Engaging Men in Preventing Domestic Violence
There are growing efforts in the Asia-Pacific to prevent and reduce domestic violence, and one significant aspect of this work is engaging men in prevention. To be effective, prevention initiatives must address the patterns of masculinity, understandings of violence, and ideologies of gender common in the Asia-Pacific.
The primary prevention of domestic violence involves strategies intended to prevent initial perpetration or victimisation. While secondary prevention efforts are addressed to those at risk of using or suffering violence or already doing so, primary prevention aims to prevent violence from occurring in the first place.
Primary prevention aims to change the social conditions – the social structures, norms, and practices – that support and promote domestic violence. Well-developed prevention frameworks such as the Australian Change The Story framework highlight the ‘drivers’ of violence that prevention efforts must address, including patterns of male domination, dominant forms of masculinity, rigid gender stereotypes, and other factors.
In violence prevention and related fields, there is a growing emphasis on ‘engaging men’. This has a compelling rationale. First, while in many regions most men do not use domestic or sexual violence, when this violence occurs it is perpetrated overwhelmingly by men. Second, particular constructions of masculinity play a crucial role in men’s violence against women and girls. Third, men have a positive role to play in helping to stop violence against women.
Programs and strategies aimed at men and boys thus are one significant stream of prevention activity. Seven trends are visible in this ‘engaging men’ field. First, work with men and boys is increasingly well established, through significant initiatives, groups and networks. The field includes promising initiatives from the Asia-Pacific region, as we explore below, and increasing guidance on implementation. Work has been supported by MenEngage, a global alliance of over 1,000 organisations from over 80 countries, including its regional networks such as MenEngage South Asia.
Prevention work with men and boys is supported by a growing body of scholarship demonstrating its effectiveness. Scholarly reviews document that well-designed interventions can shift the attitudes and behaviours among men and boys that otherwise may feed into domestic and sexual violence.
Four further trends are visible. First, programs and strategies aimed at men – whether in relation to violence prevention or related areas such as workplace gender equality, parenting, and reproductive health – have increasing support through both international commitments and state and national government policies. Prevention frameworks such as Change The Story show an increased focus on engaging men and challenging harmful forms of masculinity.
Second, the work itself is growing in scale and sophistication. Third, there is growing attention to diversities among men (related to class, ethnicity, sexuality, and so on) and growing articulation of a gender-transformative approach. Fourth, the work uses an increasing range of strategies. While many programs rely on face-to-face education or communications methods, there is also increasing implementation of community mobilisation, organisational change, and policy development. Finally, there is expansion in the domains in which violence prevention work with men takes place, including parenting and family life, conflict and post-conflict settings, and online spaces.
A pattern of power and control
The term domestic violence refers to violence perpetrated by a person against their intimate partner or ex-partner. Much domestic violence is by men against women, and the term therefore overlaps with terms such as violence against women and gender-based violence. Domestic violence often involves a range of harmful behaviours: physical and sexual violence, social and economic control of one’s partner, and psychological and emotional abuse. It is characterised by a systematic pattern of power and control exerted by one person (usually a man) against another (often a woman), involving a variety of physical and non-physical tactics of abuse and coercion, in the context of a current or former intimate relationship.
In considering domestic violence in the Asia-Pacific region, it is challenging – perhaps impossible – to discuss a region as geographically, culturally, socially, and politically diverse as the Asia-Pacific without oversimplifying or glossing over some of this diversity. Our intention, therefore, is to discuss some broad stroke ideas that we think are relevant to the region whilst making no claims to a comprehensive discussion.
Socio-cultural constructions of masculinity in the Asia-Pacific, as in Australia, exist along the lines of patriarchal norms, values and practices. Academic research, as well as reports from civil society organisations, have shown that men typically understand their role in society to align with rigid gender stereotypes. For instance, in South Asia, masculinity is largely imagined as characterised by physical and mental strength, sexual virility and prowess, being the family’s breadwinner, competence and command, and aggression and dominance. Similarly, in Indonesia discourses of masculinity centre around concepts of honour and hierarchy between genders in ways that privilege men. As with many postcolonial societies, these conceptualisations of masculinity in Southeast Asia are strongly influenced by the history of European colonisation in the region. Recent research from China shows that key elements that constitute dominant constructions of masculinity include decision-making, toughness and physical power, using violence to defend one’s reputation, and compulsory heterosexuality and sexual prowess. In Australia too, traditional, patriarchal notions of manhood continue to shape men’s ideas of their role in society. As a practice firmly rooted in patriarchy, it is no surprise then that domestic violence is a serious and widespread problem in Asia-Pacific, as well as Australia.
To challenge and end men’s violence against women, it is important to consider the different ways in which such violence is understood. First, gendered expressions of violence by men and boys are often perceived as ‘boys being boys’, thereby minimising the violence and its impact. An example is the dismissal or minimising of men’s sexual harassment of women as ‘eve teasing’. Second, men’s violence is mostly considered noteworthy only in cases of extreme physical violence such as rape-murder. Third, violence is considered to be an individualised phenomenon limited to a few ‘bad’ men. Finally, domestic violence is often considered a ‘private family matter’.
Challenging such problematic ways of thinking about men’s violence against women requires acknowledging that more extreme examples of such violence, for example physical brutality and sexual assault, are manifestations of the same patriarchal ideology that underpins men’s routine gender practices. Such everyday practices include domestic work and caregiving labour that disproportionately burden women in Asia-Pacific and Australia. There are many socially accepted practices too, such as dowry and son preference, which contribute to the patriarchal discourse that empowers men and disempowers women. Men’s violence, being an integral aspect of patriarchal social and institutional structures, cannot be eliminated while these other markers of the same ideology remain intact. Patriarchal structures will need to be fundamentally transformed in order to enact meaningful change in men’s violence against women. This also necessitates thinking outside the reductive binary of ‘good vs bad’ men and recognising the pervasive and everyday nature of harmful patriarchal practices.
