The Role of Male Involvement in a Holistic Approach to Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

One in three women experience sexual or physical abuse within their lifetime, making sexual and gender-based violence one of the most widespread human rights violations in the world1.

The UN defines sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) as: “any act that is perpetrated against a person’s will and is based on gender norms and unequal power relationships. It includes physical, emotional, or psychological and sexual violence, and denial of resources or access to services.” Violence also includes threats of violence and coercion. SGBV inflicts harm on women, girls, men, boys, and non-binary individuals, and is a violation of many human rights. Individuals who experience SGBV may suffer from forced and unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions, traumatic fistula, sexually transmitted infections, and even death. Individuals often also experience serious consequences to their psychological, financial, and social well-being.

During emergencies, vulnerable and marginalized populations are often at heightened risk of SGBV. Due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, reports indicate there has been an increase in SGBV, especially intimate partner violence (IPV) and domestic violence, stemming from economic insecurity, reduced mobility, and millions of people being stuck at home, many in unsafe environments, with their perpetrators, with minimum mobility to reach outside for support or redressal. The disruptions to vital SGBV support services further expose vulnerable and marginalized populations to violence. The work of governments, organizations, and individuals working to address and prevent SGBV and IPV is even more crucial during this time.

EngenderHealth’s Holistic Approach

To address and prevent SGBV, EngenderHealth programs utilize gender-transformative, youth friendly, and socially inclusive approaches. We recognize the need for a holistic approach to prevent and respond to SGBV. An important part of that approach is meaningful male engagement. EngenderHealth understands and values the pivotal role men and boys play in promoting gender equality and ensuring positive SRH outcomes. To that end, we engage with multiple systems and stakeholders for gender-transformative change; seek to meaningfully engage men and boys to challenge negative notions of masculinity and promote healthy, gender equitable relationships and facilitate effective interpersonal communication and shared decision-making; and intentionally contextualize our Do No Harm Framework (DNHF) for all interventions, especially the ones involving male engagement to challenge and change gender power dynamics.

Gender-transformative programming is the gold standard for addressing gender norms, and it has been shown to yield greater impact than either gender-neutral or gender-sensitive approaches. Our gender-transformative strategies challenge gender inequities and transform gender norms in ways that promote health and social justice. Gender influences all people’s health in fundamental ways. Harmful and rigid expectations about what certain genders can or should do can place everyone’s health at risk. For example, gender norms that define men as strong may discourage them from seeking health services as they might view asking for help from a nurse or doctor as a sign of weakness. Additionally, gender norms which treat women as property of men and reinforce notions that the man should take all decisions about a woman’s health and body may deprive her of seeking contraception services to delay or space her pregnancies.

We believe in creating an enabling environment for any change which requires challenging existing gender power dynamics. To meaningfully engage men and boys, in addition to engaging with men and boys directly, we also engage community and religious leaders, community groups, and service providers to create an enabling environment for men and boys, so they may start challenging the negative notions of masculinity and start practicing gender equal norms and behaviors. EngenderHealth established its Men As Partners (MAP) program in 1996. Through its groundbreaking work, this program works with men to play constructive roles in promoting gender equity and health in their families and communities.

EngenderHealth’s Do No Harm Framework recognizes that interventions which challenge existing unequal gender power distribution can also run a potential risk of unintended harm and backlash on project participants (especially women, girls and vulnerable groups) and project teams. We intentionally contextualize our do no harm framework for all interventions, especially the ones that involve male engagement to challenge and change gender power dynamics.

We recognize that male engagement is not a standalone activity, so in addition to engaging with men and boys, we also work with women, girls, socially marginalized groups, service providers, community health workers, community and religious leaders, and other stakeholders to address and prevent gender-based violence. When we use this holistic approach, including meaningful male engagement using our gender-transformative approaches and Do No Harm Framework , the impact can be wide reaching and life changing.

EngenderHealth in Burundi

Sexual and gender-based violence is widespread in Burundi. According to The Demographic and Health Surveys, 36% of women and 32% of men aged 15-49 report having been physically abused at some point in their lives since the age of 15; 14% of women and 10% of men have experienced physical violence in the last 12 months; 23% of women and 6% of men have experienced sexual violence at some point in their lifetime; and 13% of women and 2% of men have experienced sexual violence in the last 12 months2.

Since 2014, EngenderHealth has supported work in Burundi to prevent and respond to SGBV by engaging men and boys; training health care sites to better provide SGBV services; and supporting improved national coordination of SGBV response and prevention efforts, among other activities. Through our programs and partnerships, we have supported over 50 health facilities to provide GBV screening, gender-sensitive, non-judgmental, and integrated services for SGBV survivors.

With funding from USAID, and in partnership with the Ministry of Public Health and the Fight Against AIDS, our Burundians Responding Against Violence and Inequality (BRAVI) program worked from 2014–2019 to strengthen health sector response to SGBV survivors; promote awareness and use of SGBV services and strengthen referral networks; and promote gender equitable norms in the community to prevent SGBV and support survivors.

