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Key considerations for engaging men and boys as a prevention strategy

12th April 2019


Dr. Gary Barker, Founder and CEO, Promundo, Brazil and Washington, DC, USA

Attitudes and behaviors that can exacerbate the risk for or facilitate acts of sexual violence against adolescents and children are grounded in broad social norms that accept gender-based violence, violence against women and children, violence more generally, as well as the broader implications of patriarchal social values.

Norms can vary significantly depending on geography, social group, or other factors. However, some of the norms that perpetuate sexual violence against children and adolescents are universal in nature. These include the following:

Norms that limit disclosure of sexual violence:

  • Sexual violence is shameful.
  • For girls: Experiencing sexual violence decreases a girl’s value and desirability.
  • For boys: Men cannot be victims of sexual violence — it makes them less manly.
  • Victims of sexual violence caused or incited the violence.
  • People don’t talk about sexual violence.
  • Children lie and cannot be believed.
  • Family matters are private, and family members should not disclose them.
  • Community matters are private, and community members should not disclose them.

Norms that increase acceptance of violence:

  • Women/girls do not challenge a husband’s/intimate partner’s behavior.
  • Children do not challenge a parent’s or an adult’s behavior.

Norms that limit intervention to stop violence:

  • Family/intimate relationship matters are private; others should not intervene.
  • Community matters are private; others should not intervene.

Norms that increase prevalence of sexual violence:

  • Men’s sexual urges cannot be controlled.
  • Women should not desire or refuse sex.

A growing field of engaging men and boys in gender-based and sexual violence prevention has emerged in the past 20 years. Gender norms and gender power imbalances mean that girls and women are more frequently the victims of sexual violence, even as studies have confirmed that boys are also victims and that boys’ experiences of sexual violence may be even less likely to be reported in some settings than sexual violence against girls.

Research also affirms that the majority of perpetrators of sexual violence against girls and boys are men or boys. As work with men and boys in violence prevention expands, there are some key considerations:

Programs engaging men and boys for sexual violence prevention should be accountable to women’s rights principles and dialogue with key women’s rights partners that have long worked to advocate and build the evidence base on ending violence against women. See the MenEngage accountability principles.

Programs engaging men and boys in violence prevention should be gender transformative; that is, the program should not simply enjoin men and boys to intervene when they see violence or teach boys that “violence is wrong” but to question norms related to masculinity. See WHO's review of the evidence base of gender-transformative programs with men and boys.

Some programs in sexual violence prevention with men and boys include only men and boys; others include women and girls together with men and boys. Evidence finds that both approaches can work when they include a clear focus on rights, when they carry out appropriate formative research on salient norms, and when they keep a focus on questioning power. For more information, see ICRW's publication on male engagement.

Social norms change with men and boys related to sexual violence should not reinforce negative or inequitable manhood. For example, saying that “real men don’t buy sex” can inadvertently reinforce the idea that there is such a thing as a “real man,” a social norm that can also, for example, promote homophobia.

Programs engaging men and boys in prevention should recognize their own victimization. This in no way excuses any man’s use of violence but rather confirms that one of the largest drivers of men’s use of sexual violence against women and girls (and against other men and boys) is men’s own childhood experiences of being a survivor of sexual violence. Psychosocial programs and group education that acknowledge men’s potential survivorship of sexual violence can be important components of breaking the cycle of violence and of effective healing work with survivors and accountability processes for perpetrators.

Interventions that challenge social norms broadly target problematic attitudes as a way to influence behavior change and raise awareness about sexual violence against children that enables children to tell someone and get help. These programs include national awareness raising campaigns, working with men and boys, and community mobilization programs.

There are also lessons to be learned from prevention programs that target late adolescence and young adults. There has been an emphasis on engaging men specifically in sexual violence and abuse prevention initiatives, based largely on early evidence that highlights the importance of men in influencing one another’s behavior.

Interventions to address and change social norms and attitudes can be some of the most challenging to undertake in the face of entrenched beliefs, biases, and traditional views. It can also take significant time to shift attitudes within a community or society.