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  • Breaking the cycle of violence against girls


    Why redefining masculinity is the key to preventing violence


    Changing gender norms is crucial to ending violence against girls. Three experts tell us how it's done

    Laws alone are not enough to protect girls from violence. Despite being illegal throughout the world, in many places the use of violence against girls is not only widespread, it's socially acceptable.

    Gender power dynamics mean that these social norms are defined by men. That's why more must be done to change how boys and men view themselves.

    Here three experts who work with boys and men talk about out how redefining gender norms - particularly male perceptions of masculinity - can reduce violence against girls.

    Meet the experts

    Gary Barker is international director of Promundo, an NGO that aims to reduce violence against young people in Brazil, Rwanda and the US. He has written about gender and violence in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia and has also consulted for the World Bank, UN and World Health Organisation.

    Molly Melching is founder and executive director of Tostan, an international NGO headquartered in Senegal whose mission is to bring about sustainable community-led development in African communities. They work in eight countries (and in 22 different languages) to provide non-formal education for both adolescents and adults, including boys and men.

    Annabel Erulkar is country director in Ethiopia for the Population Council, which runs Addis Birhan (which means 'New Light' in Amharic). Addis Birhan works with the husbands of child brides to change gender norms.

    Why is engaging with boys and men to redefine gender norms so important?

    Gary: "Reducing violence requires an understanding of men's experiences of violence in childhood, which are often the root cause of the violence they show against girls and women. We saw from our research that issues affecting women's lives - such as violence - also affect men, albeit in different ways. Yet when we started in 1999, there was little concrete work being done with boys and men. So we began engaging with them in order to transform how they see themselves and to encourage them to believe in gender equality."

    Molly: "We made the decision to include boys and men early on because, understandably, when we just began working with girls and women about their rights, the boys and men felt excluded and suspicious. So we stopped talking about girls' rights and women's rights and we started talking about human rights, and specifically discussing the fact that men, women and children all have the same rights and responsibilities." 

    Annabel: "Early marriage is common in the rural area of Amhara in Ethiopia and we started a safe-spaces programme for married adolescent girls called Meseret Hiwott (Amharic for 'Base of Life'). After a few months the husbands of the girls requested their own group. We saw it as an opportunity to change gender norms in the household, so we started Addis Birhan." 

    How does your programme get boys and men to change their perceptions of masculinity?

    Annabel: "Our curriculum for husbands focuses on helping men form more equitable and supportive relationships with their wives. The curriculum covers issues such as reproductive health, HIV and family planning, support of healthy and happy families, non-violent communication, domestic violence and alcohol and drug abuse." 

    Molly: "Tostan implements a human rights-based programme that allows for dialogue on gender and equality. Through non-judgmental discussions in the classroom and then in the extended social network, boys and men start changing their attitudes related to their traditional roles and responsibilities."

    Gary: "We work at a community level to promote men's involvement in women's lives in positive ways. That means involving them in sexual and reproductive health, women's empowerment and care giving."  

    How do you recruit boys and men into the programme? Have the communities you work in embraced it or has there been resistance?

    Molly: "We learned early on that it's critical to do the programme in as many communities as possible in the same area. If one village alone is changing and they go to the well or weekly market and start talking about new ideas, someone who's never discussed this is going to be shocked. But if there are 40 communities in an area, and you can do the programme in ten, it really makes for a critical mass of people who understand about human rights and want to bring about social change together. We're in about 800 communities right now across eight countries. Sixty people (women, men and adolescents) in each community attend class sessions and they then reach out to at least 60 more in their community to share what they have learned."

    Gary: "By partnering with boys and men who already believe in gender equality we're able to engage other men with our community campaigns - such as the Mencare campaign, which encourages men to embrace fatherhood - and group education sessions, which we design with community members."

    Annabel: "Male mentors recruit husbands in rural areas of the Amhara region by going door-to-door to explain the project. Participating husbands are then formed into groups that meet in their villages."

    Have you seen evidence that engaging with boys and men in this way has changed perceptions of gender roles? And does this reduce violence against girls and women?

    Molly: "After implementing a three-year programme in 39 communities in Guinea-Bissau, 157 communities in three different regions decided to abandon female genital cutting and child marriage, and to promote human rights. We've seen communities that we've worked with stage peaceful marches where they say 'we do not accept that this man hit his wife' and they call in journalists to tell them this is not acceptable in their community."

    Annabel: "Our research has found that girls who take part in Meseret Hiwott experience improvements in all areas, including family planning use, equitable division of labour in the household and the husbands' accompaniment of his wife to the clinic. When husbands also participated in Addis Birhan, there were further improvements in these outcomes. For example, when both husband and wife participated in the groups, 81 per cent of girls reported that their husbands now help with domestic work. This is compared with 59 per cent when only girls took part and 33 per cent among non-participants."  

