Men turning the tide against gender violence

May 25, 2009 12:00 am

, NAIROBI, Kenya, May 25 – The rumbles of discontent were unmistakeable.  Delivered in deep distinct vibrations, unmistakeably male and emanating from the small crowd of women and men gathered at the two white tents in the open treeless ground next to the Kibera district officer’s compound.

The occasion was the launch of a sexual and gender-based violence outreach office by the Centre for Rights Education and Awareness (CREAW) whose assignment is ensuring that women residents of Kibera and eventually other parts of Nairobi will have direct access to full legal aid, counseling and other support services to avert domestic and other forms of violence.
When the Prime Minister, Raila Odinga , who is also the Member of Parliament for Kibera , put aside his official speech to launch into a more intimate man-to-man talk, the ripples of expectation and excitement in the crowd were palpable.

These were the more outward reactions to the uncomfortable subject of gender violence and the role of men either as perpetrators or as partners in stamping it out of their communities.

Although Mr Odinga distinctly promised to take personal responsibility in locating the gender agenda and particularly the issue of violence against women high on the priorities of cabinet and government, it is not lost on gender and women’s rights activists that the fruits of this particular struggle will be borne on the wings of a massive paradigm shift in Kenyan society’s attitudes towards women and in its treatment of women. 

Mr Odinga located the problem at its source when he said Kenyans cannot expect to find peace if there is no peace in their homes. As he rightly observed, violence against women depletes the country’s resources, perpetuates poverty and locks out 50 percent of the population from effectively participating in building their society. The statistics are telling – one in three women is likely to be beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime.

However, eradicating sexual and gender based violence goes beyond the reaches of the law and demands a spirited partnership of women and men to stamp it out. For community mobilisers and gender equality champions the real test is in overcoming male resistance and negative attitudes to transform them into partners for gender equality and human rights.

Robert Anzese is a paralegal officer with CREAW and his work takes him all over Kibera, locating women and girls who have been abused and sensitising their families and neighbours to take action against violence. As a male champion for women’s rights, he takes his work seriously and guards his image as a positive male role model jealously:  “Not all men are bad,” he says, “the challenge we face is to change entrenched bad attitudes in men and women.”

According to gender and women’s rights activists, there are many compelling reasons for involving men and boys in the struggle for gender equality.  In a paper for the UN Expert group meeting on “The role of men and boys in achieving gender equality” in Brasilia, Brazil in 2003 Kenyan gender activist and advisor Njoki Wainaina made the observation that since most men hold the power, authority, power and privileges that are the contention for the gender equality struggle these are compelling reasons for engaging them to give up something in order for the struggle to be won.

She argues:  “Gender sensitive men as partners, fathers, sons, brothers, judges, magistrates, police officers, permanent secretaries, ministers and heads of state make a significant difference because they believe in women and in their empowerment.”

The socialization of boys and men regarding sexuality is of major concern in the era of HIV/AIDS. Their behavior patterns under prevailing concepts of masculinity, alcohol and drug abuse, violence, hostile environments, cultural practices and norms impact directly and negatively on women’s lives as partners or victims of sexual violence.

However, Mr Anzese admits that getting men on the side of gender equality and women’s rights is a work of perseverance in itself but holds the key to social transformation. 

“The upbringing of boys and men teaches them to have a superiority complex,” he says, “I live by example and I am keen to build relationships based on trust within the community.”

These views are mirrored by Ms Wainaina’s observations that the growing movement of men who are confronting and defying patriarchal systems that have hitherto insisted on exercising control, subordination and the undervaluing of females.

By his own admission, Kennedy Otina was a violent man in his younger days.  Today he is in charge Men to Men, a regional organisation working to end gender based violence against women and to check the spread of HIV/AIDS.

What caused his transformation? The birth of his baby daughter opened his eyes to the many forms of violence directed at females not just outside the family doorstep but in the assumed safety and privacy of the family unit.

“I knew there and then that I could never be the same again, I started to look at my wife differently as the mother of this new love in my life and as my intimate partner.”

Mr Otina says linking the dots in mens’ relationships with the significant females in their lives is a good place to start in bringing about the transformation of men into champions for women’s rights.

“For some men, it is their mothers, daughters, sisters, wives or girlfriends.  They cannot imagine someone else wanting to hurt them,” he adds, “This is where it begins. Why then would you want to hurt someone else’s mother, daughter, sister, wife or girlfriend?”

Admittedly, men organize differently from women, they are consistent to the group’s pattern and in the words of Mr Otina, not every man in the circle of influence is a confidant.

These are important insights in finding entry points to address the sticky issue of male violence directed at women:  “Men are key allies in ending violence against women,” he says, “When we show our faces to the public, we are saying loudly that we have been transformed for the better and that men can be equal partners for social change.”

Mr Otina’s work has seen him work with men in 15 Kenyan constituencies including Makadara, Kasarani, Dagoretti, Starehe, Limuru, Kikyuy, Teso, Bondo and Tana River.

The men targeted by Men to Men include the custodians of culture as well as members of the police force.  When they take up a case, they refer the women for medical assistance and counseling where possible. 

The contact does not end there, because if the matter is referred to the court the men attend sessions in solidarity with victims.  They also ensure that the perpetrators are made aware of the legal and social implications of their conduct and counseled accordingly. 

For cases that do not end up in court, the encounter is bound and institutionalized by having the perpetrator sign a document in the presence of the local chief or police officer that he will not repeat the offence.

Sometimes these actions have earned Mr Otina and his team the wrath of men who accuse them of “causing women to grow horns.”  However networks such as Mr Otina’s add a positive dimension in the fight against gender violence.

In communities, the message being sent out to perpetrators of violence against women and girls is that they are up against a whole movement of men, women, key organizations and government that will stop at nothing until peace returns.

(The writer is the Editorial Director, African Woman and child Feature Services)


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