So proclaimed a sticker that used to hang on the door of my favorite professor in graduate school, and I was reminded of it when I attended a forum on men’s engagement to end violence against women a few days ago. The meeting was organized by the Network for Ethiopian Women’s Associations (NEWA) as part of its activities to mark the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence. Since 1991, the 16 Days of Activism, initiated by the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at the US-based Rutgers University have been marked between November 25 (International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women) and December 10 (International Human Rights Day). The theme for 2011 focuses on militarism and as you might have seen reflected in banners around Addis, proclaims, ‘From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World!’
This particular forum featured three prominent men scholars who spoke on the causes of violence against women and on what can be done about it. The panelists as well as members of the audience spoke of our sexist culture that puts boys ahead of girls and men ahead of women at all stages of Ethiopian life, sowing the seeds of violence against women and girls. Older participants spoke of the moral decay they see as contributing to the spread of violence, and a prominent doctor recalled as a teenager, giving up his seat on the bus to women and compared it to the sexual harassment that is currently rampant in our transport system. The role of the media in perpetuating sexist stereotypes and the disappointing track record in addressing violence against women in meaningful ways was discussed. Most importantly, I thought, the law and its enforcement or lack thereof was brought up and debated.
I have gone to many of these workshops over the years and this one was different because men took the wheel of what is usually relegated to women’s affairs offices and women’s associations. Instead of preaching to the choir as these type of workshops usually do, this morning’s session asked men to reflect on what they can do to challenge the sexist norms that demean women and girls and create the space for violence.
It asked male participants to bring about a paradigm shift.
At the conclusion of the meeting, in addition to taking the White Ribbon pledge (‘I promise to never commit violence against women’, ‘I promise to not look away when I see violence committed against women’ and ‘I promise to work with organizations that challenge violence against women’), the male participants in the audience were asked to speak out their commitments to addressing violence. A representative of the Teachers’ Association spoke of his plans to work with teachers to address violence against girls in their schools. An impromptu committee of influential men representing the Federal Police, a prosecutor and the teachers’ association was set up to try to take this agenda forward – it was suggested that they host next year’s forum on men’s engagement against violence.
It was great to see these expressions of commitments, and I hope they will be adhered to. The commitment that most impressed me, however, was more basic. One young man pledged to be aware of how he treats his wife, and to treat his son and daughters as equals. The fundamental commitment of men to be more engaged parents to their sons and daughters is key, and life-changing.
When I do trainings on gender equality, men often express their reservation in engaging in housework and child-rearing – women’s supposed natural talent for taking care of children is often cited for men taking the backseat. I often hear men say that they after all, cannot breastfeed.
However, I know from experience that men can parent as well as women. I am lucky enough to be surrounded by wonderful specimens of men that refute the notion that childrearing is the sole domain of women. My husband, as my father before him is an excellent parent and apart from the technical functions of nursing our baby girl, cares for her as well as I do. He changes, dresses and feeds her every day. She often naps on his chest and they often play for hours. She adores him and reserves her deepest giggles for him. Their relationship is a vindication of what I always tell recalcitrant fathers – the rewards of engaged parenting are more than worth the hours that could have been spent with your friends or in front of a football game.
Nor is my husband alone. Look around you and in the supermarkets and children’s clinics in Addis, you will see men carry their babies on their shoulders and backs as only women used to do. I am told by older women that a generation ago, this would have been inconceivable.
Talk about a paradigm shift.
So what does this have to do with addressing violence? I would say everything. A little boy who grows up watching his father change his little sister’s diaper knows that men and women may be different, but that neither one needs to dominate the other. There are very few functions that only need to be done by one gender, and they need not be discredited as ‘women’s work.’ A father who listens to his children as opposed to lecture them teaches them that their opinion matters.
A father who plays soccer with his daughter as well as his son instills in both of them self-esteem; for example, a university of Florida research from 1998 found that adolescent girls who participate in sports have higher self-esteem and trust in others.
A healthy masculinity that does not to express itself by assaulting a woman is instilled in boys who are taught by their fathers that real men do not hit or rape. Dr. David Popenoe, a pioneer in the field of research into fatherhood states that fathers who treat the mothers of their children with respect and deal with conflict within the relationship in a mature manner are more likely to raise boys who will respect women and who are less likely to act in an aggressive fashion toward them. Similarly, girls with involved, respectful fathers see how they should expect men to treat them and are less likely to become involved in violent or unhealthy relationships.
So, if as a man, you are wondering what you can do to stem the tide of violence against your Ethiopian sisters that is rising to intolerable levels, I would suggest you start by looking inside your home. If you are not a parent yet, ask what kind of a parent you plan to be. You have the power to change the world, if you are ready to pick up a diaper.
Sehin is a new mom and a PhD candidate in Gender Studies at the University of London.
Love & Light