Engage Men to Stop Violence Against Women

Sahar Education encourages young men in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, to become allies of women and girls.

This Human Rights Day brings to a close the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence, which focuses our attention and advocacy on the violence perpetrated against women and girls worldwide.

In recent months, according to UN Women, 243 million women and girls were abused by an intimate family member — and that was before Covid-19 shut down schools, clinics, and whole societies, putting even more women and girls at risk in their own homes.

More girls and women are now out of school, out of work, and poorer, due to the pandemic, leaving them increasingly vulnerable to violence and abuse, early marriage, and unwanted pregnancy. The Malala Fund estimates that the crisis could lead to some 20 million more high school girls leaving school permanently.

In some countries, calls to domestic violence hotlines have skyrocketed, while in others, survivors are afraid to reach out, leading experts to conclude that less than 40 percent of those experiencing violence seek help.

The scale of this “shadow epidemic” is horrifying. One aspect in particular should move us all to anger, then to action: in targeting women’s bodies, most of the violence seems aimed at seizing the sole power unique to the female anatomy: our ability to get pregnant and give birth.

It’s as though so many men, across the globe and across time, simply haven’t been able to stand the fact that this power isn’t theirs. Unable to win the argument on biological grounds, they somehow have felt entitled to seize control through brute force. To justify their violent power grab, they’ve concocted an extravagant web of customs and laws that embed their power deeply and ubiquitously in local culture and society.

And it worked: men rule.

From the rape and impregnation of the enslaved, of young girls, of women and girls in detention or indentured servitude; to the refusal of contraceptive and abortion services to under-resourced populations; to the failure to provide poor pregnant girls and women with skilled prenatal care, delivery assistance, and postnatal care, millions of girls and women continue to be rendered powerless to exert control over their own bodies, their own unborn and newborn children, and the very paths that will determine their course of their lives.

The movement for reproductive justice is about bringing these powers home — to women, whose bodies remain a crucial battleground for the fight to be seen, heard, and respected.

For women to own our power, as our WomenStrong partners across the globe are keenly aware, we need to fully engage men and boys.

Men, too, feel hurt, vulnerable, and powerless, after all. Our Atlanta-based WomenStrong partner Men Stopping Violence has long understood that understanding someone’s pain frees them to hear yours. Over its 37 years of work with men and boys and communities, MSV has meticulously “deconstructed male violence” by developing a “community accountability model” that invokes the profound historical and cultural structures that have long enabled the abuse of and dominance over women and girls. Once understood, this community-focused framework is then paired with smart, corrective intervention and prevention strategies capable of disrupting these structures at all levels, from the individual to the family, community, and nation.

Black Women’s Blueprint, in Brooklyn, NY, has also redefined the individual’s relationship to his community and to society as a whole. For Black men and boys in particular, recognizing the structures, history, and environment in which oppression and violence have taken root opens the door for understanding, accountability, and for a form of “healing justice,” as Black Women’s Blueprint describes its work to help men connect, acknowledge, reconcile, and move beyond the wounds they have experienced and those they have inflicted, to arrive at a new appreciation of their sisters’ rights and potential.

Other WomenStrong partners, too, focus on engaging men and boys, whether by helping fathers appreciate the value of their daughters’ education, as do Sahar, in northern Afghanistan, and Women’s Justice Initiative, in western Guatemala, or training male educators in gender-sensitive teaching, as do GENET Malawi and Visionaria Network, in Peru. For Rwanda Women’s Network, intimate relationships are a promising entry point, as they support couples in improving their communication and reducing tensions. Girl Up Initiative Uganda works with pre- and early adolescent boys to combat damaging stereotypes, imagine and plan their futures, and become staunch allies for the girls in their families and communities.

Girl Up Initiative Uganda’s Boys Champion Project works with Kampala boys aged 9–15 ”to build positive and gender-conscious identities” that will enable them to “support the adolescent girls in their lives.”

Despite their strikingly different countries and contexts, all six of these community-based, women-led organizations clearly view their investments in empowering both men and women as central to their strategies for preventing violence against women and girls.

This year, we are all hurt. More than at other times, our conversations, outreach, empathy, and love for the men in our lives can make the difference that turns the tide, from one churning with grievance and rage to one awash in cleansing waters. Our voices, our solidarity, our policy prescriptions, our purposeful engagement with clergy, teachers, police, public officials, and our marching together are all crucial aspects of the swelling global movement to end violence against women and girls.

As we come to the end of this year of vast suffering, we must put an end to the pain so long endured by survivors of violence and injustice.

Violence against women is preventable. This Human Rights Day and every day, use your power, and your love and care for every human being, to make it stop.

Founder & Executive Director of WomenStrong International. Director of Millennium Cities Initiative at Columbia University.

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