Transforming mentalities: Engaging men and boys to address the root causes of violence against women

A 2013 United Nations Multi-Country Study on Men and Violence reveals that 10% to 62% of all interviewed men reported having raped a woman or girl in their lifetime. In some places, more than 75% of women aged 15 to 24 thinks that there are conditions under which a man has rightful reasons to beat his wife. Socialization processes are intrinsically linked to structural gender inequalities: violence, aggressiveness and sexual entitlement are too often considered as appropriate expressions of “how to act like a man” in different societies.

As the UN Specialized Agency for Education, Culture, Sciences and Information, UNESCO is uniquely placed to support communities worldwide in deconstructing stereotypes and addressing violent patterns of behavior and mentalities. By promoting a lasting change in attitudes and mentalities through education, culture and information, we can help establish the right conditions for men to uphold this cause of social justice, for women to live free of violence, and for communities worldwide to strive towards gender equality for the wellbeing of all.

To mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, UNESCO organized an online high-level roundtable to discuss what it takes to eradicate violent mentalities and behaviours harming women and girls, how to engage men and boys to reject all toxic gender norms and mindsets that lead to gender-based violence, and how to translate this commitment into concrete actions that make a lasting difference.

The opening remarks were addressed by UNESCO Director-General, Audrey Azoulay, and the Prime Minister of Iceland, Katrín Jakobsdóttir.

UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Social and Human Sciences, Gabriela Ramos, opened the discussion to set the agenda of the roundtable. After a few introductory remarks on the harms that toxic gender norms bring to people and societies and the fact that men’s violence is tolerated by the societies, the families, the women suffering from it, she highlighted the positive role that men can play when rejecting negative role models and becoming active catalysts for change. She stressed the importance of taking action through inclusive policymaking with revised education curricula and well-balanced parental leaves. She then asked the speakers and the audience: How would you join forces with UNESCO – and what who you do yourselves – to end this shadow pandemic and create a more peaceful world?

Moderated by Danielle Cliche, Senior Executive Office for Gender Equality at UNESCO, the roundtable also included: Dr Gary Barker – CEO and founder of Promundo; Ms Céline Bonnaire, Executive Director of the Kering Foundation; Dr Julio César González Pagés – Director of the Ibero-American Network of Masculinities; Mr Robert T. Coulter – President and Executive Director; Mr Chris T. Foley – Attorney, Indian Law Resource Centre; and Dr Edit Schlaffer – Founder of Women without Borders.

The panelists insisted on the reality that what we call violence against women is, in fact, overwhelmingly men’s violence against women. It stems from patterns of power and impunity, which requires that States and the civil society need to act together to prevent this type of violation. Research has shown that the men who are most likely to act violently against women are men who have themselves witnessed violence growing up. In this regard, it is necessary to put in place social support for children as well as education on consent and healthy forms of masculinity.

The discussion also focused on the role of media and culture in both propagating and countering harmful stereotypes about masculinities. Culture and the media are crucial in shaping our mentalities and behaviours, which is why institutional change has to be accompanied by a cultural change in order to be sustainable.

In her closing remarks, Gabriela Ramos, launched a Call to Action that is designed to build forward better with legislation and resources that specifically address the issue of violence against women in the new COVID-19 world. The Call to Action is an encouragement and an appeal to scale up our efforts for the elimination of violence against women and take commitments to:

  • Recognize that all forms of violence against women and girls must be priorities on the agenda of the public and private sectors;
  • Strengthen institutions and legal frameworks to criminalize and prosecute this acts in a more effective way.
  • Eliminate harmful stereotypes and cultural norms that allow violence to be tolerated.
  • Leverage the transformative power of education and the sciences to promote peace and respect for diversity and raise awareness on the harm of gender stereotypes for societies;
  • Undertake research and collect data to better understand effective ways of ending violence against women and girls, and use this data to inform policies, legislations and practices in an intersectional perspective;
  • Identify and support innovative ways to engage men and boys for gender equality to prevent violence before it happens.
  • Launch advocacy actions to end violence against women and girls by meaningfully engaging men and boys that will not only involve international bodies but also build public support and engagement.

Finally, the Deputy Executive Director of UN Women, Åsa Régner, joined the conversation with a video message, and warned the audience that measures taken to combat violence against women worldwide are too often ad hoc, not fully implemented or under-funded. She stressed the importance of international collaboration to end gender-based violence through initiatives such as the UN-EU Spotlight Initiative and the Generation Equality Forum, that will take place in Mexico and Paris next year and features an Action Coalition on gender-based violence. Collaboration between countries, between institutions, between the public and the private sectors, is essential if we want to achieve gender equality.