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For the last two weeks, my colleagues have reflected on global efforts to combat violence against women and girls, as part of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence. Today, I want to examine a vital and practical solution to the problem of gender violence: the engagement of men and boys.
In my career, I have always been aware of the fact that ending violence against women means changing underlying attitudes held by the larger community. How do you challenge the idea that abusing women is OK? How do you create enough openness so that women can report sexual or domestic abuse? How do you establish systems that can respond to and address the needs of victims? The answer, in many cases, is engaging the men.
When I worked in Mexico with UNHCR, our efforts to empower women initially backfired when their male relatives felt threatened and rebuffed our efforts. Indeed, it was only after establishing specific “masculinity workshops” that we began to make progress. To me, this was proof not only that men are the best advocates when it comes to changing the attitudes of other men, but also that if we don’t include men our efforts are likely to fail.
The international community is reaching a crucial turning point in grappling with this issue. No longer are we content to ask if we should engage men and boys; now we’re asking how we can do it best. Getting from “if” to “how” represents a huge gain, but answering this new question will require real advancements in research and programming.
Where do we start? First, there must be a normative shift in how we think about the role of men. In the same way that women cannot just be seen as victims, men cannot just be seen as perpetrators. They must be included in a proactive, positive manner in the fight to prevent violence against women.
Second, we must harness each man’s ability to connect with and educate other men about these issues. Men influence men, and thus are key interlocutors. When my team and I visited Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya this year, we met an elderly and religious gentleman who stated very forcefully – before a whole group of elders – that the only benefit he had received from his “refugee experience” was the chance to send all of his nine daughters to school. This served to delay the age when they would have to marry, and likely reduced their chances of being abused. His statement, delivered before other similarly traditional men, was the best form of advocacy we could have hoped for. We must capitalize on the goodwill of men like this everywhere, instead of dismissing them as “unreachable.”
Third, we have to recognize that our work with men and boys must be contextual and reflective of local cultural and environmental conditions. While culture is never an excuse for violence, solutions need to be relevant to the country where they’re implemented. Here at RI, we know that the best practices for engaging men in South Sudan are not the same as those in Afghanistan. The most successful and sustainable projects are those which involve and fund local groups who will carry on the work long after international money and attention dry up.
Every day, women and girls all over the world endure unspeakable acts of violence. These acts not only harm individual women and families: they also undermine economic and social development, security, and stability. As we strive to put an end to this violence – and unleash every woman’s potential to make meaningful contributions to society – we must engage men as partners and advocates. It’s time to acknowledge that violence against women is a problem for men too, and that it’s up to men to fix it.
December 09, 2011 | Tagged as: Afghanistan, Africa, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Americas, Asia, Middle East, Women & Children