Commentary: More Needed to Prevent Violence

Article Date

08 December 2010

Article Author

By Mary Ellsberg

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

We’ve learned many lessons over two decades of sustained effort to draw international attention to gender-based violence as a serious human rights, public health and development issue. But perhaps the most important one is that transforming laws and policies to provide women access to justice and protection from violence is only a first step to reducing gender-based violence globally. We need much greater investments, both in developing and testing innovative approaches for preventing violence. And we must find ways to expand programs proven to work.

An activist with the Uganda-based SASA

An activist (center) with the Uganda-based SASA! program engages a group of men in a discussion about what causes violence in a family. Photo: ©Mary Ellsberg/ICRW

The social change needed to prevent violence against women requires long-term, systematic engagement of communities, institutions and decision-makers. More than 25 years of experience in the field has shown us that individual “awareness-raising” workshops or campaigns are rarely effective in changing people’s attitudes or behavior. And although gender-based violence prevention is still an emerging field, we have many strong examples of innovative programs that show promising results in changing social norms.  

One such program was developed by the Uganda-based organization Raising Voices and is called “SASA!” Taking place in at least 10 African countries, SASA! emphasizes prevention by focusing on the benefits of non-violence and gender equity to both men and women. It also supports a deeper analysis of the impact of violence and the underlying causes of gender inequality. For instance, SASA! addresses how violence not only hurts women, but also reduces trust and respect among family members. And the program stresses that violence doesn’t arise out of anger, but because of an imbalance of power between men and women in a family.

Another pioneering approach uses entertainment to raise awareness on important social issues, including violence against women. Internationally, this type of work is known as “education entertainment” or “edutainment.” Evaluations of internationally-acclaimed edutainment programs, such as the award winning “Sexto Sentido,” a Central American soap opera that addresses violence, stigma and HIV through the experiences of a group of Nicaraguan young men and women.  Another example is the acclaimed “Bel Bajao” campaign in India. TV campaigns for Bel Bajao, which means “ring the bell,” urge men and boys to take action against domestic violence in their communities. Both efforts have shown that multimedia programs can help transform attitudes toward gender and violence. They achieve this by providing role models with which audiences can identify who are dealing with everyday problems in new ways. 

Prevention programs and policies over the years also have taught us that women alone cannot end gender-based violence. It’s critical that we engage men and boys as allies in the effort. And again, we have examples of innovative approaches to this, including “Program H,” developed by the Brazilian non-governmental organization, Promundo; or the “One Man Can Campaign” of the Sonke Gender Justice Center in South Africa. These efforts involve men and boys in open discussions about violence and masculinity. They also encourage them to develop new ways of relating with women and girls based on solidarity, cooperation and fairness rather than domination and control.  

Although there is no “one size fits all” solution for ending gender-based violence, these programs have shown that individuals and communities can change and that improving gender equality is an essential part of preventing violence.

What’s required now is sustained political commitment and resources to act on these lessons.

Mary Ellsberg is the vice president of research and programs at ICRW.