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Undoing sexism: Involving men in the battle against domestic violence

By Malini Sen

In India, the response to domestic violence until now has been to reassert women's responsibility for policing men's violence. Few efforts have taken up the challenge of primary prevention: interventions intended to stop men and boys from using aggression

Violence against women cuts across boundaries, religions, cultures and income groups. Although forms of violence may vary, the purpose is the same -- to disempower women in order to artificially maintain male dominance. Certain forms of violence, like wife-beating and rape, are recognised as universal forms of violence. Others like witch-hunting, dowry, sati and female foeticide are perpetuated by specific cultures.

"Only by understanding the common thread that runs through all forms of violence against women, in all contexts, can attention to either 'ordinary' or 'exotic' forms lead to insights about ways to alter the patterns of violence directed towards women. In fact, by any name and in any culture, abuse of women is the issue -- and the causes and consequences are similar," (Schuler 1992).

Violence against women can no longer be seen in isolation, as essentially a private or a regional problem. Though it is important to acknowledge differences in the causes and forms of violence, it is equally important to map the commonalities in women's experiences. Hence, while evolving strategies to combat domestic violence we have to think globally but act locally.

Response in India

Male violence is said to be one of the characteristics of patriarchal societies. In India, popular culture encourages society to see aggression and violence as appropriate male behaviour. Boys grow up hearing stories about legendary heroes who vanquish their opponents and are lauded for their brave acts. The culture of masculine violence can become a problem of domestic violence intensified by the inequality that exists between men and women in society.

All men, however, do not equally benefit from patriarchy or enjoy equal privileges. Caste, class and religion intersect and some men enjoy more privileges than other men.

In India, the response to domestic violence until now has been to reassert women's responsibility for policing men's violence. Few efforts have taken up the challenge of 'primary prevention', interventions intended to stop men and boys from using aggression. There is a need to challenge the sexist beliefs that men are seen to hold -- beliefs that fuel men's choices to assault women with whom they share intimate relationships. Cultural norms and societal institutional practices often promote and act out these sexist beliefs, allowing men to 'get away' with their assaults.

Without a radical goal for eliminating rather than simply responding to male violence against women, prevention tends to be directed towards victims or potential victims. Empowering women is not enough to combat domestic violence. In order to break the cycle of violence, we need to move beyond an emphasis on women's responsibilities. This can be achieved by working with men and involving the young as positive alternatives to women's activism.

Working with men

In many countries, men and masculinities are now the primary focus of research. Though enmeshed in controversy, activists and academics alike are acknowledging the importance of involving men in efforts to combat domestic violence. There has been an increasing interest in attempts to move men away from violence through treatment and/or education. An example of this has been the development of men's programmes specifically designed for men who have been violent to known women. The US and Canada have spearheaded what they call 'batterer intervention programmes'. In the US, programmes are developed in collaboration with women's refuges. Some are initiatives taken by men themselves or co-ordinated by women.

According to Kathleen Carlin, founding-director of Men Stopping Violence in Georgia (US), the aim of these programmes is to undo sexism. "Until a man understands that his violence is a systematic effort to keep a woman subordinate, and he recognises that this is wrong and he wants to change -- until then, his violence will always seem justifiable."

In the pattern of violence, men often minimise or deny their role. Many cite provocation as a reason for their violence. This could be anything from infidelity to nagging. Says Kathy Grogan, project manager with STOP (Start Treating Others Positively), based in Leeds (UK): "For men to stop being violent it is important for them to identify and take responsibility for feelings that are masked by rage. The connection between the prohibition against showing vulnerable feelings and the tacit societal permission to vent this rage on a woman is a crucial one to be made in programmes with male perpetrators," (Sen 2001).

Opinions differ about programmes for men. Some are opposed to the idea because they feel that programmes for male perpetrators would deflect attention from women victims. Also, men's projects create wider publicity and attract money relatively easily, thus diverting resources and public attention away from the needs of abused women and children.

