I am currently in Harare, Zimbabwe taking part in the annual steering committee meeting of MenEngage Africa; a network which seeks to positively engage men and boys in various issues, including promoting gender justice. As our discussions start to focus on 16 days of activism against gender-based violence, I thought I would dive deeper into the issue and share my thoughts.
Violence in the broader sense takes many shapes but gender-based violence casts a big shadow in the lives of women and girls. The problem is closely related to areas such as sexual and reproductive health and rights and family planning, including the prevalence of HIV. It also has significant economic implications. Although the problem is not just limited to this constituency, the majority of this type of violence is perpetrated by men specifically against women and girls. This includes the many forms of sexual violence, domestic and intimate-partner violence, and systemic, cultural and institutional barriers which facilitate power-imbalances that result in these despicable atrocities. But there are also some interesting facts we need to take into account.
Why is it critical to work with men and boys? Men may be the majority of the perpetrators, but we have a larger segment of men who do not condone this violence but are silent about it, and we often miss out on the opportunity to engage them. There is a spectrum of change that extends from men who are hostile or opposed to our movement, to those who are hesitant to engage, all the way up to the ones who become active leaders and agents of change. There are also a lot of repeat-offenders. That means, we cannot design a preventative intervention without equally focusing on and working with the perpetrators. The situation begs us to take a closer look at the factors behind the harmful aspects of masculinities and patriarchal norms which later evolve into this dangerous reality. There is also growing recognition and evidence-base which highlights the strategy of working with men and boys as the missing link in our strive to achieve gender-equality.
Men also hold a considerable amount of power within the society in terms of access to and control over resources and have a stronger decision making power. Women take up a big share of the unpaid work and get significantly less pay than men for the same job. The majority of our parliamentarians, traditional and religious leaders are also men; a reality that places them at the very center of what we are trying to achieve. This narrative, however, is usually misconstrued as, “women don’t have power and we need men to come liberate them” which couldn’t be further from the truth. It is rather an acknowledgement of the existing structural context which necessitates a redirection of this power that comes with the different spheres that men dominate, towards a better reality for all involved.
Another misconception is reflected in the assumption that if men have that much power, then they are completely well off and they would only be engaged for the sake of women and girls. The approach actually helps men just as much, by freeing them from the damaging aspects of masculinity that holds them back, which reflects in their enacting violence against each other, or against themselves. In that way, it also contributes to tackle one of the underlying causes of gender-based violence.
So how do we work with men and boys? Our strategy needs to encompass working with feelings and emotions. Approaches that focus on blaming and shaming may seem like they are working on the surface, but they usually explode in our faces when we least expect it. The method can also alienate and make it that much harder to work with men who actually want to be part of the solutions. It is hard to change attitudes unless the person is convinced they need to change it themselves. Therefore we need to go deeper and create real understanding about the social, psychological and economic costs of the issue to men themselves, women and girls and the society. A lot of times we find that it is harder to access men and get them to come to our programs. In such scenarios, we need to be innovative and take the intervention to them with programs adapted to the context preventing them from coming to us. Promoting positive male role-models within the community is also a powerful way to create interest among other men to join our cause.
There are a lot of programs which focus on creating safe houses for victims of gender-based violence and calling for a strict enforcement of laws against those committing such deeds. These are very critical and need to be scaled up. But a preventative intervention means that it is that much crucial to work with perpetrators. As the saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child” We need to widen our scope and tackle the issue early on, from sex-selection practices and son preference, to the early socialization process, stage by stage and comprehensively inspecting factors which influence the issue. Our way forward can then incorporate designing relevant indicators at the home, community and institutional levels which will contribute to a critical-mass that will help us push for more support from all stakeholders. Gender-based violence is a problem which affects a lot of different areas, cross-sectorial collaboration is fundamental to our success.
Current events surrounding terrorism, civil wars and the refugee crisis are shining an even brighter light on how much women and girls in conflict settings are suffering from gender-based violence. We can take a second to imagine just how much more information there is out there that we don’t receive, the reports that don’t get filed or the stories that elude the media. As we come together to call attention to this issue during these 16 days, we have to be adamant about challenging not just others but our very own beliefs and thinking all-year-round. Humanity has to step up and stop women and girls from experiencing the horrors of gender-based violence; and humanity is us.
Photo Credit: Sonke Gender Justice- South Africa