Engaging the elephant in the room

Feedback on the Meeting : “Engaging the Elephant in the Room: Facilitating a feminist way forward for women and men to work together on violence against women”. 17th September, SVRI Forum 2015, Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Many thanks to all of you who took time out of the busy SVRI Forum 2015 programme to discuss issues around programmes engaging men to address violence against women.  The purpose of the event was to move the conversations out of the corridors, address concerns that little time was afforded to debate the issue within the Forum programme and to provide a safe, reflective (but sadly extremely time limited) space to further and facilitate productive conversations on the issue.

In hosting this short meeting, the SVRI does not itself hold a shared vision or stance on this issue and recognises that this conversation was likely to be a discussion involving diverse people who care deeply about and are actively engaged in work on gender equality and the prevention of violence against women.  Further, we note that this is not a new, nor unique conversation and this meeting and meeting summary is not aimed at forging recommendations or build consensus on a topic on which many of us hold varying views, and disparate perspectives. 

At the meeting we were asked to share why we attended and air concerns raised throughout the Forum around the burgeoning field of engaging men in violence against women. It seemed clear from the responses that while some people have been engaged in discussions about this topic for several years, others were coming to an open discussion about this for the first time. A few participants came to the discussion specifically to find out what the “elephant” was.

Many issues were raised, and this summary does not claim to capture the depth and breadth of all that was discussed, but rather aims to provide a flavour of the discussion and of the types of issues and concerns raised. In sending this out, we hope to contribute to keeping the discussion alive among those who want to further engage.

Some observations and perceptions that emerged from our brief discussion included:

  • There is a need for more spaces, opportunities and avenues to have open and frank dialogue on the issue.
     
  • There is a lack of consensus around what “the issue” is:
    • Some people want a deeper discussion about what “engaging men and boys” means and what men’s engagement and protagonism is or should be around violence against women and around gender justice more broadly. In some cases it is the means to an end, and in some programmes it seems to be the end in itself.
    • Some perceived resistance - and even censure - to research with men and/or on masculinities, even when undertaken by women researchers. 
    • Some want to talk about the “how” of engaging men and boys; that is, the practical issues related to programming – how it is being conceived, how it is being carried out in practice, issues of quality control, etc. 
    • Some want to talk about coordination of agendas and approaches to assure complementarity and accountability.
    • Some want to talk about issues related to funding and funding trend and about how issues are framed
  • There were several comments about funding trends. A couple of people mentioned their perception that funding flows for “engaging men and boys” have reduced/substituted funding from work with women. Others felt that it wasn’t clear to what extent funding flows have shifted and that this might be more due to the trend toward funding primary prevention vs.  services/response.  In their opinion, the work with men - much of which is in the primary prevention field – is benefiting from that trend, at the expense of working with women on prevention, and to the expense of other kinds of efforts to support women who are experiencing violence.
     
  • With regards to the above points, there were a couple of proposals for research that could/should be carried out:
    • One is to research to what extent the work with men is actually contributing to a reduction of violence against women, which some consider could be a useful benchmark for evaluating the relevance of this kind of work.
    • Another is to look at funding flows and engage donors on where money is being spent and why - and to analyse the implications for the field, for example: 1) amount of funding going to primary prevention vs. secondary and tertiary prevention vs. services, policy, etc.; and 2) amount of funds going to women’s organizations/work with women (and/or mixed groups) vs. work specifically with men, and how that’s changed over the last several years. To our knowledge, there is no definitive analysis of these funding flows, which points to the need for research on this topic. The SVRI could potentially play a role in stimulating this kind of research.
    • Alluded to in the discussion was the suggestion that men experience IPV and SV at similar levels to women. This suggestion has implications for both programmatic work with men and boys (and funding) and increased calls for work with men survivors of IPV and SV. This potentially highlights a need for more research with adequate methodologies to assess the levels of IPV and SV to which men might be exposed.
    • Several participants noted that their work to engage men was in fact born out of their work with women and is integrated with it. But others pointed out it was not always the case that the two are integrated or synergistic. More could be done to highlight and study programming with women and men, in gender transformational and synchronised approaches.

Further, colleagues from the floor reminded us that we operate and work in a deeply gendered and sexist world, that violence against women by men is rooted in patriarchy, and that we all must continue to strive to unlearn patriarchy and to transform both ourselves, our programmes and our institutions.  We were also encouraged to be patient with each other, to listen to differing points of view and be open to learn from one another.

Colleagues from the MenEngage Alliance pointed out that the Alliance is and can be an important partner for continuing this conversation. They explained that a key priority for the MenEngage Alliance, which was founded with the objective of facilitating dialogue with the historical women’s rights field, is to widely disseminate its accountability principles with the goal of enhancing and defining a pro-feminist operating base among NGOs working with men who call themselves MenEngage members.

This is part of the agenda of increasing the overall evidence base on violence prevention interventions. The meeting provided little time for discussion, or space to unpack observations or issues raised. We would therefore like to ask you to think more about what you want to see emerge from this discussion (if anything), and if or how the SVRI has a role to play.  We ourselves don’t know the answer to this, but some of you did give us suggestions at the session.  SVRIs core mandate is to promote the use of research for improved response and prevention of sexual violence, with a special focus on low and middle income countries.  We will continue to promote research on interventions that attempt to transform masculinities to test their effectiveness. One suggestion on how to take this discussion forward was to create a listserv, starting with the people who attended the session and others who expressed interest, so that the discussion could continue that way. This summary could be a beginning point for such a discussion, and we encourage the use of this email listserv and other avenues available to you to discuss ways of taking this further.  We also ask you to please review who this email has been sent to and forward it to colleagues we may have inadvertently omitted or folk who might also be interested in ‘engaging the elephant’.

We also ask you to consider:

  • What are some priority research questions for understanding men’s roles and responsibilities in the field of addressing violence against women? Challenges, opportunities, strengths and weaknesses? 
  • How do we maintain a balance in response and prevention efforts and ensure that prevention is about addressing social norms beyond just men engaging in the field of VAW?
  • What next?

Thank you all again for your attendance and participation in this meeting, and a very big thanks to Amy Bank and James Lang for volunteering their excellent facilitation skills to ensuring this discussion happened – we look forward to more discussion and sharing of ideas to build a shared understanding on how we can work together on engaging men strategies in violence against women work.

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