Others are concerned about anger management techniques being a 'quick-fix' solution that could further endanger women. Nik Peasgood of Help, Advice and the Law Team (HALT), Leeds, stresses that just working with male perpetrators is not enough, the type of programme is important. "Programmes should not solely focus on anger management. They should address issues of power and control, gender relations, masculinity, types of violence and abuse. Domestic violence is not just about anger. It is about control. Obviously there are components of anger and loss of temper. However, violence against women by known men is systematic, not a one-off 'loss of temper'," (Sen 2001).

Programmes for male perpetrators pose a variety of challenges, dilemmas and controversies but they are a step towards raising awareness and tackling domestic violence at its roots. However, sexist attitudes are so deeply embedded in society that in order to bring about wider social change, men themselves need to take the initiative to fight domestic violence.

Examples of initiatives taken by men that merit mention are the White Ribbon Campaign (WRC) and Namibian Men for Change. In 1991, a handful of men in Canada decided they had a responsibility to urge men to speak out against violence against women, and formed the WRC. This is an educational organisation to encourage reflection and discussion leading to personal and collective action among men. Among its activities, the WRC gives talks in schools, workplaces and in the community, sponsors events on Father's Day and promotes positive roles for men. It also supports local women's groups.

The WRC is working towards long-term solutions: "Let's help men be better men by getting rid of our suits of armour, that is, attitudes which equate masculinity with the power to control. Let's make positive changes in our relationships with women, children and other men. Changes in attitude, behaviour and institutions take time. And so we must look at how we raise future generations. We must teach our children that all forms of violence are unacceptable, and that for boys to become men they do not need to control or dominate women, men or children," (White Ribbon Campaign leaflet) .

The world's first national conference on 'men against violence against women' was held in Namibia in February 2000. It was in response to concern by individual men and grassroots groups throughout the country about the continuing violence against women and children. Dr Michael Kaufman, founder of the White Ribbon Campaign, conducted a one-day workshop for men from different regions to act as facilitators during the conference. The participants -- more than 200 men from all walks of life -- were surprised at the scope and incidences of violence against women.

The Namibian Men for Change (NAMEC) was born out of this conference. The organisation has kept up the momentum by speaking out against violence against women and children in the media. They also organise public demonstrations and give talks in schools and churches.

Educating the young

The Zero Tolerance Trust in Scotland believes that a public education campaign is an effective strategy to tackle the root cause of domestic violence, which is gender socialisation. The Trust launched a Respect Campaign among the youth in UK and Scotland that aimed to redefine the dominant notions of 'femininity' and 'masculinity' and dispel stereotypes that women provoke violence. It also charged young men with the responsibility of showing respect towards the other sex.

Another interesting initiative involving the youth was a study co-ordinated by the Leeds Inter-Agency Project (LIAP) on sexually aggressive and abusive behaviour in schools. The study was based on the premise that "boys need to be offered alternative models of masculinity which reach beyond the macho heterosexual stereotype". As a background to the study, a key point was highlighted: "Formative experiences in youth in relation to sexual aggression provide the foundation for attitudes which facilitate and support sexually aggressive behaviour. These are established long before they are manifested in physical molestation or rape."

The study also stressed: "Teachers will need to consider the extent to which materials chosen and teaching contexts used focus directly and explicitly on sexual harassment and highlight issues of male oppression, patriarchy and masculine myths of sexual prowess, uncontrollable sexual urges, etc," (Whitelaw and Hills 1998).

Strategies for change

The definition of domestic violence is important as it shapes the response to the problem. The definition of domestic violence hinges on norms of acceptable behaviour and the specific acts that constitute the problem. In India, a majority of women do not perceive certain acts as being violent; at times they even justify them. But it is in the interest of women to recognise the problem of domestic violence.

It is equally important that men too recognise the problem and take responsibility for their actions. The work of men resisting domestic violence is about social change. In India, we need to evolve strategies involving men and the young, which could act as catalysts for change.

(Malini Sen is Publications and Production Officer at Open University in the UK. She has a Masters in Gender Studies from the University of Leeds, UK)

(InfoChange News & Features, March 2004)