On February 14 this year, One Billion Rising for Justice are calling on women and men everywhere to harness their power and imagination to rise for justice — the largest global action against gender-based violence (GBV) yet. Thousands of us across southern Africa will be taking part.
There is an ever-increasing number of men who are working alongside of women, learning from women, but working in parts of male culture where, historically, there has been very little work done. But we need a lot more men involved; we’re not even close to having a critical mass of men involved for our work on men’s violence against women to be transformative.
Men I know have women and girls that they love and care deeply about — mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, girlfriends, friends. If we care about these women and girls, then we should care about the issue of men’s violence against women.
We often look for simple solutions to complex issues and when challenging gender-based violence it is no different. We’ve put stronger laws in place, educated and empowered more women, put in place more victim support and the media now reports more than ever on the worst cases ensuring the problem is never out of sight and out of mind.
Despite all these Herculean efforts and more we’ve failed to tackle GBV and an inexorable rise in the numbers of women, teen girls and small children pervades and pollutes our society. I don’t know a woman who doesn’t in some way order her life around the threat of sexual violence each and every day in some way or another.
Victim-blaming is pervasive, which is to say, blaming the person to whom something was done rather than the person who did it.
A simple question to a group of young people: What do you do most days to protect yourselves against any threat of sexual violence?
University students say they regular receive emails telling female students “not to go home alone in the darkness”. But “if you ask male students, they don’t even know about the problem”.
Most women say they do things like looking at the street they’re walking down for any suspicious activity such as a loud group of men, dodge into a shop or garage if they are unsure, make sure they are not the last one in the office at night alone or once they get near home make sure that no-one is lurking in the shadows of the entrance to their flats, compounds and residences — the list is long.
Most men said they don’t even understand the question — what threats, what do I mean by sexual violence against them? It’s just not on our daily radar the way it is for women. It seems we are indeed inhabiting different worlds to that of women.
Both young men and women find it easy to articulate what women should do to avoid being raped. Individual actions such as those described above are emotionally attractive and seem entirely rational. But this is victim-blaming at its most crude. “Your skirt was too short, you flirted too much, you got drunk too easily and you were quite simply in the wrong place at the right time.” Victim-blaming continues to be the rule, not the exception even if a woman is powerless to stop a rape from happening because someone’s holding a gun to her head. Women are literally dying from blame right now.
We need a paradigm shift in how we tackle GBV. One drawback in our work seems to be that we neglect to fully engage with both of the sexes. Jackson Katz explains that: “We need more men with the guts, with the courage, with the strength, with the moral integrity to break our complicit silence and challenge each other and stand with women and not against them.”
Katz maintains that “gender-violence issues” have been seen as women’s issues that some good men help out with, but he has a problem with that frame and I too refuse to accept it. Obviously, they’re also women’s issues, but calling gender-based violence a women’s issue is part of the problem, for a number of reasons.
Firstly, I don’t believe that holding men accountable for men’s violence is male-bashing. Many women who try to work on GBV are too easily labelled as such when they speak out. It’s a popular shorthand in the media to demonise women’s activism on GBV and we men and some women fall for it far too often.
Secondly, it gives men an excuse not to pay attention. A lot of men hear the term “women’s issues” and tend to tune it out. If it’s a woman’s issue it is for that audience to engage with and not meant for my attention as a man. This is also true of the word “gender”, because a lot of people hear the word “gender” and they think it means “women”. So they think that gender issues are synonymous with women’s issues. There’s some confusion about the term gender.
We need adult men with power to feel responsible to deal with these issues but many of these men are turned off by our present strategies. The goal has to be to get men who do not abuse women and children to speak out against men who do. It may be sexist to say this but often men can say things that women cannot or men get listened to where women are not but it is true.
We will only make progress when men’s violence against women is fundamentally seen as our problem as men. It’s counter-productive how so much activism on GBV has been corralled into the “women’s issues” arena and has excluded men. We’ve been outside the conversation, the thinking and the action for too long. See you on Friday February 14 at a One Billion Rising event near you!