#MeToo has brought the subject of sexual harassment and abuse of women and girls to the public consciousness in a way never seen before. Having worked at the community level supporting the rights of women and girls for more than 20 years, the stories coming out of the #MeToo movement are all too familiar to me. Sexual harassment and violence against women is a pervasive issue and the global phenomenon of women speaking out everywhere shows that no society is immune.
The #MeToo movement has proven relevant in all societies and in all contexts—regardless of wealth, class, age, race, sexuality or education level—because abuse is invariably about control. In Kenya, as in most countries, men hold the preponderance of power virtually everywhere— in families, communities, workplaces, institutions and politics. The reality of this power imbalance means that men are the main perpetrators of violence against women and girls, as well as boys and other men.
Shifting the Focus
Rape, harassment, domestic violence and other forms of abuse, when used against women by men, is broadly referred to as “gender-based violence.” It is a useful term for talking about violence against women, it is also a misleading term. Gender-based violence or GBV is viewed as a women’s issue. The word itself “gender” is synonymous with “women” and using the term gender inadvertently erases the role of men from the issue.
Transforming Gender Norms
A big part of what we are trying to do by engaging men and boys is to transform deeply ingrained gender norms. We are asking these men to look at the social construction of masculinity—the beliefs, attitudes and messages that are being reinforced in their communities—and to challenge traditional definitions of manhood. In a highly patriarchal society like Kenya, women have vastly less social, economic and political status than men. As a result men largely listen to and are influenced by other men. That is why we must recruit and train individual men to change their beliefs and behaviors so we can instill those same changes in the wider community.
Men and Women Working Together to End GBV
Women’s equality has been slow to gain ground in Kenya. Many communities are still patriarchal and conservative, with women having little to no authority over their lives. To combat GBV, we need to empower women and girls socially, economically and psychologically to live lives free of violence. And while the advocacy and action of women is paramount in changing societal attitudes and securing true gender equality, men and boys also have a critical role to play.