Promising work with men and boys in the region
There are promising instances in the Asia-Pacific of work with men and boys at every level of the spectrum of prevention, the levels from micro to macro at which prevention can take place. One of the most common forms of prevention activity is community education, typically in the form of face-to-face workshops. For example, in Sri Lanka, men are engaged through male peer groups to reject notions of patriarchal power in families. In Vietnam, an online educational entertainment program aimed at sexual violence prevention is being developed for young men at university. Work is particularly well-developed in India, with education groups for boys, young men, male university students, and adult men used to decrease their agreement with gender-inequitable and violence-supportive norms and engage them as allies to women. If they meet established standards for effective practice, respectful relationships and consent education programs are valuable tools for primary prevention.
Education programs aimed at males often take place in school or university settings, but some address other populations, such as fathers, or other settings, such as sports. In Indonesia, an evaluation of MenCare, a global campaign to promote men’s involvement as equitable and non-violent fathers and caregivers, found positive change in participants’ attitudes and behaviours. In India, a program delivered by coaches to boys in cricket had mixed impacts.
Another common form of prevention activity involves social marketing and communications. In Bangladesh, a campaign against acid violence engages boys and men through media materials, male celebrities, and school sessions. In PNG, the Men of Honour campaign aims aimed to break the cycle of violence by focusing on positive behaviour. In India, “Bell Bajao!” (Ring the Bell!) calls on men to challenge violence against women through bystander intervention in intimate partner violence, and evaluation shows significant increases in awareness and understanding of domestic violence among those exposed to the campaign.
Primary prevention also involves work with professionals and practitioners. In Pakistan for example, the non-government organisation Rozan has worked with the police to develop their capacity to address violence against women.
Community mobilisation involves bringing individuals and groups together through coalitions, networks, and movements to broaden prevention efforts. In Fiji and the region, the Male Advocacy Program recruits, trains, and mobilises men as advocates for violence prevention. In India, Ek Saath Abhiyan engages men and boys in active partnership to change gender discriminatory norms. In India, Men’s Action to Stop Violence Against Women (MASVAW) focuses on men’s roles in building gender equality and ending gender-based violence, using community workshops and mobilising men as advocates in their communities. The alliance’s achievements and challenges are a rich case study of both the promise and the challenges of engaging men in change.
The most macro level of primary prevention is to do with law and policy. The need for violence prevention to include efforts aimed at men and boys is emphasised in Australia’s national government strategy, a step that other countries in the region could emulate. This emphasis was visible in the first National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children (2011), and receives stronger emphasis in the draft second National Plan, due for release soon. The National Plan endorses primary prevention interventions that support men and boys to have respectful and equal relationships, the promotion of healthy masculinities, and engaging men in leadership positions.
Issues, principles, and the way forward
As the ‘engaging men’ field develops, articulations of the principles that should guide this work have emerged, including international frameworks by UN Women and ICRW, guidelines on funding programs, and policy frameworks. Violence prevention efforts in general should be evidence-based, comprehensive, engaging, and relevant to the communities and contexts in which they are delivered, as handbooks, toolkits, and other guides emphasise. In working with men and boys in particular, prevention policies and programs should be feminist or gender-transformative, that is, intended to transform gender inequalities. They should be committed to enhancing boys’ and men’s lives, and they should be intersectional, addressing diversities and inequalities.
Key principles for violence prevention work with men and boys recently were launched by the Regional Pacific Women’s Network Against Violence Against Women and UN Women Fiji Multi-Country Office. They emphasise seven principles for best practice. Be accountable to the women’s movement. Do no harm. Be grounded in a human rights-based approach. Be evidence-based and evidence-building. Be inclusive and intersectional. Be gender transformative. Be informed by context.
Men who wish to contribute to ending domestic and sexual violence and become allies to women’s anti-violence work must start with themselves, ensuring that they treat the women and girls in their lives with respect and equity. They need to reflect on how they participate in, and benefit from, patriarchal systems and structures even if they do not personally perpetrate domestic and sexual violence. This work requires a genuine commitment to eroding their own gender privilege as men in pursuit of equity. It also involves men allies to acknowledge that while patriarchy acutely hurts women and people of diverse gender identities, it also costs men and boys dearly in terms of their physical, mental, sexual, and social health and wellbeing. Crucially, becoming an ally requires men to take action in support of gender equity and justice. However, it is important to do so in ways that amplify women’s voices and respect women’s leadership in anti-violence efforts. A minimum and necessary requirement of anti-violence work is to go beyond lip service in the form of performative allyship and move towards real change at personal, interpersonal, institutional and systemic levels.
Efforts to prevent and address domestic violence and sexual violence must include strategies and initiatives aimed at men and boys. While there exist several examples of promising efforts in this space in Asia-Pacific and Australia, these initiatives are usually small-scale and sporadic. Moving forward, it is vital to establish clear standards and guiding principles for this work as well as to intensify and scale up these initiatives targeting change at micro (individual, interpersonal) and macro (community, policy) levels. Recognising men’s violence as not an aberration but an expression of the patriarchal gender order, these anti-violence efforts must exist in conversation with broader gender justice initiatives and seek involvement of women’s organisations, networks, and peak bodies. Finally, active community engagement and ownership of such efforts are necessary for them to be achievable and sustainable.
Michael Flood is an Associate Professor in Sociology at the Queensland University of Technology and an internationally recognised researcher on violence against women, violence prevention, and men, masculinities, and gender. Alankaar Sharma is a Senior Lecturer in Social Work at Australian Catholic University in Sydney. His research and teaching are inspired by social justice, feminism, and critical social work.