Men, violence against women, and the pandemic

William McInerney, May 25, 2020

Responding to the compounded crisis of increased violence and decreased violence prevention during COVID-19

Nomisha Kurian brought forward a vital issue in her previous post for this blog series – the rise of violence against women and children during the COVID-19 pandemic. A recent report from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that COVID-19 could lead to tens of millions of cases of violence against women around the world. The report projects a 20% increase world-wide, resulting in approximately 15 million additional cases for every 3 months of lockdown. This substantial increase is on top of the high levels of violence – one-in-three women affected world-wide – that existed before the pandemic.

In addition to the current spike in cases of violence against women, the UNFPA report also cautions COVID-19 could have further negative impacts that ‘critically undermine progress’ on global efforts to address violence against women in the long-run. Gender violence prevention programs, which seek to stop violence before it happens by addressing its causes and contexts, are currently being paused, reduced, and canceled around the world. We are in a compounded crisis – violence against women is increasing and violence prevention efforts are decreasing. The combination of these two could lead to more violence now and more violence in the future.

As an educator who teaches and researches gender violence prevention programs, I have seen these trends first-hand. Most of the prevention programs I work with have shut down all in-person work in the lockdown context. While these organisations are increasing efforts through various remote and digital platforms, replacing some of the essential components of face-to-face work will not be simple, easy, or in many cases, possible. Various prevention organisations now find themselves in precarious positions in regard to funding, staffing, access to participants, and ultimately, their own long-term viability.

What can we do in the face of this compounded crisis? How can we stem the rise of violence and help prevention work continue in these complex and uncertain times? In her post, Nomisha brought forward a range of ideas grounded in care and a critical understanding of wellbeing. Her work and writing inspires me to reflect, increase my own efforts, and to share an additional suggestion drawn from my research and practice here.

One key thing we may need in this moment of strained social support systems and decreased organizational violence prevention efforts is more people – more people listening and learning about this issue; more people raising awareness; more people supporting local, national, and global organizations with donations and volunteering; more people working to transform their own communities, workplaces, and relationships; more people deconstructing and reimagining our cultural and structural patriarchal foundations; and more people looking within with an eye towards reflexivity, criticality, and accountability.

Historically, the list of work described above has largely been done by women and gender non-conforming folks. Thanks to their insightful and courageous leadership, incredible gains have been made over the years. In this time of crisis, we again turn to their leadership and experience as the guiding light of our efforts. But an illumination of this work also reveals who is typically not involved. Despite the urgency of this problem and the increased global attention, men have tended to be disproportionately silent and absent from these efforts. While a small group of anti-sexist and pro-feminist men have supported these efforts, a lot of men tend to perceive violence against women, and gender violence work as a whole, as a ‘women’s issue’ – one that does not involve them.

Folks like myself, and CPERG colleague Tim Archer, work to question and challenge these dynamics by directly engaging boys and men in gender violence prevention and peace work. In this time of crisis there is a need to engage, mobilise, and organise more people. And perhaps, now more than ever, there is a need for critical and reflexive work that holds men accountable, engages their intersectional perspectives, and encourages them to join women and folks of all genders in addressing this urgent, pervasive, and systemic problem.

So, how do we get more men involved and accountable? How do we encourage men to consider violence against women, what Jackson Katz calls, a ‘men’s issue’ too? A lot of work and research has been done exploring this question over the past few decades. In Michael Flood’s recent book, Engaging Boys and Men in Violence Prevention, he synthesizes a wealth of Feminist, Public Health, and Sociological research on the topic and outlines some of the core arguments practitioners and scholars use when addressing why men should be involved.

(This list is not intended to be exhaustive and is drawn from Flood 2019, p.147)

Scholars like Katz and Flood argue that most men do not commit direct acts of violence against women in its most blunt forms. But a lot of men do, and far too many men stand by in complicity and silence. Furthermore and importantly, scholars like Katz and Flood argue that all men can and should play a proactive role in working to end this violence by helping to address other men’s violence, looking critically and reflexively within about their own attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, and working to dismantle the sexist structural and cultural arrangements embedded into our societies. As bell hooks notes, men can become ‘disloyal to patriarchy’ and join women and folks of all genders to reduce and eliminate this violence.

As we face the simultaneous challenges of violence against women and COVID-19, we see increases in violence against women and potential decreases in violence prevention efforts. In this compounded crisis, we need more support and more folks working to address this issue. First and foremost, the most vital way to do that is to continue to directly support women and women’s organizations that specialize on this issue. Another complementary way may be to use this time of crisis to engage those who have often by absent by encouraging men and boys to join, listen to, learn from, and follow women’s expertise, experience, and leadership in efforts to address this violence on personal, cultural, and structural levels. Of course, engaging men in this work is not without its own problems, challenges and risks. This is another (large and essential) conversation in itself. But it’s important to note here that when it comes to engaging men in preventing violence against women there is a need to balance transformative optimism with reflexivity, criticality, and high standards of accountability.

As we navigate these uncertain times of increased violence and decreased violence prevention, men should join efforts to end violence against women because: the problem is urgent, severe, and pervasive; because this violence is largely committed by men and driven by patriarchal gender relations and norms; because working to end any and all violence is the right thing to do; and because as was outlined above – violence against women is a men’s issue too.

William McInerney is a PhD candidate and Gates Cambridge Scholar researching creative approaches to engaging men in violence prevention and conflict transformation. William currently serves as co-chair of CPERG.

This post is a part of CPERG’s Peace, Praxis, and the Pandemic blog series. We encourage you to join the conversation by responding in the comments section below. For more blog posts in this series click here.