Gender-based violence can take many forms and have different names. Rape, domestic violence, female genital cutting, sex selection, child marriage, sexual harassment, trafficking—the commonality here is that the impact extends far beyond the individual. This is not a woman’s problem; it is a societal and a human rights problem, with a multiplier effect on economies, communities and nations that is truly overwhelming. It ruins lives, costs billions of dollars, and is a grave threat to public health.
We can hopefully all agree that challenges of this magnitude require – no, demand – new ways of problem solving. Change is possible, but will require the voices and actions of not just girls and women, but also boys and men. The good news is that this is already happening. Women Deliver, for example, works with young male leaders around the world who are determined to stop violence against girls and women in its tracks.
Today, as we recognize the International Day for the Elimination of the Violence Against Women, I’ve asked four of these extraordinary young men – Thierry Kajeneza, Yemurai Nyoni, Remmy Shawa, and SM Shaikat – to share their personal stories about engaging boys and men to end gender-based violence. From Burundi to Bangladesh, these leaders are taking action and inspiring community members to build a safer and healthier world for girls and women.
Iversen: Thierry, let’s start with your work in Burundi. You’ve seen firsthand how empowering women with opportunities to make economic decisions has helped decrease violence against women. Can you explain how these seemingly unrelated issues are connected?
Thierry Kajeneza , Senior Program Manager and Youth Section Representative, Burundi: Ending gender-based violence is also about achieving gender equality for girls and women everywhere – in the home, workplace and beyond. In Burundi, as in many societies across Africa, family income and expenses are most often managed by the man, regardless of who earns and spends. Yet, we’ve found that women are less likely to be exposed to violence when they are involved in earning and deciding how their family income is used. At my organization ICIRORE C’AMAHORO, we’ve developed an innovative strategy to give women the same confidence and opportunities as men to be economically independent and ensure their opinions are respected in the household.
Our strategy to end gender-based violence begins by finding job opportunities in community-based organizations where husbands and wives work together to make organizational decisions, and they discuss how and why each decision is made. Because they work together, they earn a shared income which often leads to shared decision-making in the household. The program provides a safe environment for women to express themselves, and allows both husbands and wives to recognize the power of working together and including women in the decision-making process – not only at the workplace, but at home and in the community.
Iversen: Yemurai, we know that every day approximately 39,000 girls around the world are forced into early marriage. And once married, child brides are at heightened risk of dropping out of school, dying during child birth and experiencing physical and emotional violence. How are young men, like yourself, stopping this harmful practice?
Yemurai Nyoni , Founder of the Rising Birds Project, Zimbabwe: Child marriage is a terrible injustice, and as a young man it’s my duty to help end this practice. For me, that means legally banning child marriage in Zimbabwe.
I work with the Rising Birds Project, a youth-led program advocating to reform marriage laws domestically. We lobby members of parliament and our Ministry of Justice and Legal Affairs, and call on them to make child marriage illegal by enacting laws that ban marriage of any person under the age of 18.
As young men and women, we engage village elders and policy makers by explaining the grave consequences of child marriage and the enormous benefit that ending the practice would have on our communities and nation. Youth advocates have participated in social media campaigns, signed a nationwide petition, and marched the streets of our capital city – all to end child marriage in our country.
Our hard work seems to be paying off: One of our many panels about ending child marriage was attended by national assembly member Webster Maondera, who declared that he would table a motion to end child marriage in the next sitting of parliament. Only a few days ago, the second session of parliament commenced and we are hard at work compiling educational materials to support Maondera’s case. Although this is only the first of many steps toward ending child marriage in Zimbabwe, it is on track to become a major victory.
Iversen: Remmy, you’ve worked on HIV- and prevention of gender bases violence for many years. To curb both epidemics, your organization Sonke Gender Justice (SGJ) tries to engage men and boys. In your experience, has this tactic worked?
Remmy Shawa , MenEngage Africa Regional Coordinator, Sonke Gender Justice Network (SGJN), South Africa: Absolutely. Through our HIV and gender-based violence prevention work we’ve learned that challenging gender norms , such as rigid notions of masculinity, is just as important as promoting legal and structural changes. Our primary focus is preventing violence before it happens – and working with the men and boys themselves is crucial to our prevention efforts.
Our project aims to increase and deepen HIV and GBV prevention by engaging men and boys in Sub-Saharan Africa. So far, it has produced incredible results. At the individual level, we’ve seen drastic attitude changes among participants in how they think about gender-based violence and its effects. At the organizational level, SGJN and co-chairs launched a project called MenEngage Africa, which serves as a community for advocates to share knowledge and good practices.
Through our work at SGJN, we’ve learned the importance of examining cultural gender norms to understand what attitudes and beliefs have an effect on GBV and HIV/AIDS. In Kenya, for example, we work with men that often consider seeking health care ‘unmanly,’ and therefore do not want to test for HIV or start HIV treatment. Through the Movement of Men Against AIDS in Kenya (MMAAK), we use dialogue forums, sensitization workshops, and group therapy work to help transform gender norms and have seen positive results. Not only were the men who engaged in these activities were more likely to seek out HIV testing, but many have since become active community change agents, inspiring others to not only engage in health seeking behaviors, but also to stand up against gender-based violence.
Iversen: S.M., you’ve managed to inspire hundreds of young men to help end child marriage and dowry violence in Bangladesh. Young people are our present and our future, which is why it’s so important that your solutions are heard and considered. Not only are boys and men responding to your call to action, they’re joining your movement – what are you doing to engage them?
S.M. Shaikat, , Executive Director at SERAC-Bangladesh, Bangladesh: In August alone, 74 women were registered victims of dowry-related violence in Bangladesh’s Mymensingh district. Although rates of violence haven’t decreased since I became an anti-dowry advocate in 2006, I’ve witnessed increased awareness and commitment to end this practice – and child marriage – among boys and men. In particular, it’s evident that men are beginning to recognize that they have contributed to the problem, but that they can also be part of the solution.
My organization SERAC-Bangladesh started a youth-led watchdog program in Bangladesh’s Mymensingh district to monitor and report cases of child marriage and dowry violence. We’ve trained approximately 650 young volunteers who are challenging social norms and holding local law enforcement agencies accountable to report instances of dowry violence. Although it wasn’t planned, most of our young volunteers are men. I’ve learned that with both education and a community of fellow advocates, young men quickly gain the confidence to raise their voices in support of girls’ and women’s health and rights.
I’ve also noticed that boys and men are eager to participate in digital campaigns. Just last month, we activated SERAC’s network of over 1,700 advocates to sign an online petition protesting the government’s attempt to lower the legal marriage age for girls. I have no doubt that early child marriage and dowry-related violence are rooted in the attitudes of boys and men. But by engaging them, I’m confident we can change minds and end these practices once and for all.
Iversen: I’m inspired by the actions of these young leaders. They act on the fact that gender-based violence is not just women’s business, but everybody’s business and needs full involvement. They are shining examples to men, and women – everywhere, that we can overcome some of the challenging obstacles we face today, including violence against girls and women. These young men remind me, and hopefully remind you as well, that together we can build a future where girls are not forced into marriage, women are treated as equals, and all live in a world free of discrimination and violence.
Women Deliver’s Young Leaders Program is funded in part by Johnson & Johnson.