OpEd: Men have a crucial role to play in ending gender-based violence, and we must act now

By Masaki Watabe:

Despite concerted efforts to put a stop to sexual and gender-based violence, the threat continues to haunt women and girls in Malawi.

An unacceptably high number of women in Malawi experience violence in their lives. According to the most recent 2016 Malawi Demographic and Health Survey, 34% of women aged between 15 and 49 reported experiencing physical violence, 14% sexual violence, and 23% emotional violence in the 12-month period preceding the survey.

This suggests violence is an everyday experience for women and adolescent girls. They grow up with violence, and too often with little opportunity to escape from those that intimidate, hurt, and scar them.

These last few years of living with the Covid-19 pandemic have exacerbated this situation, with cases of violence increasing, especially during the closure of schools with women and girls confined to their homes and additional pressures on their family and working lives.

Faced with these challenges, however, we, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), are not daunted by the size of the problem. On the contrary, we are more determined than ever to confront it head on, support the pursuit of those that hurt the women and girls we serve, and protect and defend the security, dignity and rights of the most vulnerable.

At the same time to tackle this problem, we need not just women on our side but men as well. Not just men, but also boys. We need all of those that witness violence against women to stand up, those that feel women are intimidated to speak up, and men and boys to be an integral part of finding solutions to eradicate this violence.

Early role models are crucial

During their formative years, girls and boys are profoundly influenced by their family and social environment. In Malawi, these narratives remain anchored in inequality between women and men. As boys grow up, they do so in social and cultural traditions that in Malawi disadvantage women. This behaviour that already provides a distorted perception of women starts in the home.

At home, from an early age, boys are given the so-called “hard tasks,” while girls are perceived as having “weaker” “soft tasks,” such as washing dishes, cooking, and cleaning the household. These so-called soft tasks dominate the roles of women in the home and are unpaid and unvalued. More than this, they consume all of their time. There is no time to socialise, develop as an individual or progress in areas such as education. This loss of opportunity only increases the inequality of women and girls in society.

Traditions are usually perceived to be harmless by many. We now know, however, that traditions can carry many myths that reinforce inequality and even lead to toxic masculinity in boys. Often under pressures by their peers, senior community members or even parents, boys grow up with a false sense of superiority and power over women and girls.

This behaviour, later in their adult years, causes men to feel socially dominant and compelled to demonstrate their strengths – and sometimes to hide their sense of insecurity or vulnerability instead. This lack of respect for women and girls and the failure of men to fully empathise with women is, in many cases, a main root cause of sexual and gender-based violence.

Men as change agents

The challenge ahead is not to dilute the rich traditional heritage of Malawi. However, what we need to understand is that traditions are dynamic and adaptable to fit into the periods in which they exist. Traditions that fail to adapt disappear. Those that are flexible thrive. Traditions also do not act in a vacuum and are shaped by power relations.

Changing ingrained behaviour and traditions, especially in patriarchal systems, to ensure women are no longer exposed to harmful practices, is not an easy challenge. In Malawi, some customs bestow a host of privileges on men and boys. Moreover, the role of fathers is less valued despite strong evidence that children benefit as much from the influence of fathers as mothers.

We also need to encourage men to understand their own wellbeing in different ways. Men too often neglect warning signs and indicators of their own mental and physical wellbeing. A key reason for this is the pressure on men to present a strong and masculine image that prevents them from seeking help for fear that they will appear less of a man.

I have seen men made fragile and insecure by a distorted sense of what constitutes male success and happiness. Gender stereotypes damage how men perceive themselves and their self-worth. In a society where men have to be aggressive in order to be accepted, women feel compelled to be submissive.

Women and men both deserve a right to have emotions and feelings – and should not be ashamed or guilty to be either ‘strong’ or ‘sensitive.’

It is not always easy to convince those who have these privileges to give them up. But we need them to join us not only in this fight against inequality but also to crush this violence that women and girls experience. We are asking not only to give up privilege, but to actively join the growing number of men and boys that see violence as unacceptable and are willing to stand up against it.

Spotlight shines a light

Violence against women is a major threat to attaining development goals. In order for Malawi to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, there is a crucial need to empower women, girls, boys and men. To do this, violence must end. We at UNFPA working within the UN family, have learnt that it is not a question of one solution fits all communities. We need multiple pathways targeting sexual and gender-based violence, and we absolutely need women and men to be part of these solutions.

The United Nations and the European Union are tackling this through our Spotlight Initiative in Malawi. A key lesson we learnt from early on was that by including men and boys as part of the solution, and not necessarily the problem, we immediately see results.

Empowering men to speak up

In this respect, we are supporting training for leaders in how to target sexual and gender-based violence and have created invaluable forums for honest conversations about violence, gender and masculinity, developing key strategies for communities to tackle the problem. Using forums such as husband schools and father groups, we are finding unique community-driven solutions too, demonstrating that men believe the problem needs to be tackled by both women and men as much as women do.

Senior Chief Mlomba

Two of our male champions are Sheikh Hannaf and Senior Chief Mloma. These are just two examples of men recognising they are a crucial part of the solution to sexual and gender-based violence.

In Machinga Sheikh Hannaf is at the forefront of speaking up against sexual and gender-based violence. He regularly discusses with men and boys in his community on visits to the local mosques the negative impact of violence.

Senior Chief Mloma is also a very active community influencer. Not only does he promote equality between men and women, he has also actively worked to outlaw traditions that promote these inequalities. By using his authority to annul child marriages and by targeting other harmful practices he has become a leader that is a shining example to others.

These men are helping transform the behaviour of their fellow men and boys. As we commemorate the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women today, my challenge to all men and boys in Malawi is to come and join us, speak up against sexual and gender-based violence, and break the cycles of violence we are witnessing, and end these harmful practices together.

Masaki Watabe, Deputy Representative, UNFPA Country Office in Malawi

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