We need to transform societies to end violence; not reinforce male privilege

Bethan Cansfield | Jul 17, 2015

In recent years, there has undoubtedly been an increasing momentum around working with men and boys to end violence against women and girls. Last year, UN Women launched the HeForShe Campaign (supported by Emma Watson’s much lauded speech) which calls on men all over the world to speak out against the inequalities faced by women and girls. Meanwhile the UN planned to host a conference in Iceland on gender equality, with a special focus on violence, and initially only invited male leaders. They later backtracked and invited women. However, evidence is clear that, although an important part of the puzzle, engaging men and boys is not the silver bullet to ending violence against women and girls. Instead some efforts that focus on engaging men and boys risk reinforcing male privilege and obscure the need for an approach that transforms society to end abuse.

Our new research reaffirms that a gender transformative and community-wide approach is key to ending violence. The research unpacks lessons learnt from community and rights-based programming implemented by women’s rights organisations in Ethiopia, Ghana and Zambia. The evidence is clear that to change the attitudes, beliefs and wider social norms which condone and perpetuate abuse – it is vital, inter alia, to utilise a community-based approach which includes men and women, empowers women and girls, promotes self-led change, makes a long-term commitment to communities, gains support of traditional and religious leadership, sensitises government officials, and supports women’s access to comprehensive services.

The study adds to growing evidence that engagement to transform attitudes, behaviours and wider norms, which underpin violence against women and girls, will only be successful if these programmes take a comprehensive approach and engage all members of the community with a focus on women’s empowerment. Whilst engaging men and boys is an important part of the strategy to end violence, it is not sufficient on its own to end abuse and resources and political will must not be diverted to this agenda.

In addition, it is important to acknowledge, and mitigate, the risks of working with men and boys. By its nature engaging men and boys to end violence involves mobilising those already socially privileged to work towards dismantling a system which provides this status. This runs the risk of reproducing or reinforcing male privilege within efforts to end violence. For example, an evaluation of a male engagement programme in Liberia found that when men became involved in groups with women they assumed leadership positions and advised women on what they should do to end violence. This reinforced unequal gender power relations. The programme mitigated this by creating safe spaces for women and supporting women to speak out.

Similarly our research found that increasing women’s agency and mobilising and empowering women to come together to know and claim their rights was critical in combating violence. This includes providing women-only safe spaces, supporting women to become economically empowered, providing training on rights and supporting women to take leadership positions. All of these contributed to shifts in gender roles at the individual, household and community levels.

In Ethiopia, for example, the women’s organisation Siiqqee Women’s Development Association establishes women-only self-help groups. These groups support women to become economically empowered, give women the opportunity to take leadership positions, create women-only safe spaces and provide training to women on issues such as violence. The self-help groups are accompanied by the sensitisation of government officials and monthly community conversation sessions, which are participatory dialogues (with men and women participants) on issues such as harmful traditional practices including early and forced marriage. By supporting women, as well as working with the wider community, the research found that Siiqqee has contributed to shifts in the attitudes and behaviours of individuals, as well as wider social norms on gender roles and violence.

The research also documents the role of national and local women’s rights organisations in ending violence. In all three countries, the women’s rights organisations brought vital knowledge and understanding of the communities and how to engage with traditional leaders and local decision-making bodies. They also bridged the gap between women and formal decision-making structures, supported self-led change, recognised the importance of women’s empowerment and participation, and were a link to the wider women’s rights movement working for change at a national level. In addition, research to date suggests that investment in women’s rights organisations is key to the success of programmes working with men and boys as any involvement of men and boys in violence prevention work must be guided by a feminist agenda and done in partnership with, and even be accountable to, women and women’s groups.

So the evidence is clear, the international community should recognise that whilst working with men and boys is important, it must form one part of a bigger gender transformative and community-wide approach which empowers women and girls and involves women’s right organisations.

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