Ending violence against women: start young before it’s too late

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

ICRW was one of 30 civil society organizations selected to address the 57th Commission on the Status of Women at UN headquarters in New York last week. ICRW’s Asia Regional Director Ravi Verma travelled from his home base in New Delhi to make the following presentation on the importance of working with young men and boys to eradicate violence against women and girls:

I want us to think about why we are here today. Why are you here?  I am here today because of the horrific gang rape and consequent death of a twenty-three year-old girl in my city, Delhi, in my country, India. I am also here today because I am a man who cares.  I am a man who is standing strong for gender equality, calling for the end of violence.

Days before the attack on that Delhi bus, my colleagues and I at the International Center for Research on Women concluded a study that found that 95% of women do not feel safe in public spaces of Delhi. 75% said they had faced sexual aggression or violence in their own neighborhoods. Nine out of 10 reported ever experiencing violent acts in public spaces during their lifetime, with these experiences ranging from obscene comments to being groped, stalked or sexually assaulted. Six out of 10 women reported sexual aggression or violence in the six months preceding the survey.

Data from around the world document that an epidemic of violence against women and girls exists.  Findings from ICRW’s survey in Delhi also depict a complex story about what it means to be a man in a strongly patriarchal society.  Half of the men surveyed in Delhi reported having sexually harassed or perpetrating violence against women. 78% had witnessed such aggression or violence in public spaces, but only 15% had intervened. As you may imagine, the reasons for not intervening are diverse and include fear of retaliation.

If we are to eradicate violence against women and girls, then we must recognize that from an early age boys are socialized to adopt prevailing attitudes about gender and are taught how to be men. In other words, men and boys face enormous social pressure to conform to ideals of manhood and to express that ideal in relation to each other and towards women and girls. We could go so far as to say that men and boys often experience violence when not adhering to society’s norms and expectations around masculinity. 

Speaking as a man, I can tell you that the task of becoming a ‘real man’ is daunting.  Failure is not acceptable and retribution is often harsh. Evidence from a six-country study on attitudes toward gender equality conducted by ICRW and Instituto Promundo show that in most cases men are perpetuating violent behaviors they learned as children, perhaps by witnessing violence against their own mother.  Men and boys are not born violent, but are made to be what they are – aggressive, intolerant, controlling.  And they demonstrate these aggressive behaviors across many settings: households, schools, sports fields and even city streets.

While the situation of violence against women and girls is dire, promising solutions are being developed as we speak.  At ICRW we have been working in a large number of public schools in Mumbai testing a gender equality curriculum for middle school students, boys and girls aged 10 to 12. 

At the end of our three study, our evidence shows that carefully directed discussions with students about gender, gender roles and expressions of masculinity over the course of time help transform attitudes on gender equality.  This is particularly true when students are engaged in concrete activities, like a student-led campaign to end violence.  These active, engaging strategies are more effective in reducing tolerance for violence than programs that merely mention violence prevention as an important practice.

Here are the critical lessons: Allow time for attitude change; behavior change will follow. Start young, before a lifetime of attitudes are fully assimilated and harmful behaviors become a lifetime of practice.  Engage boys and girls, men and women, to create comprehensive and sustainable solutions to end violence against women and girl.

Gang rape is not unique to my city, nor to my country.  This is a silent epidemic that has taken too many lives.  As a people, we must critically reflect on violence and manhood and cast gender equality and positive expressions of masculinity as a public good.  As a people, we must radically transform the harmful social norms that underpin this violent epidemic so we may, as a people, create a more equitable, peaceful and just world. I am here today because I stand with you in that quest.