Development, Social policy | The World

7 October 2015

Campaigns to reduce violence against women often target the role men should play in ending it, but there are flaws in these approaches, Joyce Wu writes.

The issue of violence against women has been a focus of international aid and development for decades, with programs emphasising the role that men can and should play in ending it.

There have been large-scale, male role model campaigns such as UNiTE, which is spearheaded by the United Nations Secretary General, and calls for male leaders to take a public stance on the issue. Other tools have included savvy media campaigns and awareness-raising workshops with messages carefully researched and designed to reach young men, evaluation tools and large-scale research on men’s rationales for using violence.

However there is a flaw in all of these approaches. There is a simplistic assumption that men’s behaviour can be changed through the ‘right’ approach; that men-only groups and workshops are the best way to work with men. It is also implied that violence against women is a male call for help, because men also suffer from gender inequality. Often, in countries where women’s rights are perceived as Western imperialism, other ‘entry points’ are tapped, including using religious leaders or cultural practices to convince men to stop.

While there are elements of truth in these assumptions and strategies, there are also exaggerations and misrepresentations. One of the issues is the current climate of international development, where value for money is a key consideration and where aid is judged on a set of performance benchmarks to deliver effective and efficient outcomes.  It is a recipe for development thinkers and practitioners to seize on ‘best practices’ as they seek effective ways of engaging men to stop violence against women. In the development context, “best practice” often means applying practices from another context and another area, because the particular project or approach had seen success. However, applying “best practice” without a thorough examination of the local context can result in a cookie-cutter approach and less effectiveness.

In my research about the roles men play in anti-violence against women initiatives in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Timor Leste, I found the original feminist messages about ending violence against women are being replaced by international and local non-government organisations’ impetus to recruit as many men as possible for the cause. One of the key strategies is to invoke men’s roles as fathers, brothers, and husbands and that it is their job to support the women in their lives.

Ostensibly, this is a pragmatic and clever approach, since the message is pitched at men’s sense of family obligation. Particularly in countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan where feminism is viewed as a form of Western imperialism, using local cultural contexts seems appropriate. However, it also invokes the traditional ‘men as protectors’ concept, where inequality within family and household relations is not just overlooked, but reinforced. A religious scholar in Afghanistan told me: “I teach men… women are like flowers, you should not violate, but admire them.”  A female NGO Director in Pakistan expressed a similar sentiment: “Why should we take powers away from men, when they can use that power to help a woman? … Men’s power in society is not the issue.”

Another common rationale is that men will also benefit from gender equality and supporting the end of violence against women. This is based on the premise that while men benefit from the patriarchal system, it comes at the cost of conforming to gender stereotypes of what constitutes a ‘real man’. It is true that some men, particularly those who don’t conform to mainstream race, class, and sexual orientation categories, experience marginalisation as result of gender inequality.

Yet I found male forms of activism were more public: writing newspaper editorials about domestic violence, creating women-friendly policies in banks, or direct intervention on honour killing. Female activism tended to focus on their rights, including standing up against arranged marriage, or the right to receive higher education and to pursue a career.

The differences were directly linked to gender, class, ethnicity and religious affiliation. Middle class, educated men have greater resources and contacts in the public sphere, thus their activism was directed at the public, whereas working-class women and men prioritised their own marginalisation.

Due to the need to demonstrate to donors that their programs are effective, non-government organisations highlighted the more public forms of activism – in other words the activism driven by men. This has the unintentional effect of reinforcing existing inequalities.

In the bid to attract and retain men’s participation in programs that promote gender equality and end violence against women, there is often a temptation for donors and non-government organisations to contradict themselves.

On the one hand, the message is loud and clear that violence against women is a blight on society; on the other hand, the recruitment messages are framed to flatter potential male participants by invoking their sense of masculine honour and power to rescue women and girls. This not only gives a mixed message, it also dilutes the feminist project of ending violence against women.

This does not mean we should not work with men – men have a critical role in all this – but let’s make everyone’s involvement meaningful, relevant, and imbued with a good dose of feminist principles. Otherwise we will continue to undermine the goal of gender equality.

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