Male engagement in responses to violence against women and girls: A young feminist’s introspection.

by Anne Mugo

Anger is feminist currency. When I first read those words from Egyptian feminist writer Mona Eltahawy, I felt seen. It felt to me as an acknowledgement of an emotion that most of us associate with shame, something out of character. In all honesty, anger is just your brain communicating to you that you do not like something, that it hurts and it’s your responsibility to express it to others. Why then, are we so afraid to feel it? Mona went even further, telling us that anger for feminists is not only justified, but a driving force. It is not the only thing we need, but we must be honest with ourselves not to ignore it. You have to be uncomfortable with something to want to change it.

In a world where women and girls in their diversity are violated in more ways than I can mention, I am uncomfortable and angry about a lot of things. It’s a driving force into the work I do, individually and in community, to end gender-based violence. In my own way, I am self-healing and creating space for my younger self to do and say things I couldn’t while growing up, yet nobody said this work was going to be easy or even welcome. Who I am and how I do what I do is a culmination of my experiences, interactions, education, thoughts and every-day deeds, all woven into this 27-year old soul. It’s impossible not to bring my own biases into this work, all I can do is commit and hope to use them as fuel to contribute towards a better system for us all. Patriarchy knows no gender after all.

At Positive Young Women Voices, one of the initiatives we run to end gender-based violence in our community is trainings on violence against women and girls. While we initially focused these trainings on women and girls, our research and community interactions taught us that while this is critical and translates into us building the capacities of these girls and women to take charge of their agency, it was not holistic. Within the safe spaces we created in the trainings with young women, the power dynamics are balanced, and participants often share freely and express their distaste and anger at all the ways women and girls are violated every day. Out of these spaces however, during outreaches and forums with both men and women, men take charge of these conversations while girls are often left defending their positions, justifying their hurt and their anger. This is not to present this contrast to be the result of malice on young men’s part or even weakness on the part of young women, but rather to interrogate the pros and cons of male engagement in response to gender-based violence that very disproportionately affects women and girls.

I fully believe in the principle of leaving no one behind. UN women estimates that about 30% of women, approximately one in three, have been victims of either physical, sexual and/or economic violence at one point their lives. These violations often happen within intimate partner relationships, while others are experienced in work environments. These numbers do not even reflect the true impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has forced us to confront who we are as people and exposed the rot that is domestic violence in homes all over the world. UN women also states that 81,000 women were killed in 2020, with 48,000 (58 % of this number) dying at the hands of their male intimate partners or family members. Moreover, violence against women and girls (VAWG) is today recognized as a public health issue, evident from the links between intimate partner violence and HIV. There is no shortage of new cases of HIV among women and girls as a result of sexual violence. Women and girls experiencing violence in marginalized settings are more likely to engage in unsafe transactional sex. Power dynamics in intimate partner relationships often put women and girls at risk through their inability to negotiate for condom use to prevent them from contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

Women and girls who are living with HIV experience various forms of VAWG including physical abuse, stigma and discrimination or even instances of forced disclosure from their partners or health care providers. The burden of HIV prevention, care and treatment so often falls on women, even when men hold the economic and social capital. Evidently, factors of inequality such as age, HIV status, drug use, sex work, sexual identities, marital status, migrant status and socio-economic status intersect to predispose women and girls in their diversities to violence.  It therefore stands to reason that we cannot end VAWG or even make progress in HIV prevention and treatment without the partnership and allyship of men, who are so often the perpetrators, and thus our rationale for our trainings with young men.

I am born of teachers. Most of my fondest childhood memories involve us engaging in informative debates at the dinner table. My first instinct is to teach, to inform. I enjoy seeing young women recognize the hurt they have experienced and using their voice to denounce practices and norms that are determined to cause them harm. I look forward to debates with young men, to listen to their perspectives and shed light to why we are determined to call them out and demand they do better to make the world better for women and girls. More often than not, these debates are heated and unwelcome, at least on the part of men determined to hold on to a system of life that benefits them and solidifies their position of power over women and girls. Reconciling my need to teach and inform and my anger at a system that views me, and those like me, as half human is an uphill battle and what I find most draining while engaging men in response to gender based violence. It often feels like a distraction in this work, I can be honest about it.

I write this to acknowledge my anger at men who could and can do more to end VAWG but choose not to, those who take up these spaces to distract us all from reimagining and creating a system that dignifies every one of us.  A system that levels the playing field and regards every one with dignity and respect regardless of their gender and sexual identities. A system based on justice and equity. I write this to hold space for us that at times feel discouraged at how slow progress seems to be. I write to acknowledge that what we feel is valid, and that we mustn’t always be calm.

Written by Anne Mugo @MugoAngelah

Follow Positively Young Women Voices @GirlsWomenpower

Peer reviewed by: Martha Tholanah, Lucy Wanjiku Njenga, Luisa Orza, Emma Bell

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