In many of the conflicts of the last decades – from Afghanistan to Somalia, from the Balkans to the Democratic Republic of the Congo – violence against women has reached horrific proportions and constitutes the most difficult challenge confronting the relief community.
This violence manifests itself in different ways. It may be committed by a husband now forced by a war to live as a refugee. He has lost his traditional role as provider for his family and takes out his frustrations by assaulting his wife and refusing to allow her to leave their home. It may be committed by groups who have gained power in an area and intimidate and attack women who refuse to comply with moral rules they have imposed. It is increasingly committed by armed groups using systematic sexual abuse as a tactic of war, often aimed at humiliating specific ethnic groups.
Over recent years efforts have been made to better identify the survivors of such violence and provide succor, psychological and legal counseling and medical treatment when warranted. These efforts must be better resourced, more systematically addressed and certainly deployed much earlier in conflict situations. But for too long the responsibility for trying to ensure that these programs are in place has fallen almost exclusively to women. Gender-based violence (GBV) has been seen as a "women's issue", the GBV program staff and advocates are overwhelmingly female, and women have borne the brunt of trying to figure out how to prevent and respond to this huge problem. Men remain dramatically absent from this dialogue. This must change if we are genuine in our desire to stem this revolting trend in human rights abuses.
This trend will only be turned around if preventative work is done with potential perpetrators of violence against women. And much of this work with men and boys needs to be carried out by men to be most effective. For example, in Latin America men have set up local organizations that raise awareness about violence against women. They are challenging other men to question the idea that masculinity means violent behavior and are acting as positive role models for men and boys. These types of community-level programs are essential, as are programs that work with soldiers and armed groups to raise awareness about criminal laws that will be applied if they abuse women, and about the severe impacts this violence has on women's lives and on their children's lives.
Some fear that such focus would divert scant resources from the immediate needs of women, and this should of course not happen. But additional funding must be secured for preventive work which remains barely addressed. Refugees International continues to advocate for effective GBV prevention programs and to argue that men must step up to the plate and work with women in a much more engaged and dynamic manner than has been the case.
As sons, brothers, husbands and fathers, all men have a fundamental responsibility to work to ensure that the rights of all women and girls are respected. This means that male humanitarian agency heads, male peacekeepers, and male program officers working in all sectors of relief must feel a personal responsibility to identify factors leading to violence against women and to remedy these through their own work.
More generally of course, as all attitudes are forged at home, it is through their conduct, voice and vote, that men, working side-by-side with women will ensure that women's place in society is respected and upheld. It is time that our political and religious leaders, community and civic leaders, business leaders, athletes and entertainers -– indeed all men in society -- come to understand the important role they must play in reducing gender-based violence. As a father I know we all need to teach our sons and daughters about the importance of respecting themselves and about their rights and their responsibilities. We must also teach them the responsibility to respect and uphold the rights of others. Violence against women is not acceptable; it is a criminal act that deserves punishment.
Men of my generation must be role models in how we treat women and support efforts to see that laws prohibiting such crimes are enforced. We must urge the institutions to which we belong to do more to educate and change attitudes that downplay the significance or the impact of crimes of violence against women. We must see that the language we use, and the way we behave at work and play, conveys our commitment to respecting and upholding the rights of women. When men accept this responsibility and work with women to change these attitudes and practices, our homes and our communities will be healthier places.