Before we can end violence against women, we must first ask the fundamental question of what is going on with men – the main perpetrators of this violence – and why societies worldwide are producing so many violent men.
As we mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women today, this calamity has reached epidemic proportions. Earlier this year, the World Health Organization released the first systematic study of global data on the prevalence of violence against women. This ground- breaking work revealed that fully one third of women worldwide – nearly one billion women – will experience physical violence from a male partner in their lifetimes.
In response, the report recommends a range of actions, including care for victims, education, empowerment, mandatory reporting – all of which, while important, are not new. Women’s groups have been advocating for and implementing such programs for decades. But the problem has persisted or even increased in rich and poor countries alike – across age groups, classes, cultures and races.
The time has come to shift our thinking and approach. We need to turn our attention to the behaviour and motivations of the men and ask a different set of questions. What is going on with the men who are committing these violent acts? Why do so many men abuse women and girls – particularly their own family members? Why is men’s violence against women so commonplace across countries in the world today? And how do institutions in our society perpetuate the practice of men abusing and violating women?
Violence against women is closely linked to the rigid norms that define what it is to be a man. Worldwide, there is a dominant model of manhood; men are taught to aspire to and judge themselves based on this ideal.
Men are expected to be financially independent, become husbands and fathers, be the primary income earner for the family, be achievers in the eyes of peers, and be in control and exert authority. These salient norms of manhood are perpetuated by societies, communities, peers, families and women themselves – and take on more extreme forms in some cultures.
But for most men, particularly poor men, there is a huge gap between these expectations and what they can achieve. In the face of chronic poverty, inequality, exclusion, and jobless economies, many men feel they don’t measure up.
How then, do these men prove themselves as men? All too often it is through the use of force and violence – and female partners are easy targets. Such behaviour is often the only way for many men to wield power in societies where they are made to feel powerless and useless. This is the hard reality that remains unacknowledged or misunderstood in much of the discussion on gender violence today.
In a household survey of 1,552 men in India, one third of men said they were ashamed to face their families because they were jobless or did not earn enough. Those unemployed men who reported being stressed or ashamed were 50% more likely to use violence against a partner, and twice as likely to have used sexual violence, than men who did not report economic stress.
So what do we do?
Ultimately, societies must challenge the impossible-to-achieve demands of manhood and the patriarchal structures that underpin these demands. We need to redefine notions of manhood and find alternative masculine identities that are not destructive to women and men alike.
This is a long-term prospect but it starts by changing the way we – both women and men – raise boys to be men.
In practical terms, we need to integrate men fully in programming efforts. Targeting men in sexual and reproductive health, maternal and child health, fatherhood and HIV/AIDS programs, for example, has shown to bring positive changes in men’s attitudes and behaviours. The good news is that such programs are springing up across South Asia and elsewhere and showing results.
We also urgently need to better understand male motivations for violence. While data are limited, the IMAGES and Partners for Prevention surveys, which include the India survey noted earlier and the Sri Lanka survey, offer the most comprehensive analyses to date on men’s attitudes and practices on gender violence. Such data should be used to tailor prevention strategies.
As we reflect on today, and as we near the first anniversary of the horrific Delhi gang rape and murder of a female student, we need to work differently and more creatively to end this egregious and pervasive form of violence.
This means addressing men’s gender issues to prevent violence before it happens, and making men a central part of the solution.