    Gary: "Our work to engage men in care giving has been key in women reporting having more time to invest in their careers and improvements in equitable household decision-making. We've consistently found increased care giving and contraceptive use among the boys and men we work with, as well as changes in attitudes and reductions in violence."

    Do you run a programme that works with boys and men to reduce violence against girls? Tell us about it on Facebook or Twitter



    How to tackle the root causes of violence against girls


    Michele Moloney-Kitts, director of Together For Girls, on why we need better data about violence

    Girls have the potential to change the world. If we unlock this potential, the cycle of poverty in the developing world can be broken. But this will only be achieved if girls are freed from the threat of violence so many of them currently live under.

    The scale of violence against children - especially girls - is enormous. Recent surveys from some countries in Africa show that about one in three girls has an unwanted sexual experience before the age of 18 and about one in four girls' first sexual experience is forced. Young women continue to have the largest percentage of new HIV infections in South Africa and one study estimates that 12 per cent of these infections could be prevented by addressing violence, especially sexual violence, against girls.

    The long-term impact can be huge. Girls who experience violence are much more likely to drop out of school, have an unwanted pregnancy and - because pregnancy before the age of 18 is particularly high risk - they are more likely to die during childbirth.

    Changing social norms

    There are two ways to address violence: prevention and response. Recently, development programmes have tended to focus on response because they've been built on top of health services to provide access to anti-retrovirals, for example to prevent HIV. Making sure victims have access to the services and treatment they need is essential, but we need to do more to prevent violence too.

    Prevention is much tougher because it involves changing deeply engrained social norms - in particular the idea that violence is normal and acceptable, or that girls and women deserve violence because they have done something wrong. A husband beating his wife because she burns the dinner, a girl blaming herself for being raped - these things should not be considered normal, but too often they are.

    These attitudes permeate whole communities and hold everyone back, creating an unspoken culture of fear that impacts a girl's participation in society at large. Many girls drop out of school, often for safety reasons, leaving themselves isolated and unable to play a role in the social and economic development of their community.

    Tackling the root causes

    Addressing these social norms and the gender power structures that reinforce them is difficult - but not impossible.

    At Together For Girls - a partnership between five UN agencies (including Unicef and UNAids), the US government and the private sector - we work with governments and local organisations in the developing world to collect qualitative and quantitative data about violence against girls so that governments and communities can tackle these difficult issues in an informed and evidence-based manner.

    This data is used by governments to launch national action plans that tackle the root causes of violence, as well as to strengthen systems to better protect both girls and boys. For example, in Tanzania - one of the five countries, including Swaziland, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Haiti, that we have completed surveys in - they are now establishing district-level child protection teams that bring together social services, health, education, police and the courts to protect children identified as vulnerable.

    Robust action

    There are more surveys in the pipeline in Cambodia, Indonesia, Malawi, Nigeria and the Philippines. It's important to stress that these countries came to us to create a partnership, not the other way round: they recognise there's a problem and they tell us they want support in tackling it.

    That's why the governments of the five countries we've already worked with have really seized on the data to mobilise robust action against violence. One of the most stunning examples is in Swaziland, where they drafted two bills in response to the survey results: the Child Welfare Bill, which was signed into law in September 2012, and the Sexual Offences and Domestic Violence Bill, which has just passed through both legislative Houses.

    These laws will ensure there are chid protection teams to assist schools, health services and the police to get to the root causes of violence - as well as respond to it.

    Crucially, these laws are designed to enable the government to work with the police and justice systems to make sure that the perpetrators of violence can no longer act with impunity. In many countries the justice system is not in a position to properly enforce the laws against violence - a situation that reinforces social norms and the culture of fear.

    By using data from our surveys to form a better understanding of the causes, context and consequences of violence, Swaziland is starting to overcome that problem.

    Scaling success

    But it doesn't stop there. The development community must do much more to ensure that girls are not held back by the fear of violence within their communities.

    Girls themselves have power and are a vital part of the solution. Interventions such as economic empowerment programmes and safe-space programmes empower girls with the connections, role models and assets they need in order to have greater control over their lives, which in turn reinforces the idea that violence against girls is not acceptable.

    For example, in Tanzania we are working to help empower more girls by accessing media training and safe spaces with our new Catapult and Chime for Change project with Unicef.

    We know that all these solutions work. Now we need to scale them so that developing countries are making strides at both a national and community level to prevent violence against girls.


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