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Re-Thinking Masculinity to Prevent Violence Against Women

What does machismo have to do with violence against women? Most people would say that the more aggressive a man is, the more violence he is likely to commit – against women and against other men. There is plenty of evidence to suggest this is true. But, we know that just telling men not to be machista anymore doesn’t work.

We need to understand how men’s identities in a given community are shaped and then begin to build – together — alternative, more healthy concepts of what it is to be a man.

This is an emerging field in violence prevention: creating healthy and non-violent masculine identities, which in turn lead to more equitable attitudes about non-violent relations between men and women and men and their communities. This shift is crucial to reducing violence, as well as acceptance of violence.

According to a special report on violence and gender, the key lesson here is that “violence is ultimately learned and encouraged in the social environment – which suggests that it can also be unlearned.” This complements the public health approach to violence prevention, which demonstrates that violence is a behavior learned in part through social norms – “transmitted” like a disease, as the gang-violence-intervention program Cure Violence puts it.


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We know that the vast majority of violence and violent crime in the world is perpetrated by and against young men – for homicides globally, 79% of the victims and 95% of the perpetrators are men. Much of this violence is tied to criminal organizations and street gangs, which draw heavily upon the image and social status of an uber-aggressive type of man.

For example, “no gun no girl” is a common expression in urban neighborhoods in Jamaica with gang presence. Intra-gang culture in Central America enforces rules that reward ruthless violence by men and subservient status for women. Research shows that in many marginalized areas, hyper-aggressive “masculine” behavior – including using violence – is the most reliable way to access money, power, and protection. Disruptions in men’s abilities to provide for and protect their families – due to war, say, or economic crisis – can put pressure on men to reclaim these roles, even through the use of violence.

Too often, though, law enforcement responses to rising gang violence are heavily militarized, reinforcing the notion of hyper-aggressive masculinity and causing an escalation of violence.

These same effects of aggressive masculinities also influence violence committed by men against women in their own homes. Programs often teach women that they don’t need to be submissive, ashamed, or silent when faced with violence or abuse by a partner – but don’t often offer options or alternatives to the men, who have learned that men shouldn’t show weakness.

Boys learn these concepts of masculinity at a young age – and boys who are victims of violence in their own homes are much more likely to commit violence as adults. Counselling for men who have themselves experienced violence and trauma – whether as children or as adults, in their families or in street gangs – is essential. We also need programs that teach that talking about emotions, being an engaged father, and solving conflicts non-violently, are central traits of manhood.

There are some promising examples emerging from Latin America and the Caribbean, with links to similar projects in other regions.

For example, the Brazilian NGO Promundo’s positive fatherhood Programa H (funded in part by the IDB), which engages men through sports and interactive workshops, shows positive results in terms of changes in men’s attitudes about gender norms, even after short (six-month) interventions, using the IMAGES survey tool. Men who have more gender-equitable views are less at risk for HIV and for violence. In Brazil, there was a 10 percentage point decrease in the men who agreed with the statement “There are times when a woman deserves to be beaten.” Over half of the intervention group said they now interact with women differently.

A similar counselling program with young men in Chicago (Becoming a Man) led to a 44% drop in crimes by at-risk youth participants. These findings are leading to cross-regional comparative research on gender socialization and violence, with a particular focus on urban settings.

Addressing questions of masculinity, then, not only protects women more. It helps men.

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Jennifer Peirce
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