To stop violence against women, we need to get men to help change social norms

One in three women will experience physical or sexual violence. EPA/Alessandro Di Marco

A series of research projects is to take place in countries including Afghanistan, Palestine and South Africa to address our significant lack of knowledge about how to prevent physical and sexual violence against women.

A total of 18 projects will be funded by the UK government, it has been announced. While awareness about violence against women is growing, we still lack good evidence about what actually stops it from happenening and these projects aim to contribute to filling that gap.

The One Man Can project in South Africa, for example, will engage men and boys to challenge traditional models of masculinity. Another in the Democratic Republic of Congo will work with faith leaders to change the social norms that enable violence to continue, and in Afghanistan, boys and girls will work together on peace programmes in schools. Male leaders and families will also be involved in projects that aim to promote an understanding of women’s rights, and build healthy relationship skills based on peaceful conflict resolution.

Another project will link international buyers and their supplier factories in Bangladesh with local NGOs to address sexual harassment in garment factories and a national media campaign will be rolled out across the Occupied Palestinian Territories to challenge the acceptability of violence against women.

Wrong target?

In recent years, attention has turned to engaging men and boys rather than talking to women about how to avoid violence. This approach started with programmes that focused on perpetrators of violence against women. But many women’s rights activists were sceptical. Some were concerned that projects like these would divert limited resources away from women’s programmes and others warned that they have the potential to further reassert male power, framing men as the protectors and saviours of women.

Now The UN’s high-profile He For She campaign is just one example of the projects emerging that call on all men – not just those who are violent – to be part of the solution. They are asked to stand in solidarity with women and make equality one of their own personal missions.

Other projects include lectures and workshops for men to help them redefine what it means to be a man and to have non-violent, egalitarian relationships. Others engage men as bystanders – encouraging them to intervene when they witness other men being aggressive or sexist.

But for all these, the evidence about whether they actually work is limited.

New ground

It is being increasingly recognised that violence against women and girls is not just about individually violent men. It is a much larger systemic issue. Violence is caused by gender inequality and related to ideas about men needing to be strong and in control.

That means we can’t work with men and boys in isolation from the realities of the wider world. To stop violence against women, we need to change the norms and structural gender inequalities in society.

This may include work to change social norms in villages and societies, therapeutic interventions for boys and men who have themselves experienced violence or school programmes about healthy, equal relationships. It might even mean marketing and media campaigns to promote new models of masculinity.

The point is we don’t know which stands a chance of having an impact and which wouldn’t. These 18 projects can’t answer all the questions but they could give us a better idea about what works to bring down rates of violence – and indeed what doesn’t.

Through these projects and others we can start to learn more about what works to prevent violence, so that the work to engage men and boys, along with women and girls, can be driven by rigorous evidence. We will all benefit from that.

Emma Fulu also contributed to this article.

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