10/09/2013 04:36 BST | Updated 09/11/2013 05:12 GMT

We Can Prevent Violence Against Women, but We Need to Talk to the Men Too

Violence against women often appears to be so pervasive and complex that it seems insurmountable. But it is preventable. For the first time, a new UN study on men and violence includes data from men themselves, across a number of countries, that tells us why some men use violence against women and how this can be prevented.

Four years in the making, the UN Multi-country Study on Men and Violence in Asia and the Pacific is based on interviews with 10,000 men from rural and urban sites in Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Papua New Guinea. The statistics presented in 'Why do some men use violence against women and how can we prevent it?' reflect unique human experiences from a diverse region that holds more than half of the world's population.

We travelled from the lush tea plantations of Nuwara Eliya to towering apartments in Jakarta. Research teams trekked for days into remote villages in Bougainville with their own generators, and crossed precarious bamboo bridges over thundering flooded rivers in rural Bangladesh. When a cholera outbreak rerouted and further delayed our fieldwork we wondered if we would ever make it. As one person remarked, it was like a soap opera of the damned. But the truly dedicated people involved in this study overcame these challenges because they saw that collecting this information was the first vital step in creating change.

Research with men on violence against women has been rare, in part because people questioned whether it was even possible. Why would men talk to us? Would they be honest about perpetrating violence? iPod Touch hand held devices with custom-made apps and audio tracks in local languages made it possible to ask about highly sensitive behaviour such as rape in a totally anonymous manner, even in communities with low literacy. With this new technology, highly trained interviewers and adherence to strict international standards for violence research we got amazingly open responses from men.

And what did they tell us? Across all sites, men who had perpetrated rape, most often against an intimate partner, most commonly reported their motivation for doing so was related to a sense of sexual entitlement; a belief that they had a right to sex with women regardless of consent. One of the most surprising, but important, findings was that half the men who reported having raped a woman or girl did so for the first time when they were teenagers. However, the majority of men who had raped did not experience any legal consequences. With such results, addressing men's impunity and criminalizing violence against women is key, but at the same time, it cannot be the only response. We cannot incarcerate a quarter or more of the male population, many of whom would be juveniles. We need solutions that target the root causes of violence to prevent it from happening in the first place.

The study reveals that one of the most important priorities is addressing the ways society teaches men to be men. Overall 87% of men interviewed believe that to be man you need to be tough. Connected to this, we found that men who used violence against an intimate partner were more likely to be controlling over their partners, have multiple sexual partners, have transactional sex and be involved in gangs and fights with weapons. These all reflect narratives of manhood that justify and celebrate toughness, heterosexual performance and men's dominance over women.

The study reaffirms that violence against women is highly prevalent in Asia-Pacific but varies significantly across countries and even within countries. Overall, nearly half of men interviewed reported using physical or sexual violence against a female partner. However there was great diversity across countries and even within countries - in rural Indonesia one in four men reported committing partner violence, but this was as high as eight in 10 men in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea. In many places violence against women was condoned or tolerated. For example, 60% of men interviewed in the urban site in Bangladesh believed that there are times a woman deserves to be beaten. One man from Bangladesh said, "If I am angry, I prefer to teach her an instant lesson. Although I sometimes feel bad about my conduct, it's not a big deal. If she disobeys, she must be punished. This is not wrong at all."

We must address power imbalances between men and women and promote ways of being a man that value respect, non-violence and equality. This is possible. We can build upon numerous examples of men who already adhere to such positive models in the region - like the man from China who said, "Real men should be mature, calm, not afraid and be able to make their loved ones feel safe." And there are many examples of programmes that show promise, such as school-based, sports-based or peer-to-peer education programmes that enhance the knowledge and skills of young people to foster respectful relationships and healthy and caring way 'to be a man'. By working together with boys and girls, men and women, governments and communities, we can create a more peaceful and equitable world.

The UN multi country study Why do some men use violence against women and how can we prevent it? is available to download online at