Involving men and boys in action on sexual and gender-based violence… effectively

Ntokozo Yingwana explores lessons on the importance of a collective strategy for impact, inspired by a global learning workshop

The debate has long since moved from whether women’s movements should be engaging men and boys in combating sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), to rather how best to engage them in prevention and interventions. A recent learning workshop on Collective Action on SGBV Involving Men held at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) sought to explore the factors and dynamics involved in engaging men and boys in SGBV initiatives around the world.

The workshop, which took place from 16-19 February 2015, brought together researchers and practitioners from six countries (Egypt, Kenya, India, Sierra Leone, South Africa and Uganda). They are all collaborating partners in a four-year research project on engaging men and boys, collective action and (re)addressing SGBV. With just under a year of the project left, the partners used the workshop to reflect and exchange learning with each other.

The lessons shared ranged from the power of storytelling as a research and advocacy tool, to the importance of knowledge sharing within collective action when dealing with political push-backs. Indeed, building networks and alliances with other social justice movements was stressed as key to sustainability.

A mapping exercise from the workshop

The workshop also explored tensions in power relations in the knowledge creation/exchange process, especially when there is collaboration between organisations and institutions based in the global North and global South. The collation of research data in the global South, while the analysis and publication of reports takes place in the global North was also problematised. So even though the workshop was, as described by one partner, ‘a great space in discussing the politics of what we’re doing’, it was clear that there was a concern over whose knowledge was considered as valid or legitimate .

Suggestions were made for the deconstruction of hegemonic knowledge creation processes through translations of languages and addressing the digital divide. In addition, it was noted that a multi-nodal approach to funding is needed in order to maintain independence. Ideas were shared on ‘how collective organising can sustain itself and have a deeper analysis, while not having to relay so much on outsiders’ (partner at SGBV workshop).

It was agreed, following a point raised by another partner, that the focus should not be on the ‘idea of what it means to be this or that type of feminist, at the detriment of collective organising’. Instead a more human rights perspective was needed. However, the importance of keeping strong feminist relations and constantly (re)addressing power dynamics was still emphasised.

Specifically it was felt that ‘by removing ourselves from these gender identities we can begin to have a conversation’ (partner at SGBV workshop). In doing so we could avoid the essentialism that comes with gender binaries of perpetrator (man) versus victim (woman). There is also a need for programmes that emasculate men from patriarchal privilege, while raising their consciousness to gender and broader social justice.

This entails recognising men’s own expectations, what they value as individuals and helping them deal with the structural conflict of being ‘attached to masculinities and their benefits’ (partner at SGBV workshop). The wide spectrum of masculinities in each context means there is a range of entry points and forms of engagements appropriate for different men and boys. Once that initial contact has been made a safe and nurturing environment needs to be created to sustain their engagement.

An exercise to map out connections between different forms of SGBV across ecological levels revealed that structural violence is the thread that links the different levels to each other. With that said, concerns were raised about the promotion of a one-size-fits-all set of good practices that can supposedly be applied for working with all men and boys in a decontextualised and de-politicised manner. An integral lesson here seemed to be the importance of understanding each specific context in order to carefully develop evidence and arguments that inform appropriate SGBV interventions.

As one of the Research Assistants observing and documenting this workshop, what stood out for me the most was the constant negotiation (and renegotiation) of power dynamics. The partners collectively held the space, offering their insights while also challenging each other. Even though this at times led to tensions which were carefully talked through, no one ever lost sight of the overarching goal of arriving at strategies that effectively engage men and boys in combating SGBV. Perhaps that is the main learning; no matter how diverse our contexts or personal and political motivations are, if we intend to be impactful in combating SGBV then we need to strategise collectively.