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Q&A with Brian Heilman: Engaging Men and Boys on Gender Equality

  • Frances Alonzo

FILE - Indian people march during a 'I Respect Women' walk for gender equality organized by a local hotel and Association of Domestic Tour Operators of India in New Delhi, India.

FILE - Indian people march during a 'I Respect Women' walk for gender equality organized by a local hotel and Association of Domestic Tour Operators of India in New Delhi, India.

Recent cases of violence against women in Asia have been horrifying. "Boy" preference in pregnancy, or a father stoning his own daughter in an "honor-killing" in front of a court house in Lahore, Pakistan. In India, two young cousins hung from trees after being gang-raped; there was also the high-profile case of then-12 year old Malala Yousafzai being shot by the Taliban for promoting education for girls in Pakistan. The message is clear to women and girls: you are not safe; you are not valued; you don't matter.

But as local and international communities are more and more vocal about their outrage of the treatment of women and girls, the tide is turning. To truly see change, the root causes of violence must be challenged.

Brian Heilman, Gender and Evaluation Specialist at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) has authored a new report on his research that shows that gender norms and behaviors that lead to violence are developed when boys are young. He told Daybreak Asia's Frances Alonzo of the importance of engaging men and boys to advance gender equality and the success of school based programs to help boys and girls build gender-equitable, healthy, non-violent lifestyles at a pivotal time when attitudes and behaviors are still being developed.

HEILMAN: One of the major findings that comes out of this study is that across countries, across socio-economic backgrounds, across different demographic characteristics, really it’s attitudes of male privilege and male sexual entitlement. Really attitudes of gender inequality that link most strongly with a man’s likelihood of perpetrating rape.

ALONZO: Something I have just always wondered, is what makes it okay, in any culture, for men to mistreat women?

HEILMAN: The influences that lead a man, even lead a woman to feel that, that it’s acceptable or to feel that that’s a customary part of conflict resolution in the home or in the community. Those influences start very early in children’s lives. If you grow up watching your parents use violence or watching your father or a man use violence against your mother to solve some kind of conflict or to maintain rules of the household or whatever, you come to learn pretty naturally that that is a common part of family life. That’s a common part of relationships and it’s passed on from generation to generation. And our findings really support that. So, I think that’s part of why ICRW and a lot of different organizations try to promote some critical conversations where boys and girls can have a different sort of message around them. I think it doesn’t necessarily work to approach someone who has a high status in his community and feels very entrenched in his way of life and beliefs to very directly challenge that. To tell him that he’s wrong. To tell him that some other cultural notion is superior to his cultural notion. That’s certainly a much, much more challenging prospect than starting at very early ages.

ALONZO: So are you just writing off the adults, and say “you know what, we can’t change their minds,” is that what you are saying?

HEILMAN: Not exactly, no. It’s a challenging prospect and the field is really starting to take seriously the challenge of preventing this violence before it ever happens. I don’t think that’s tantamount to writing off adults in any case.

ALONZO: Are men more receptive to hearing about changing their behavior from men, or from women? Does the messenger matter?

HEILMAN: I think the messenger probably matters a little bit at least early on in the conversation. In some of our research in the school settings especially we’ve shown how influential it can be for the person delivering the message to young men or young women to really be sort of in a peer or a role model role. So maybe someone who is just three to four years older than them, someone who is kind of cool and who they would aspire to be like as they grow up. That function in these school settings where we are having critical conversations about gender has proven to be pretty influential.

ALONZO: Once you put all these programs in place, is there a timeframe where you begin to see change?

HEILMAN: We found that it is very possible and very effective to build critical conversations about relations between men and women about the acceptability of violence into a secondary school or even a primary school curriculum in a way that really resonates with young boys and girls and that shows demonstrable changes in their feelings and attitudes and behaviors after participating in the program even after a very short intervention of one academic year. We saw significant changes in these attitudes.

In India, we are very excited about a program called the Gender Equity Movement in Schools, or GEMS, which was first implemented in 30 schools in Mumbai, and showed significant changes in participating students attitudes related to their acceptability of violence and about how boys and girls should really be treated equal. And we’re thrilled that the state government of Majarashtra has been excited about these changes and are now implementing that program across the entire state curriculum. This is the scale of India, so that’s reaching 25,000 public schools across Majarashtra. Now to your question of the timeline, we’re believing that these boys and girls, they’ll grow up to have much more equitable relationships and really bring their children up in a world where the prevalence of violence would be much lower.

The scope of the problem is huge enough where it’s going take, maybe, our grandkids. We, as an international community, cannot yet really stand up with our heads held high and tell the women of the world that we’re doing everything we can to stop this violence. There’s a lot more that needs to be done.

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