"If your wife or girlfriend doesn't want to have sex, it is okay to force her to do it."
My colleague is reading out a series of declarative statements. We have asked the men in our training group — approximately 20 of them, ranging in age from early 20s to late 50s — to express their agreement or disagreement with each statement by moving to one or the other side of the room.
Go to the left to indicate, "I agree," we tell them. Go to the right to say, "I don't agree." This exercise is meant to assess the men's attitudes regarding gender-based violence.
I am in rural Liberia, helping to lead a training of local male activists on engaging men to prevent violence against women. I work for a large non-governmental organization based in New York City.
In a month's time, I will co-lead the same training across the border in Sierra Leone, which, like Liberia, experienced a protracted civil war. While Liberia and Sierra Leone are now mostly peaceful nations, high levels of gender-based violence, particularly of domestic violence, continue to destroy communities from within.
Before I arrived in Liberia and Sierra Leone, colleagues at my organization wrote a curriculum with several weeks' worth of directed discussions around topics in ending violence against women. Now we had to train these local activists to bring the curriculum to their communities. But first we needed to challenge the activists' own attitudes about gender.
"If your wife or girlfriend doesn't want to have sex, it is okay to force her to do it," my colleague reads aloud again, and the men begin to move. Some move tentatively, some walk more boldly, and in the end about half stand on the left, declaring that they agree with the statement.
"Next statement," my colleague says. "It is not possible to rape a sex worker. Because she is a sex worker she has already given her consent." A couple more of the men head to the left, where several others have remained.
"Women often lie about being raped," my colleague reads out. Some men move to the right, but the majority remains on the left. They agree with the statement.
I do my best to maintain a poker face, but internally I am horrified and sad. Over the past few hours I have had pleasant conversations with many of these men and learned about their wives, their children, their jobs. Now I was baldly faced with their beliefs and attitudes around women, violence, and gender roles.
Engaging men to prevent violence against women has become a veritable trend in the international aid world. This is definite progress: Too many previous programs have placed the responsibility on women themselves to end gender-based violence. A truly feminist intervention recognizes that society must change, and more broadly, that the patriarchy must be dismantled. And since men commit the overwhelming majority of violent acts against women, men must be challenged to change their most entrenched beliefs about gender. Even further, men must actualize that change in their daily lives and most intimate relationships.
Male involvement to end gender-based violence can yield considerably positive results — if it is conceived and implemented through this explicitly feminist, woman-centered approach. Otherwise, male involvement can become just another arena for men to dominate resources and funding, or even worse, reinforce sexist fantasies about "protecting" women against violence. Moreover, it is not enough for men to carry signs that say "Stop Rape" or "I Respect Women" — in my experience, some of the same men will later go home and beat their wives.
As we imparted in our trainings in Liberia and Sierra Leone, genuine change occurs slowly and incrementally, in the most banal of circumstances and with the smallest acts: fetching water for the family; making tea for one's spouse; changing a baby's diaper; allowing a woman to refuse or dictate the terms of sex; discussing family planning options with your wife or girlfriend.
During the training with the Liberian men, one of the most poignant discussions was about experiences of humiliation. After working together for several days, the group had built enough trust to share personal moments of powerlessness. Many of the men talked about incidents during wartime, and relayed stories of violence perpetrated against them. The link was then made to the experiences of women, to their daily struggles with domestic violence, rape, and sexual harassment.
Months later, I returned to Liberia and Sierra Leone to evaluate the first test run of the curriculum. The stories that I heard from the men instilled more hope in me than I had felt in years.
One story in particular stood out: a Sierra Leonean man told the group that his wife had often cried during sex, and that until he had joined the discussion group, he never understood why. One day, after a curriculum session, he said, "I went to my wife and held her feet, and asked her for her forgiveness. I told her that I was wrong." And there it was: One man at a time, living the change.