Time for men to show leadership in eliminating violence against women

Women harvesting Indian cotton courtesy of the World Bank

The 25th November is International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. It's also the start of 16 days of activism led by the UN Secretary General. Here, Cindy Berman blogs on the necessity of ending violence against women and the importance of men taking responsibility.

it’s been amazing to see the international outcry on sexual abuse and harassment of women provoked by the Harvey Weinstein case in the past few weeks. The outcry went far beyond the film and entertainment industry, and unleashed a #MeToo response by women around the world.

Women have been coming out of the woodwork after all these years to give testimony to the high prevalence of violence against women in our society today.

Sexual abuse has for decades been a dirty secret that women felt forced to keep for fear of losing their job, their position, the chance for advancement, being accepted or liked by their bosses or peers.

And it was fascinating to see how quickly the revelations spread to politics and parliamentary conduct, to workplaces and society at large.

 A human rights violation

The women’s movement has been advocating for gender based violence to be recognised as a human rights violation for many years.

The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is known as an international bill of rights for women. It came into force in 1981 and 189 countries have ratified it. CEDAW sets out clear obligations to address gender discrimination in the workplace, in society, in the economy and the family.

But legislation, whilst important, has largely failed to enable women to access these rights in practice. Centuries of prejudice, the lack of leadership or resources to challenge discriminatory practices are among the reasons for this.

The evidence of the scale of violence against women is shocking. There is a UN global database that reveals prevalence by country.

One UN study in Asia and the Pacific involving 10,000 men in 2013 found that:

  • 48% of men had used physical or sexual violence against a female partner;
  • 25% said they had raped a woman or girl;
  • 50% admitted to raping women or girls when they were teenagers;
  • 4% had perpetrated gang rape.

In 2016 a study in South Africa found that

  • A woman is raped every 26 seconds;
  • 51% of men have used intimate partner violence at least once in their lifetime;
  • 32% of men have perpetuated violence against their partner multiple times.

In Rwanda, where between half and one million people were killed in the genocide of 1994, one study that found 48% of women aged 15 – 49 have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime.

A Europe-wide study in 2013 revealed that one in three women over the age of 15 in Europe reported having experienced some form of physical or sexual abuse.

The need for legal consequences

Impunity is common.

Over 70% percent of people in one study said they did not experience any legal consequences. A study in 2017 in France found that 5% of women in France take legal action, and 80% don’t take any action at all.

What about the attitudes of men towards sexual violence?

The most common motivation for rape in many studies is about sexual entitlement: a belief that men have a right to sex with women regardless of consent. It is most often inter-generational.

One study found that over 40% of the men who perpetuated violence against women had witnessed physical violence against their mothers when they were children. Depression, alcohol use, lack of income and employment opportunities for men were high risk factors for violence.

The workplace is no different: it is also a site of violence against women and girls. And at work, employers and workers are both perpetrators and victims. Companies, trade unions and civil society organisations are starting to wake up to the scale of the problem. 

So what should be done about it? How do we change the level of tolerance for these violations that affect more than half of the world’s population? 

Showing organisational leadership

Men need to show leadership. They need to understand the enormous costs of these practices – not only to the victims – but to themselves.

Masculinity has nothing to do with violence and abuse. Men need to challenge each other, raise their children differently, treat women and each other differently in the workplace, in politics, in their families and communities.

There are inspiring examples of organisations of men that are devoted to eliminating violence against women. These are growing around the world, and include Promundo in Brazil and Latin America; Partners for Prevention in Asia; RWAMREC in Rwanda; Sonke Gender Justice in South Africa; and the White Ribbon Campaign in the UK.  

Trade unions are speaking out. For example, at the IUF Congress in 2017, at which a woman was elected General Secretary for the first time in the organisation’s history, all the male delegates collectively and individually pledged to halt violence against women.

The Congress unanimously adopted a resolution on halting gender-based violence at the workplace. They pledged to take the issue into collective bargaining with employers and to advocate for more political action.

Next year the ILO will debate a new convention to end violence against women at work. This is something that can make a real difference. The ITUC has launched a campaign in support of this. It will take support from governments, employers and workers to get agreement for this, and this is something leaders can do now.

Unions, employers and NGOs all a role to play. But it is crucial that they all understand that men must take responsibility here. Men are the problem and men must speak out.

As Dr Martin Luther King said, “In the end what will hurt the most will not be the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends”. 

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