50.50

Men in Europe must stop blaming migrants for ‘importing’ gender violence

From Germany to India, these campaigners are battling ‘toxic masculinity’ to engage men in fights for gender equality.

Lidia Kurasinska
14 January 2019

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Men on the Women's March, London 2017. Photo: Flickr/ Kathryn Alkins. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Some rights reserved.

Men in Europe must push back against claims that gender-based violence is being ‘imported’ into the continent by immigrants, said Robert Franken, co-founder of the Male Feminists Europe network, based in Cologne, Germany.

Famously, Cologne witnessed a wave of sexual assaults on New Year’s Eve in 2015, committed by men of immigrant and asylum-seeker backgrounds. In the aftermath, this was used by German far-right groups to fuel an anti-immigrant backlash and present migrants as inherently dangerous to women.

But, Franken noted, “according to a study recently widely discussed in German papers, the biggest threat to a German woman would actually be her partner”.

He made these comments at the World Forum for Democracy (WFD) at the Council of Europe in November in Strasbourg, France, where politicians, researchers and civil society activists from around the world had gathered to discuss the conference’s 2018 theme, “Gender equality: whose battle?”

At the event’s opening session, delegates were warned that gender equality in Europe is ”advancing at a snail’s pace” with little progress over the last decade.

Rigid ideas of manhood which fuel gender-based violence are present worldwide, but it’s not just women that pay the price – they harm men too. That was the conclusion of the session Franken spoke at along with others from the UK and India who are also working to mobilise men for gender equality.

Internationally, anti-feminist “men’s rights activists” appear to be increasingly organised and well-connected. In contrast, Franken told the audience it was an ongoing challenge that “men haven’t yet organised on a global scale to change this toxic view of masculinity and what it is like to be a man”.

For many privileged men “equality might feel like discrimination”

The problem, Franken said, lies in the fact that many men “just don’t think it’s their job to do something about gender imbalances. Whenever I bring up the idea of male privilege a lot of men freak out”. What’s more, he added, for many privileged men “equality might feel like discrimination”.

“They immediately ask: want is it you want me to do, do I have to be ashamed of my privilege? My answer is: no, you don’t have to be ashamed of your privilege, but you have to be aware of it. That’s the first step”.

This year’s WFD opened on International Men's Day, 19 November, when 50.50 met Harish Sadani from the group Men Against Violence and Abuse India (MAVA), who said that “men’s rights” groups have mushroomed in India.

According to Sadani, this “disturbing” development fails to tackle the root causes of pressures facing Indian men, including the expectation to perform well economically. For instance, he said, these groups ignore systemic factors affecting men’s suicide rates, blaming women for them instead.

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A world without violence against women: Peace, love, joy. Solomon Islands, 2014. Photo: UN Women/Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Some rights reserved.

On the WFD panel “Masculinities Re-examined”, Sadani presented his work to tackle gender-based violence in India by engaging with men. He also described how prevalent this violence is, and the attitudes that drives it.

“Over half of boys and girls aged 15-19 believe it’s alright for a man to hit a woman under certain circumstances”, he explained, giving as examples of such circumstances: “when the woman doesn’t do household chores, if she doesn’t get her husband’s permission to go out, or if she refuses sex”.

But Sadani maintained that men can and must play a central role in challenging toxic masculinity, as it harms them too. He shared, for instance, how his organisation provides “personal change plans” to help young men confront their privileges, and builds “safe spaces” for men to talk without fear of being judged.

The key to engaging men, Sadani argued, is to show that there are multiple different ways of being a man and performing masculinity.

“When you say men shouldn’t be violent, what is the alternative you are giving them?” he asked. “Young men are surrounded by images of toxic, hegemonic masculinity, and they don’t have any other role models”.

“When you say men shouldn’t be violent, what is the alternative you are giving them?”

Sadani and Franken were joined on their panel by Chris Green, founder of White Ribbon UK – a branch of the global movement, launched in 1991 by a group of Canadian men after the mass shooting of 14 women students at the University of Montreal.

When Green asked the panel’s audience to imagine what a world without gender-based violence would look like, their responses ranged from “peaceful” and “safe” to “harmonious” and “free from prejudice”.

“It’s men’s responsibility to stop gender violence”, he insisted, adding: “And since men listen a bit more carefully when the message is spoken by other men, we need to challenge each other to do better”.

White Ribbon UK runs a volunteer ambassador programme which encourages men to promote its principles in their own daily interactions with other men.

It provides companies, public institutions and local governments with ‘action plans’ to challenge gender-based violence. Organisations can also apply for White Ribbon accreditation to show their commitment to tackling this issue.

“If we want to see change, we need to mobilise large numbers. We need to reach music venues, sports clubs, universities”, Green told WFD delegates.

“Celebrities speaking out is great, but we want police officers, bus drivers, the whole community to embrace our values. It’s baby steps”.

* 50.50 reported on these events in Strasbourg as part of openDemocracy’s partnership with the 2018 World Forum for Democracy.

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