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By Gary Barker
Originally posted on the Council on Foreign Relations’ Women and Foreign Policy Program blog

Two people hold hands. Photo: Perttu Saralampi.
Photo by Perttu Saralampi

This month, more than thirty men allegedly gang-raped a sixteen-year-old girl in Brazil because of her supposed infidelity to her boyfriend. A few months before that, my organization, Equimundo, carried out a study finding that nearly half of girls interviewed at a school in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo reported having traded sex for money. In both cases, the response was, appropriately: let’s find the men who did this and hold them accountable.

We must hold those men responsible who commit acts of sexual and domestic violence. One of the major advances in women’s rights of the past thirty years has been rolling out laws making it illegal men for to use violence against women and girls, whether in their homes or outside. We know, however, from household surveys we have conducted, that between 20 and 50 percent of men report having used physical violence against a female partner. In some countries, up to one in five men report having forced a woman, including a partner, to have sex against her will.And while we must push for accountability, if we believe that sexual violence and other forms of gender-based violence can be stopped, we must focus on prevention. And that means starting with boys and young men.

Whether in conflict or in peacetime, the drivers of men’s use of violence against women are fairly universal. Data from our multi-country study, the International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES) find that men who witness violence against their mothers growing up are 2.5 times more likely to repeat it later on. Men who experience childhood violence and witness violence against their mothers are four times more likely to report using violence against women. Men who have a sense of entitlement to sex, who hold inequitable values, who think they can get away with it and who have hostile attitudes toward women, are all more likely to use violence against women. Add to that a general lack of accountability of men who use violence, women’s limited economic and social status in many settings, and we have a perfect storm for reproducing violence against women.

What works to stop it? A growing body of evidence finds that targeted, well-designed primary prevention can work to change violence-supportive attitudes and reduce men’s use of violence against women. Structured group education with boys in schools, sports settings and communities has been shown to work. Supporting women with economic empowerment and social networks –combined with reaching male partners or husbands with messages about ending violence—show promise. Multi-pronged community mobilization strategies that engage community leaders, the health sector, local business owners, transportation workers, and others in creating an environment of zero tolerance also work. Batterer intervention programs, when connected to communities, can also work to prevent re-incidence.

Parent training programs can also prove effective. Emerging data from a randomized control trial that Equimundo is carrying out with fathers and mothers in Rwanda finds significantly lower rates of violence by men against women (reported by women) in the intervention group as compared to the control group. Our intervention, and others like it, also find reductions in violence against children, thus preventing future cycles of couple-based violence.

With the growing evidence base that primary prevention can work, why are such programs not yet taken to scale? With evidence suggesting that gender-based violence (GBV) can cost 1 to 2 percent of the GDP of some countries, due in large part to women’s lost wages, it is time to think about prevention at a macro-level. Countries should be pushed, as Sonke Gender Justice is doing in South Africa, to create national, costed plans for scaling up GBV prevention and mitigation.

Engaging fathers in the process is also critical. Last year we launched the first ever State of the World’s Fathers report to call attention to engaging men in equitable and non-violent caregiving. This year for Father’s Day we are launching the first ever State of America’s Fathers, to focus on leave policies, sharing caregiving equality and the importance of parent training to break cycles of violence.

Evidence affirms that providing clear messages to boys and men on how to speak out about violence, reaching them early with messages and discussions about equality and respect, and holding men who use violence accountable can work to break the cycle of violence.

That, perhaps, is the key message for Father’s Day: we know that about one in three men worldwide have used physical or sexual violence against a woman or girl. The majority of the world’s men and fathers don’t use such violence. But they also don’t speak out about the violence that other men use. A global prevention movement means that all men and fathers become part of a cycle of change—questioning other men’s violence, speaking out about it, talking to our sons and daughters about it. That is when the cycle of violence, in Brazil, DRC, the U.S., and globally, will end.

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