Worldwide, more than one in three women is a victim of sexual or domestic violence at some point in their lives. By far the most common perpetrators of this violence are men. Globally, 38% of murders of women are committed by a male partner.
Male violence against women is linked with violence against children in deep and dangerous ways. Child abuse and domestic violence often co-occur. Children who’ve seen their mothers experience male partner violence have increased risk of becoming perpetrators or victims as adults. And both are rooted in male power and gender inequality.
In Sweden, for example, national surveys have shown that young men who agree with stereotypical statements about gender roles have a higher risk of using violence.
“We often see violence against women or violence against children as the disease, but really it’s more important to see it as a symptom of gender inequality. Obviously, we want to hold men accountable, but for primary prevention, it’s about power and gender,” said Gary Barker, CEO and President of Promundo, a charity dedicated to engaging men in violence prevention and tackling inequality, at the recent End Violence Summit in Stockholm.
This, few would deny. But whether recognising the significance of male power in violence should entail a focus on men and boys’ attitudes and behaviours in prevention work has become a highly controversial debate. Should men, the main perpetrators of violence against women and girls, be the targets of funding and programming? Or, should efforts focus on empowering victims?
“For me, it’s critically important that women and girls are centred and able to lead in efforts to address violence against them,” said Jeanne Ward, a gender-based violence expert who sits on the coordinating committee of the Coalition of Feminists for Social Change (COFEM).
“The men engage community has at times leapfrogged over well-established women’s rights organisations and activists—undermining the leadership of these groups instead of supporting them, and not always listening to concerns regarding men engage programming,” said Ward.
“And, there is growing concern that efforts of the men engage community to bring attention to the needs of men and boys who experience violence, while very important, can undermine – and in some instances even compete with – efforts to address violence against women and girls at both practical and theoretical levels,” she added.
Programs that focus on engaging men are becoming ever more central to the international policy agenda, although the evidence base for this kind of work remains limited. MenEngage, an alliance of NGOs that works with with men and boys to promote gender equality, has just announced plans to sign a global strategic Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with UN Women, a striking collaboration indicative of the trend.
COFEM argues that an emphasis on men undermines the broader goal of reversing male dominance and the gender hierarchy, and takes power away from the women and girls that have, until now, led efforts to prevent violence against them. If the aim is to undo male power, then women should be leading, and women and girls should be the primary focus of programming, they say.
One of COFEM’s concerns is that organisations like Promundo and MenEngage are appearing independently of long-established women’s rights groups, which they believe reduces accountability to the women and children affected, as well as creating competition for funding.
COFEM, set up in 2017, now has more than 100 members, many of whom choose to remain confidential; Apolitical was told that speaking out against men’s programs can risk backlash from donors and large international organisations.
“It was born out of a shared concern amongst colleagues working in development and humanitarian spaces about growing backlash towards feminist organising on violence against women, and the need to find a place for mutual support and action,” said Ward.
But Barker from Promundo disagreed with the perception that work engaging men is drawing away funds:
“There’s not millions, let alone billions, going to the engaging men work. And I think, compared to some of the big headline work around women’s economic empowerment, there is a general shrinking of prevention funding. I’m not sure we can simply make the link that the engaging men work is what’s taking away funds. Are other international NGOs taking away the funds, or are funds drying up in general?” he said.
“Men engage work should mostly be an add-on: we’re most interested in the things that partner with existing women’s rights initiatives. We shouldn’t create this whole new line of programming and infrastructure that needs to be sustained,” he added.
But COFEM and others still worry. Engaging men is trendy today: the proposed global strategic MoU between MenEngage and UN Women is something most women’s rights groups could only dream of, and large development agencies and international NGOs are placing increasing importance on the need to incorporate men.
“We know that sometimes we can go into a space and a donor will say, ‘Oh, I’ve funded that group that does women’s microcredit, but you guys are the new thing’. I don’t want to say it never happens, so we do have to be cautious,” said Barker.
“But we’re an NGO with a budget from $5-6million a year, and 40-50% of that goes out the door to local organisations. Most of the groups in the field are also pretty small,” he added.
It’s clear that the tension is exacerbated – and partly caused by – a context in which violence prevention more broadly is chronically under-funded. An IRC review of five emergency appeals found that in 2013, gender-based violence programs received less than 1–2% of requested funding. The Counting Pennies report found that of $174 billion total official development assistance in 2015, less than 0.6% was allocated to ending violence against children.
However, if the organisational disagreements about the leadership, structure, and centrality of men engage work can be overcome, the evidence is starting to show that gender-transformative interventions that involve men can have powerful impact.
The SASA! program in Uganda engages community groups – both men and women – in discussions around the language of power, gender and violence. It led to 52% lower physical partner violence against women and to 64% fewer children witnessing partner violence in the home.
Parenting programs like MenCare+ have shown that it is possible to transform men’s attitudes to gender inequality in the family through workshops and counselling that engage women and men together. One driver of mothers’ violence against children is the undue burden and stress that results from doing three times the amount of caring as fathers.
“We have the evidence in terms of what works to prevent violence against women and children, so now it’s really an issue of political will and investment,” said Daniela Ligiero, the CEO of Together for Girls, a public-private partnership of the UN, the private sector, and governments including Canada.
“The funding problem is there even in OECD countries. Think of everything we teach our children in schools – and we don’t tackle any of these issues around violence and gender. We are starting to address this, for example with colleges in the US looking at sexual assault and how bad it is. But, still today, we don’t invest even in the richest countries in violence prevention,” she said.
What is clear is that male power and gender inequality, as root causes of violence, must be critical to the movement to prevent it.
The question is how, in a context of unequal power, to involve men in a way that does not end up maintaining the very hierarchies that are meant to be undone.
(Picture credit: Rawpixel)