News 2008


Targeting men in the war against sexual offences

Daily Nation


08. March 2008

As women the world over celebrate their International day this year, Unifem’s interim director Joanne Sandler has a rosy vision of “an end to the pandemic of violence against women and girls — and genuine progress on achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment.”

That there is such a pandemic is not in dispute; certainly not in the aftermath of the disputed presidential vote tallying in December that unleashed an unprecedented orgy of violence against women and girls.

At least 1,200 people were sexually assaulted during the two months of hell before former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan brokered a peace accord between combatants Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga just over a week ago.

Just over a quarter of these — 341 to be precise — were treated at the Gender Violence Recovery Centre of Nairobi Women’s Hospital.

According to the patient services manager at the hospital, Mrs Rahab Ngugi, 43 of the sexual violence survivors were men and boys, meaning, women and girls bore the brunt of post-election violence.

The age diversity of victims treated at the women’s hospital — between one-and-a-half and 60 years — speaks of the sheer brutality of one of the most dehumanising forms of violence.

But this is the official figure, and there have been other tales of victims as young as nine months.

The seriousness and ubiquitous threat of sexual violence is captured by Mrs Ngugi: “Every time there was a flare-up or a demonstration, you found the numbers just go up.

We therefore believe the lack of security in the country and the increase in other crimes also increased the number of cases that we received.”

Because of the shame associated with rape, it is evident that the published figures are just the tip of the iceberg, and that many more people are likely to have fallen victim of sexual violence.

It is ironical that the campaign to end gender violence in general and sexual violence in particular has been on for over 30 years. That it persists escalating in situation of breakdown of order such as Kenya explains international concern over it.

UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon in fact unveiled the Unite to end violence against women campaign on February 25 which should farther this cause. During the kick-off of the campaign, Mr Ban pledged to bring in men and world leaders.

While Unifem’s Ms Sandler speaks of a UN fund that has grown from 3.5 million dollars in 2006 to 15 million last year with an ambitious target of 100 million dollars by 2015, it is Mr Ban’s commitment to rope in men and world leaders that warrants attention.

Far too much money has been sunk in useless campaigns to end violence against women that do not address the underlying problem, namely male responsibility.

And yet targeting men as the starting point to ending violence against women has been on the UN agenda since the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, Egypt.

An important outcome of the Cairo meeting, and one that is little talked about, was its recognition of male responsibility in matters of sex — an issue that seems to have received short shrift in the reproductive rights debate.

In affirming the importance of male responsibility, the ICPD programme of action sought to promote gender equality in all spheres of life, and to encourage and enable men to take responsibility for their sexual and reproductive behaviour.

The campaign against gender violence, whose worst manifestation is undeniably rape of women and girls, will need to shift its focus from women to men — because by and large, men are the perpetrators of the violence.

In the wake of post-election violence, institutions such as Nairobi Women’s Hospital have played a commendable role. They have covered women with antibiotics, anti-retrovirals and morning-after pills — the latter to ward off unplanned pregnancies.

But the strategy only partially addresses the problem as it fails to deal with male attitudes that underlie sexual violence against women.

Efforts to end gender violence will be boosted if programmes are designed to address male responsibility in sexual matters not just within the domestic sphere, but also well beyond.

It is difficult to tell the budget lines of the UN’s multi-million dollar Trust Fund to End Violence against Women. On the other hand, it should be possible, and imperative, to channel such resources towards activities that improve the quality of the human person — men to be specific.

There is need to address the masculine underpinnings of violence against women, which is rooted in their cultural attitudes towards sex. In the era of HIV and Aids, it is critical to drive the message home that men’s attitude towards sex, both forced and consensual, affects not just their victims but also themselves.

Youths were strongly implicated in post-election violence, and as Mrs Ngugi says, there is a pattern linking sexual violence to insecurity.

On a recent NTV interview, the chairperson of the National Aids Control Council, Prof Miriam Were, expressed concern over negation of gains made in the war against the pandemic.

It is ironic that while sexual violence seeks to affirm masculinity within the patriarchal order, it ends up not only hurting the women and girls at whom in most cases it is directed, but also the men when they contract infectious and in the case of Aids, incurable diseases.

Shouldn’t the UN make a deliberate decision to channel the bulk of its multi-million dollar trust fund towards education initiatives to promote male responsibility in sexual matters?