Where are men in the drive to end violence against women?

By Gary Barker, President and CEO, Promundo-US

This blog is a part of the OECD High-Level Conference on Ending Violence Against Women

#MeToo has led to an unprecedented global calling out of men’s use of violence against women — whether harassment, sexual assault or intimate partner violence. In addition, the last 10 years have seen advances in legal protections for survivors of violence and a massive expansion of research on what works, and what does not, to prevent gender-based violence. With all of this, men’s voices and actions, as allies, actors, and as partners in preventing gender-based violence are often either missing or silent. First, we should start by saying what we mean by gender-based violence (GBV). The phrase, while useful and necessary, often leads us to overlook the fact that we are mostly talking about men’s violence against women – harassment, sexual assault, physical, sexual, economic intimate partner violence in the home by male partners against female partners, and sexual exploitation, among others.

We now have decades of research on what drives men’s use of violence against women. Cultural and social norms that permit and encourage violence (as part of men’s domination and control of women’s lives in some settings); childhood experiences of witnessing or experiencing violence and other adverse early childhood experiences; complicity of men in power (as police, judges, policymakers) when other men use violence against women; and men’s greater economic and social power over women in many settings, are all factors. Poverty, war, displacement and the weakness or unwillingness of governments in responding to human rights violations also contribute to violence against women. It is important to affirm that all of these drivers of gender-based violence are human-made. Men’s violence against women is not wired into our genes, nor is it inevitable. It is both preventable and unacceptable.

Whether marching for better government in Lebanon, sexual and reproductive rights in Mexico, or against state violence in Chile, women have been taking to the streets to demand rights-based governments to do their job. This includes holding accountable men who use violence. What about men? Where are we in this global movement? And what works to engage men in ending violence against women? We know that many NGO-led interventions work and should continue to work directly with women to end and prevent men’s use of violence. Economic empowerment and support groups build women’s social capital and both allow them to leave violent relationships and prevent violence before it happens. Social norms approaches that change community acceptance of violence by engaging key gatekeepers and influencers – from teachers, health workers, local leaders, religious leaders and more – also work.

Many of these approaches include men, and in some settings, women-focused violence prevention efforts work even better when men are included. For example, engaging male partners of women beneficiaries of economic empowerment programmes. Group education approaches carried out by teachers, health workers or coaches with young or adult men and young women, work. Training expectant couples – with some sessions for men only and some sessions for the couple – has worked, as we have seen in Rwanda with our Bandebereho couples’ groups. Engaging men in the workplace with training, enhanced sexual harassment reporting mechanisms and true commitment from leadership also work – and even more when workplaces have women in equal numbers in the C-suite.

We also must acknowledge the deep harm that violence causes men. In 24 out of 27 countries where we asked about violence as part of the International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES), a man witnessing violence by an adult male against his mother in the household growing up, was the single strongest factor associated with adult perpetration of GBV. Men who witness such violence as children are 2.5 to 3 times more likely to use physical violence against a female partner when they are adults. Women who witness such violence as children are more likely to be in violent intimate relationships as adults. It may be obvious that violence begets violence, and that GBV is a learned behaviour. What has been less obvious is what to do with that finding. We know that boys and girls are traumatised by childhood experiences. This finding in no way legitimatises any man’s use of violence. Rather, it highlights the urgent need for targeted, evidence-based psychosocial approaches for children who experience or witness violence growing up.

Programme approaches in gender-based violence prevention can work, but are generally small in scale. They reach a few hundred women and men, a few thousand in some settings, which is important of course. These programmes have been subjected to rigorous impact evaluation (randomised control trials) to affirm their effectiveness. But scaling up only goes so far. NGOs cannot, on their own, carry the weight of achieving society-wide reductions of GBV without governments – local and national – doing their part. That means resources from government to fund prevention activities across public health, education and poverty reduction sectors. It means funding and training police and justice sectors to take accountability seriously. And we need men’s voices and votes for this to happen. We need more men brave enough to stay in the room and houses of parliament for the difficult conversations about our power and privilege as men – and we need the policies to achieve full equality. In most settings we have studied, a majority of men have not used physical or sexual violence against a female partner or other woman or girl.  But most men stay silent about the men who do use violence. We need men brave enough to listen to women’s accounts of violence, and to question men around them who use it.

Here is perhaps one the most promising ways forward in violence prevention – starting early with our sons to promote healthy versions of masculinity, while we also empower our daughters. To achieve this on a large scale, we need integrated, resourced plans of action at the national level that include parent training, teacher training, justice sector training, alcohol reduction efforts, survivor support services and psychosocial support for children who witness violence.  As the world turns its attention toward Generation Equality 25 years after the Beijing Conference on Women, it is time to create a world where our sons, and our daughters, learn non-violence, respect, and empathy and see equality all around them. Where they see men marching alongside women, and alongside individuals of all sexual orientation and gender identities, demanding a world free of gender-based violence.