To promote gender equitable norms in the community and address the root causes of SGBV at the relationship and community levels, BRAVI adapted and implemented aspects of EngenderHealth’s Men As Partners (MAP) program—specifically, group education. Using a gender-transformative approach, BRAVI conducted community outreach activities in the nine communes of Ngozi.

Through our BRAVI program we worked closely with health providers and local leaders, recruited Men As Partners, and educated and enabled women and survivors to seek care. Through these inclusive, grassroots approaches, community leaders and individuals were educated and enabled to respond to and prevent SGBV issues, which creates a cascading effect of positive behavior change. By involving all members of the community in awareness raising and sensitization activities, BRAVI was able to sensitize 43,935 individuals on root causes and consequences of SGBV and men on gender norms, engage 410 leaders (community health workers, religious leaders, community-based organizations, and local leaders) and 425 men (traders, motorcycle drivers, bicycle drivers, hairdressers, and miners) in Men As Partners(MAP) community workshops where they received training on confronting, challenging, and changing harmful gender stereotypes.

Today, with funding from USAID, we are working with our local partner, SWAA-Burundi, on the GIR’ITKEKA (“Be Respected”) program to transfer technical expertise in gender- and youth-sensitive GBV services, because we know that empowering local organizations promotes sustainable change. As part of GIR’ITEKA, we are supporting SWAA-Burundi’s work to address gender norms and institutionalize high-quality care and treatment for SGBV survivors, including integrating such care into broader SRH and HIV services.

EngenderHealth in Malawi

Despite advances in gender equality over the last decade, Malawi ranks 174th out of 189 countries on the Gender Inequality Index, reflecting high levels of inequality in reproductive health, women’s empowerment, and economic activity. Harmful traditional practices and beliefs surrounding gender further the impact of SGBV. With support from the U.S. Department of State, EngenderHealth ran the Essential Gender-Based Violence (GBV) Prevention and Services Project in Malawi from 2016–2019, with the overall goal of decreasing the incidence of GBV and increasing the coordination of GBV response across sectors.

Through this program, we targeted root causes of GBV by supporting community facilitators in addressing harmful traditional practices, worked with 87 communities that resolved to eliminate harmful traditional practices, engaged with men and boys to challenge negative notions of masculinity and promote positive gender relations, and provided vocational training to women and out-of-school girls. We also supported the development of court guidelines for managing GBV cases, oriented and sensitized dozens of judiciary staff on GBV, and increased accessibility of judicial services by bringing them to communities through mobile courts.

To address harmful traditional practices, beliefs, attitudes, social norms, and behaviors that perpetuate SGBV, EngenderHealth supported implementing partners to engage traditional authority (TA), religious, and other community leaders in reflective dialogue sessions, using participatory gender-transformative approaches. By identifying drivers of SGBV together with these leaders, the project was able to engage influential individuals from the outset who would later help to address these harmful traditional practices within the community. The program then engaged men and boys to challenge negative notions of masculinity while simultaneously enabling women and mitigating their vulnerability.

Over the course of the project, 77 men were trained to be male champions. These trained male champions attended quarterly follow-up training and reached 20,797 other people with messaging to raise awareness about GBV. They also conducted awareness campaigns with community members, especially other males, using community theatre and other techniques to challenge negative notions of masculinity. Using these methods, they were able to reach 477 community members. By intentionally engaging men from the beginning, the program engaged gatekeepers and perpetrators of harmful gender norms and practices to actively change their mindsets and practices from within. Addressing deep-seated belief requires long-term investment, so training these men and community leaders is an important investment in future SGBV prevention.

Through meaningful male involvement, community engagement, increased judicial services, improved economic opportunity for girls and women, and expanding SGBV support services, the Essential Gender-Based Violence (GBV) Prevention and Services Project in Malawi was able to train nearly 40 district-level gender and social welfare officers, 229 traditional and religious leaders, 77 male champions, 500 teachers, 84 youth peer educators, and 517 community and youth organizations, and reached more than 75,000 individuals with critical SGBV prevention and response support services.

Male Engagement is One Part of the Whole

Male engagement is only one part of a holistic approach to responding to and preventing SGBV, but through the outcomes of our programs in Burundi and Malawi we can see that male engagement is critical in extending the reach and sustainability of SGBV programs. EngenderHealth is committed to gender-transformative approaches, including engaging men and boys for creating and sustaining enabling environments, for true, long-term change. Sexual and gender-based violence isn’t an event isolated in time, location, or circumstance—we all play a role in responding to and preventing SGBV. Please share this post to spread awareness of SGBV and to show the changes that can be made when communities and individuals challenge harmful beliefs and practices.

We would love to hear from you! What gender norms do you see having an impact on health? Share your thoughts on Twitter and tag us @EngenderHealth.