By Fredrick Nyagah, Gender Advisor for the DREAMS Program, Global Communities Kenya
This story originally appeared on Medium.
In observance of International Women’s Day, I have been considering some of the challenges women in Kenya face, as well as proven ways to address them. One successful approach is a program targeting men, boys, and parents in the fight against gender-based violence (GBV), and it is resulting in more peaceful, productive families throughout the country. The USAID-funded initiative is part of DREAMS (Determined, Resilient Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored and Safe), which prevents and reduces HIV in 10 countries throughout sub-Saharan Africa, and endeavors to keep women and girls safer from abuse. To this end, it facilitates change and support in communities suffering violence especially within families.
Males are the target audience for intervention in these communities for many reasons. Many regions in Kenya remain extremely conservative and patriarchal, where many women have little or no authority over how they live and how their children interact with others. The majority of the perpetrators of GBV are men. Men are the custodians of culture, are the key decision-makers and village elders, as well as religious leaders. Majority of men have some connection with children either as fathers, uncles, grandfathers, cousins, nephews, teachers, coaches and these positions offer critical platforms to help women and girls. Previous DREAMS outreach has proven the importance of working closely with males. Despite the widespread problem of GBV, I am quick to acknowledge that not all men are violent, many of them care about women and girls who are important in their lives and they realize that have an important role to play against violence, hence if you omit them from these efforts, you essentially omit 60% of the resources of the community.
DREAMS conducts pre- and post-test evaluations to understand knowledge and attitudes about GBV. At the outset, men tend to view it as a private matter that should not be acknowledged or discussed publicly. Some are fearful initially regarding how the training will change their familial and societal roles, as well as their identity. Some don’t even see GBV as a problem. But using evidence-based intervention including positive gender norms, the initiative helps socialize them to healthier behaviors and improved relationships with their families.
Also helpful is that the training clearly presents to men the benefits of non-violence in their homes. For instance, peace lends itself to other more effective means of communication; violence reduces productivity of adults at work and children at school; it is often associated with substance abuse, poor health behaviors and outcomes and significant financial burdens. On the flip side, nonviolent homes are more likely to produce nonviolent relationships outside the family. The training encourages men to play with their children and communicate with them regularly, which can help prevent early pregnancies and other risky behaviors.
The training also incorporates other services and resources that motivate men to see a doctor, get tested for diseases and obtain other important information that may not be readily available in some communities. Parenting classes are included as well to help men understand and shed behaviors they may have seen in their own families growing up. We show men the strength they have and use positive messages to bring them forward. When they see that they really matter and that they are able to help their families, they feel involved and that interests them.
For three days, the men attend the sessions, commit to be sober and to refrain from violence. This helps improve communication and problem-solving from the start. They are trained without women or boys present to ensure that they feel comfortable expressing their problems honestly. The training helps because many of them encounter the same problems, and it is customized to meet the needs of the men in the community — if they are too busy working to attend a session over three days, they can attend a full-day session with follow-up (many stay in touch with their groups in person and through other channels).
But we would be remiss in these efforts if we ignored the role boys potentially have in GBV. More often than not, boys treat girls the way they have seen their father treat their mother or other men treat women. In separate sessions DREAMS provides training for boys aged 10–17, particularly those who have grown up around GBV. The aim is to reach younger boys before GBV becomes part of their lives, or at least before it escalates, so that they can recognize, learn and prevent violent behavior against women and girls.
Previously, many boys saw themselves as superior to girls and women, but eventually they appreciate that no one deserves to be treated as inferior, or violently. The sessions also challenge the notion that risk-taking is a sign of manhood. We work to socialize boys so that they can navigate important life topics in addition to GBV, including sexual health, drugs, education and how to end longtime cycles of pathology. These sessions help them understand, and connect them with informed adults and like-minded peers to help them re- look at themselves and at life around them. The boys we have engaged with are very keen to learn and be inspired, and to impart this knowledge to others. The fact that these messages are coming from people in their communities makes them more meaningful and resonant.
High demand for the trainings has led to a waiting list that continually grows. GBV perpetrators, survivors, family members, neighbors, colleagues and others are enthusiastic. And they are not alone: the overwhelming response from health, legal and religious institutions shows how effective and accepted this model is. It makes sense, particularly when we are asking men to change in an environment that largely stays the same. And working with community volunteers makes it homegrown and replicable.