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African Men Try Leading the Fight to Stop Sexual Violence

by Jillian Keenan December 10, 2019

This article was originally published in Foreign Policy

When SP le Roux began to think about the sexual violence epidemic in his home country of South Africa, he put his background as an electrical engineer and inventor to work. The first invention le Roux ever made was a collar that learns the normal behaviors of endangered rhinoceroses and alerts anti-poaching officials when it detects signs of stress. It was designed to give endangered rhinoceroses a way to fight back against the poachers that threaten their survival.

Could the same technology be repurposed to protect women, too? With that mission in mind, le Roux designed high-tech underwear for women that, he hopes, can detect distress—attempts to rip the garment off, for instance—and automatically alert law enforcement.

The invention may seem odd, but the inventor represents an increasingly common trend: Le Roux is just one of many men across the continent who have turned their attention to violence against women. It’s in direct response to a problem that is growing so large as to be undeniable: South African police recorded an average of 114 rapes each day between April 2018 and this March—a frightening increase from previous years.

In Uganda, police officers and boda (motorcycle taxi) drivers have teamed up to form “safe ride,” a campaign to end violence against women in Kampala’s transport sector. And in October, more than a thousand police officers—mostly male—took to the streets of Pretoria, South Africa, to protest the spike in violence against women, holding signs with messages such as: “When you abuse a woman, you stop being a man.”

The conversation about engaging men and boys in the fight for gender equality got global attention in 2014, when the United Nations launched its He for She campaign in New York. But African activists say the strategy shift is particularly important close to home.

“In African contexts, there are cultural issues at play—men don’t want to be seen as ‘weak people,’” said Elias Muindi, a program officer for the Kenya MenEngage Alliance.

After Muindi’s older sister was murdered by her husband in 1997, Muindi co-founded the Margaret Wanzuu Foundation to fight gender-based violence. Today, Muindi says, his foundation is one of the 16 organizations that make up the Kenya branch of the MenEngage Alliance, a global network that works with men and boys for gender quality. “When men talk to other men, they can open up and share issues affecting them,” he said.

According to Muindi, economic hardship is one of the issues that most often affects men who are at risk for committing acts of gender-based violence. Sometimes giving basic financial support—a small business loan or a few household staples—to men and families in need, Muindi said, is all it takes to decrease the risk of violence. What Muindi outlined is supported by evidence: This year, researchers from the National Bureau of Economic Research released a paper analyzing the effects of unconditional cash transfers on households in western Kenya. One year after the cash transfer, researchers found, rates of physical and sexual violence in study households had fallen dramatically: When women received the money, rates of beatings fell by 73 percent. But when the men received the money, rates of beatings fell by a staggering 82 percent.

“It’s a new era, it’s a new strategy,” Muindi said. “We’re not bashing men—we engage men in a positive way. We affirm that men and boys can change and can create change.”

Increasingly, men around the world agree with this philosophy. Earlier this year, a study by British market research company Ipsos MORI, in collaboration with the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London, found that a majority of men worldwide (three in five, or 61 percent), agreed that gender equality won’t be possible unless “men take actions to support women’s rights.”

But elevating male voices in the fight for gender equality is tricky.

Even the best intentions can backfire, reinforcing gender norms in which men’s perspectives are disproportionately valued. In Zambia, a report in Pacific Standard found, “bringing together men to talk about sexual violence had the unintentional impact of granting participants a sense of authority — and the effects were damning. The men, who reinforced their patriarchal attitudes about women as a result of these male-only spaces, felt encouraged to tell women how they should act, dress, and behave to avoid rape.”

There are other risks, too. Izeduwa Derex-Briggs, UN Women’s regional director for eastern and southern Africa, said the shift toward including men in the fight for gender equality has both pros and cons. “The majority of perpetrators [of violence against women] are men, and therefore men should be part of the solution,” Derex-Briggs said. “And men working for women has attracted interest from donors. But—and there is no data to validate this—I’ve found that women-led and women-owned NGOs are not getting as many resources as they did before. Now, those resources are going to NGOs owned by men. In some cases, those men used to work for women-led NGOs. Now they’ve started their own organizations, and they’re getting the grant money instead.” (Derex-Briggs said she is not aware of any watchdog groups that track donations to nongovernmental organizations on the basis of sex.)

And there’s traditional resistance. In 2007, then-Kenyan Member of Parliament Njoki Ndungu described the challenge of convincing male-dominated parliaments to take women’s issues seriously: “The motion to amend the sexual violence act had been introduced several times since independence and failed,” said Ndungu, who now serves on the Kenyan Supreme Court. “Each time, it was seen by the male members of parliament as giving too much power to women.” Kenya’s anti-sexual violence law only passed after certain sections, such as the one that would have criminalized spousal rape, were removed.

But despite these problems, most African gender equality activists agree that any sustainable solution to gender-based violence will involve men.

“Before, we used to focus on the victims without really resolving the problem,” said Aloys Mahwa, the country director for the Living Peace Institute, an NGO that targets male ex-combatants in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “It’s strong capital to use men to speak to other men. When we target men, we target the root cause of violence.”

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