The most widespread epidemic in the developing world isn’t HIV or malaria, it’s violence against women. In India, there are 230 million young men under 18 years old, and of these men, an estimated 116 million of them will grow up to be abusive to women, a number that is almost three times the size of Spain’s entire population. A harrowing 58 million of these young men are at risk of growing up to rape women. Something needs to change quickly, and Will Muir, co-founder and executive director of the Equal Community Foundation (ECF), is a part of that change. He was recently in Singapore to share his work in empowering young men in the fight against gender-based violence, addressing an audience of activists, entrepreneurs, and the general public at The Hub and the Singapore Committee for UN Women.
In our modern understanding of the term “feminism”, it might as well be a dirty word. As female public figures take great pains to distance themselves from a movement you would expect educated, successful women to champion, young men might seem like unlikely successors to the previous generations of female liberators. “Young men can and should grow up to be partners in ending violence against women. In fact they can grow up to be leaders in their communities, changing their own behaviour and challenging the abusive behaviour of others,” says Muir, whose work in Pune has mobilized a hundred young men to make a stand in their own communities against misogyny.
ECF brings young men between the ages of 14 and 18 together in a room to talk about the discrimination and violence they have faced. The conversation then shifts to how they have taken on the role of perpetrator, and over a series of modules discussing injustice and the treatment of women, their ideas and behaviors change, and graduates of these programs go on to lead other groups of young men in discussions to tackle the issues. Sixty percent of the women living with these young men reported a decrease in physical and verbal abuse from them, and that some of them even started to help in traditionally female household chores.
While India is constantly in the news for egregious breaches of human rights (this week it’s a fatal gang rape case, and the shocking statistic that every 22 minutes a woman gets raped), along with its patriarchal compatriots in the Middle East (the news that dozens of women were killed at home in Baghdad is awful but is not at all shocking), the problem is one the entire world must face. In the UK, the British Crime survey estimated that in 2013, 12.9 million incidents of domestic violence against women occurred, while 1 in 5 women studying in American colleges report being sexually assaulted.
“If we give young men the opportunity to stop violence in their community, they will.” Muir is focusing his efforts on scaling the programme up to national level and implementing it across India. If there ever was a job that only a man can do, it’s this one – calling out other men’s sexist behaviour and actually being taken seriously. We should all wish Muir the best of luck in the future – his program is a very necessary antidote to the hate and poison that women are faced with every day; but it will take more than one man, however dedicated, to stop violence against women. Instead, we need to begin building a worldwide movement against rape, domestic violence, sex trafficking and other crimes that primarily effect women. Muir’s promotional work in Singapore and elsewhere could be the start of this, but we will all need to take responsibility for our own communities if we are to achieve a world of peace and justice.
Report prepared by Janice Liu