Activists / Researchers / The Sunday Times

Neloufer de Mel, Zainab Ibrahim, Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala: Why Masculinities Matter

A new study is among the first of its kind in Sri Lanka – and its hearing from men that makes it so. ‘Broadening Gender: Why Masculinities Matter’ tackles the subject of gender-based violence, asking men, who are statistically many times more likely to be the perpetrators, questions about if and when they first committed rape, what motivated their violence and what consequences – if any – they faced. Guaranteed anonymity by the study’s use of tools like Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), the answers collected provide some shocking numbers and insights that argue that attempts at eliminating gender-based violence might be more effective if they also confronted the traumas, attitudes and challenges of its perpetrators.

Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala, a Project Director of the Empowering Men to Engage and Redefine Gender Equality (EMERGE) at CARE Sri Lanka, and Zainab Ibrahim, a Project Manager with the same programme, are among a growing group of advocates interested in inviting men to participate in the conversation on GBV. The two women know that interventions often focus on responding to violence – raising awareness, strengthening legislation and the criminal justice system and providing survivors access to quality health, legal and social services – but while this work remains crucial, it has not been enough to end the cycle.

Established here in 1950, CARE Sri Lanka began working with a focus on food security and maternal and child health – some will remember ‘CARE biscuits’. Today, their work focuses on addressing the root causes of poverty and marginalization of vulnerable groups.

Attempting to gather context and understanding of masculinities, ‘Broadening Gender’ was launched in April this year and is the result of CARE’s collaboration with four UN agencies, the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Population Fund, United Nations Women and United Nations. Volunteers have come together in the joint programme Partners for Prevention (P4P) to conduct a multi-country study on men and violence that has so far surveyed more than 10,000 men from six countries in Asia and the Pacific – 1658 of whom live in Sri Lanka. (A smaller sample of 653 women also participated in the local study.)

It’s important to note at this point that this study shouldn’t be treated as the last word – it is limited not just by the number of respondents but also geography with respondents drawn only from the four districts of Colombo, Hambantota, Batticaloa and Nuwara Eliya.

Among the study’s findings: 36% of men who had been married or lived with a partner reported perpetrating physical and or sexual violence against a female intimate partner while 17% perpetrated sexual violence, inclusive of rape, against any woman. 79% of men (and 75% percent of women) reported that ‘some women ask to be raped by the way they dress and behave’.

With these high figures for context the study went on to probe men’s motivations for committing violence. Most men who reported perpetration of sexual violence said that they were motivated by sexual entitlement (66.5%), while alcohol was the least reported motivation (9.6%). This appears to contradict widely accepted notions that anger or alcohol are the primary triggers of violence, says Jayanthi: “it’s not just alcohol, that’s just an excuse, its attitudes towards violence.”

If sexual entitlement spurs men to violence, than a very real impunity from social and legal consequences protects them. Many of those who committed rape for the first time did so as teenagers, with the majority reporting first becoming rapists between the ages of 20 and 29.

On page 51 of the report a neat little table lists a few depressing answers. When asked for instance whether they worried that they would be found out, 82.3% of men answered ‘no.’ 97% of the sample say they did not experience any violent backlash from anyone supporting the victim. When it came to legal consequences, including arrest with charges dropped or jail time, only 7% of perpetrators had faced any such penalties.

While this litany might challenge us to feel any empathy for the perpetrators, for Jayanthi “it’s not about focusing the blame on men and boys, it’s about trying to understanding why men behave the way they do.”

“One of the things this report brought out was how much stress men were under,” says Prof. Neloufer de Mel, the report’s lead researcher. According to the report, ‘economic pressures resulting from inadequate income, lack of economic assets and financial responsibilities as breadwinners and male heads of households were found to be amongst the primary causes of male stress and lack of well-being.’
Digging deeper, the study found evidence that the effects of abuse in childhood were felt well into adulthood. 28% of the men said they had been abused as children – making them nearly twice as likely to become abusers themselves as compared to men who did not experience abuse. ‘This is important not only for making visible the vulnerability of boys to sexual abuse, but also for tracing the impact it has on the process by which boys can become violent men, often targeting women with violence,’ Neloufer writes.

Social and cultural norms place tremendous burdens on men, Neloufer points out, underlining how we subscribe to notions of ‘manliness’ that encourage men to respond with violence in disagreements. (57% of men and women agreed that ‘to be a man, you need to be tough.’) There are few spaces in which men can frankly discuss these issues, and be heard, says Neloufer arguing that being able to express their frustrations and internalise new life skills as a way of addressing problems could help prevent violence at home and in the community at large.

Since its release, the study has found wide resonance. Internationally, advocates will press for it to inform the post-2015 development agenda. In Sri Lanka the report, translated into Sinhala and Tamil, has led to five thematic working groups looking at issues as diverse as child protection, youth engagement, women’s attitudes, men’s health and private sector engagement.It has inspired the writing of a sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) policy for the 13 state universities led by University of Kelaniya with the University of Colombo additionally initiating an online course on gender and health. It has also informed the 5-year plan of local government in Batticaloa (Eastern Province) Sri Lanka.

The report’s exploration of the toll SGBV takes on finances and productivity has spurred a partnership between Watawala Plantations’ and CARE to train HR personnel as well as ground workers in SGBV prevention. On one hand, mental anguish and strain on the family environment and on the other, the need for medical attention, days of bed rest as well as serious medical emergencies like miscarriages arising from abuse show that there is a high cost of violence. “Employers should be taking note that women stay away from work because of this violence and that’s directly about productivity,” says Neloufer.

“What we’ve also realised in doing this kind of work is that it’s been more productive to have both sides at the same table, having the conversation,” says Zainab. While she emphasises that there will always be a need for gender projects that work only with women, men are telling the team: ‘You’re finally talking to us.’

As far as Neloufer is concerned: “We’re just scratching the surface.” She explains that there is a need to rally all stakeholders to address the problems that both men and women are struggling with: “It should be part of our commitment to try and transform society into a place that’s less violent and to solve problems in ways that don’t involve inflicting violence on others.”

The full report is available online:

Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on November 9, 2014. Words by Smriti Daniel, pix by Sharni Jayawardena. 

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