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Is Engaging Men and Boys the Magic Bullet for Ending Violence Against Women and Girls or a Step Backwards?

23/11/2014 19:57 | Updated 23 January 2015

When it comes to promoting gender equality and ending violence against women, it seems that engaging men and boys has become the new sexy strategy. Earlier this month, New Delhi saw over 5,000 delegates gather from all over the world at the MenEngage Global Symposium on 'Men and Boys for Gender Justice'. In late September actress Emma Watson launched the HeForShe global campaign at the UN Headquarters in New York with a highly publicised speech saying "Men, I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue too." Iceland then bizarrely announced a UN conference on women and gender equality where only men and boys would be invited. Over the past 10-15 years, interventions focused on male engagement to end violence against women have proliferated around the world. Many donors these days are interested in programmes that are working with boys and men.

But does it work? Is it the magic bullet to this global problem? Or is it a step backwards?

It is true that violence against women is everyone's business. And it can be argued that everyone will benefit from a more equitable and peaceful world, although it is also true that some men overwhelmingly benefit from a world where they hold the levers of economic, cultural and political power. Many women's rights activists have understandably been sceptical and concerned about the focus on men and boys to end violence against women. At its most problematic it is paternalistic and frames men as the protectors and saviours of women. And working with men can take limited resources away from women's empowerment and detract from working with women.

But the reality is men are the primary perpetrators of violence against women and girls. And men's use and experiences of violence are maintained by commonly held versions of manhood. I believe that it is impossible to end violence against women without engaging men and boys. But according to Jewkes, Flood and Lang in a paper published in a new series published in The Lancet we need to move away from the focus on simply working with men and boys as a stand-alone strategy to focusing on changing the norms and structural gender inequalities in society. As they say, "violence against women and girls does not occur in a social vacuum, but arises out of a context of gender inequity and social norms of gender relations that are largely supported by both men and women." They show that interventions that address masculinity seem to be more effective than those that remain blind to the powerful influences of gender norms and systems of inequality.

In his comment in the same series, ex-US president Jimmy Carter says that to end violence against women and girls, "Patriarchy must be replaced by a system in which equal human rights and non-violence are promoted and accepted." I totally agree. It is not the easy answer. It is perhaps not the perfect sound bite. But if we are to be successful we have to tackle the deeply entrenched systems that promote male dominance and normalise violence.

Yes, we want to engage male leaders in promoting gender equality and ending violence. But we must also change the structures that maintain women's exclusion from leadership positions. Yes we should work with boys and men to challenge harmful notions of masculinity. But this must be a complement to the empowerment of women as individuals, within relationships and across society. And the prevention of men's violence cannot be undertaken successfully without the provision of services for survivors.

The reality is that while we continue to hear the call to work with men and boys, too little is understood about what programmes actually work to reduce rates of violence. But progress is being made. For example, DFID's What Works To Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls programme is working to answer these questions by supporting innovative programmes and testing their impact.

In the meantime, I say ending violence against women and girls requires all of us - men and boys, women and girls, governments, communities and activists. I genuinely believe that we have a common goal. And I genuinely believe that we can work together in a way that does not reassert male power over women, that keeps women and girls at the centre, and focuses on transforming gender inequality rather than just adding men and boys.