NAIROBI — For too long, gender-based violence has been treated as a woman’s issue, even though the vast majority of crimes are committed by men. Across Africa, more programs are seeking to end the scourge of violence by engaging men on all levels and challenging traditional expectations of manhood.
An example of how governments throughout the continent are trying to prevent rape can be seen in the case Paul, a 33-year old rapist serving a 10-year sentence in Liberia’s Monrovia Central Prison for raping an 11-year old girl. He admitted to the crime, and is now getting counseling through a government program aimed at sex offenders. He spends much of his day learning life skills he hopes will give allow him to lead a less violent existence on the outside.
"I am a rapist. I was put in prison for the past two years and I have been able to improve my life in prison. I do some life skills programs like animal-raising, soap making so I feel so much better. One day I will be released, I will be a good citizen," Paul said.
In Liberia in particular, rape and other instances of gender-based violence were rampant during the country’s long civil war, and have continued to plague the nation since then.
While the government has devoted more resources to helping to support female victims, other efforts are being made to reach out to men, the most likely would-be perpetrators, and to those, like Paul, seeking rehabilitation. It is happening across Africa.
The women’s organization FEMNET, which supports gender equality activities across the continent, has established Men to Men programs in seven countries to recruit more male supporters in their campaign against gender-based violence.
Emma Kaliya, the chairwoman of FEMNET, which is based in Malawi, says it is only natural to involve more men.
“Personally I do not agree that they are the only perpetrators of violence, but they form the higher percentage of those that are called perpetrators, and therefore it is necessary that you bring them onboard and not leaving them behind in this process of eliminating gender-based violence,” said Kaliya.
The campaign to attract more men to the cause seems to be working. Male activists were out in force at a recent protest in Nairobi, demanding justice for a female teenage rape victim whose attackers were set free after being ordered to cut grass as punishment for their crimes.
Regional associate for FEMNET’s Men to Men program in Kenya, Kennedy Otina, was among the protesters that day. He says that growing up, he acted like a “typical African man” with little respect for women.
Then, his girlfriend became pregnant and everything changed.
“The lady eventually gave birth to a baby girl and that is where it was a turning point, because my daughter was so innocent and I was just imagining if I am the one who was discriminating [against] her to that extent, what would happen to the man next door, who does not have much connection to the girl?” asked Otina.
Otina now works in the community to raise awareness of sexual violence. Some of the programs deliberately target perpetrators, and offer counseling to men involved in these crimes.
He said some men mistakenly misinterpret the Men to Men program as some sort of advocacy center that will help defend male perpetrators.
Otina welcomes that misperception, if only because it gives him a chance to have contact with those responsible for violence.
"When there is a case in court then they tend to think or assume that we will be the ones to defend them, to support them in court, but you know when they get to us, we help them understand that violence against women is not acceptable,” explained Otina.
Otina said the key to reaching men on the issue of gender equality and gender-based violence is to relate it to the women who are important in their life, like a sister, an aunt or a grandmother.
Once you bring that to their attention, he said, the process of engagement can begin.