On August 1 Kenyans woke to a video of a man beating his young wife. There was a national outcry culminating in the Director of Public Prosecutions ordering the arrest of the man and the bystanders who took the video.
This was not an isolated case. On the same day, in another part of Kenya, a man chopped off his wife’s hand when she accused him of infidelity. Another man was jailed for 20 years for shooting dead a woman who refused to go on a date with him.
Why would men feel such an entitlement to women to the extent of inflicting pain on their bodies and even killing them? The World Health Organization has declared violence against women and girls a global public health problem due to the adverse impact it has on their physical, mental and reproductive health.
Eliminating violence against women and girls must start with men. While there have been many reasons given for gender-based violence, including alcohol and drug abuse, the key reason is that in a patriarchal society, men feel they have rights and power over women, including over their bodies.
Cases abound where women are blamed for violence against them. In the case of the video, what was very illustrative were the comments made by the spectators and on social media after it was posted. While many commentators asked for the arrest of the man, others wondered what she had done to deserve such a beating. She must have done something to provoke the man, they argued. The reasoning behind this argument is that a man is justified to beat a woman depending on what she has done. This is so engrained in society that research shows that in some instances, even women say they deserve to be beaten for their actions.
A patriarchal society depends on the dominance of men over women. This has been socialised in men and in how boys are brought up. If you cannot ‘manage’ your wife, you are seen as weak. A ‘real’ man is defined by toughness and how much control they have over their wives. We see this patriarchy manifested in other ways, including women’s lack of property rights, especially ownership rights over land and skewed decision-making towards men within the family.
Society must see GBV not only as a women’s issue but a men’s issue first and foremost. First, men must call out GBV as unacceptable. There are examples of this working. In Rwanda, for instance, a programme on positive male masculinity run by the Rwanda Men’s Resource Centre focuses on sensitising men towards gender equality by challenging traditionally held notions on the place of men and women in society.
Graduates of the programme have formed a network that sensitises other men and equips them to be champions of change. Results of the programme have shown that 96 per cent of attendees show an understanding of the need to re-examine notions of masculinity, while 78 per cent recognise that violence towards women will harm their marital life and undermine the welfare of their families.
Second, we must change the way in which boys are socialised to be men. Being socialised to be tough and that showing empathy or emotion is unmanly leads to toxic masculinity, often manifested in behaviour such as demeaning women. We need to redefine what it means to be a real man. It is one who is empathetic, cares about other people and respects women and girls.
Finally, men need to see all women as human beings deserving of respect and dignity, whether they are related to them or not. I am often surprised by how many men say now that they have daughters, they are more aware about the discrimination and violence meted out to women and girls and they would not like to see this happen to their daughters. One of the comments on the video asked what the man would feel if this was done to his daughter. Women should not have to be their daughters to deserve being treated with dignity.
The efforts to eliminate violence against women and girls should not be seen as an attempt to pre-empt the fact that violence against men does happen. Instead, it is a recognition of the more prevalent, pervasive and systemic violence against women and girls, which men must help end.
Senior programme specialist, Canada’s International Development Research Centre and an Aspen New Voices Fellow.