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Men Can Stop Rape: Engaging Men is Crucial to Ending Sexual Violence

If you attend the kinds of events I find myself at — poetry events addressing violence against women, panel discussions on gender-based violence, or film screenings on rape in the military — you will often notice either the complete lack, or the paucity of men, present at such events. This observation may not come as a surprise to many — but the reality is we need to be better at engaging men and boys in discussions around violence and sexual assault, for all of our sakes.

Internationally, there have been more and more efforts geared at including and targeting men with programs aimed at ending sexual violence. Organizations such as Promundo, Sonke Gender Justice and Women for Women International, among others, have been on the cutting edge of such work. Promundo in particular has specialized in transforming definitions of masculinity to address violence, poverty and sexual assault. The impact of such projects has demonstrated a significant change in both attitudes related to violence against women, and self-reported decreases in the use of violence against female partners. 

In Lebanon, a project funded by the UN Trust Fund and implemented by Oxfam GB, has been working with men and boys to “change their attitudes and behavior towards violence against women” since 2008. Signs of progress have been evident, especially among younger men, some of whom have become role models in their communities as youth leaders, advocating for a masculinity that is not defined by violence.

The “Man Up Campaign” is a global initiative to “activate youth to stop violence against women and girls,” asking everyone to “man up” and declare that such violence must end. In so doing, they shift our understanding of just what “man up” means, calling in to question a very narrow definition of masculinity. 

On the U.S-based organization “Men Can Stop Rape” website, they write, “Though the majority of violent acts against women are committed by men, the vast majority of prevention efforts are risk-reduction and self-defense tactics directed at women.”  For this reason, they try to mobilize men to use their strength for creating “cultures free from violence.” The founders wanted to shift the burden from women trying to protect themselves, to men re-defining masculinity in a way that was positive and embraced healthy relationships and personal responsibility.

India has been in the headlines a great deal of late as a result of highly publicized acts of sexual violence against girls. Three brothers from Delhi decided to start an NGO in order to address the violence against women they saw all around them.  While they encountered some resistance from women advocates, who were uncomfortable with men running such an organization, they have managed to win many of them over, and are committed to reducing other men’s silence on the issue. 

Not long ago I was home for a holiday, and popped over to the grocery store with my younger brother. As we walked out of the store, there were two young men in front of us, walking with a couple of kids. One of the young men snapped at one of the little boys saying, “Stop being such a girl!” When my brother and I got into our car I thought about saying something to him, using this as a “teaching moment.”  Before I could decide one way or the other he quietly said, “What does that mean we are teaching little boys it is to be a little girl?”

We have to be talking to our brothers, fathers, boyfriends, friends and peers — domestically and internationally.  We have to talk about gender norms; how they affect men as well as women, and how these norms play into violence — particularly against women.  This absolutely is a “feminist” issue, which of course means it requires the efforts and attention of both women and men. 

It is clear that there are men doing great work towards ending violence against women, and there have been measurable successes with men being targets for this kind of work.  However, given the on-going magnitude of the violence women continue to face — and the ever-present gender norms that underwrite that violence — we obviously have much left to do. 

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