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Does marching for change, change anything? Why mobilising against male violence changes everything

Expert comment

Written by Caroline Harper

Image credit:Original illustration provided by Design by Maia, 2021.

On the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, hundreds of thousands will once again take to the streets to sound the alarm on men’s fatal violence against women. From Santiago to Mexico City, from Khartoum to Johannesburg, and from Seoul to Manila, women’s civil-society movements will march, chant, dance, sing, perform, laugh and raise their voices together in collective resistance, doing the vital work of feminism in their communities and across their territories.

However, we may well ask just how much it takes to shift political will and violent male norms. Efforts of a million marchers can seem to evaporate in the face of political resistance, blindness to a problem or sheer intransigence. And, while gender-based violence of course also affects men, it appears that our majority male governments do not view it as a priority. But, male violence towards women, transwomen and other gender non-conforming people, is not a minority issue. Not when it affects more than half the global population.

Why mobilise to end men's violence against women?

Following the high-profile femicides of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa, ALIGN explored how normative beliefs about women sustain cultures of misogyny that also underpin institutional failure. From March 2019-2020, the Office for National Statistics estimated 1.4 million women were raped or faced attempted rape. While 98.5% of the rapists were identified as men, less than 1% of cases are prosecuted in the UK.

From street assaults to intimate-partner violence, as well as revenge porn and drug spiking, women are subject to a list of violent acts and common harassments. At the sharp end, this includes brutal murder, sexual violence, gangrape, and psychological abuse, and at the other, gaslighting, microaggressions and sexist ‘jokes’.

Despite this ever present, indeed daily, catalogue of violence, the knowledge to action gap is lamentably wide. When politicians themselves use sexist language and some do not even understand the word misogyny, expecting them to put gender-based violence front and centre of evidence-informed policy and action is unviable. They simply do not recognise that the sentiments fuelling ‘locker room banter’ are some of the same beliefs perpetuating the rape and murder of women. On both counts, this means basic ideas around women’s inferior status and deservedness of ridicule and contempt, and men’s entitlement to women’s bodies.

In the face of inadequate policy and legal responses to, and normative restraint on, violence in women’s lives, we take to the streets. Each time, however, we may ask - is this making a difference? In search of an answer, ALIGN research unpacked how action by social movements is indeed transforming gender norms.

Evidence on women's activism changing gender norms

To achieve change, we found activism typically follows two overlapping pathways. One targets policy and legal reform, the second renegotiates prevailing gender norms and social relations. Effective actions involve occupying the street and raising awareness, as witnessed with the ‘green wave’ of Argentinian feminists who fought successfully to legalise abortion, or artistic performances like that of Las Tesis (A Rapist in Your Path), which went viral forcing attention onto femicide and state violence in Chile. Activist art and educational efforts also produce new narratives, calling into question gendered and racist assumptions while destigmatising ‘taboo’ subjects like menstruation and rape. Importantly those who get involved in mobilisations of any nature, also change their own interior narratives of potential and self-worth – transforming perceptions of themselves, and of other women in their families and neighbourhoods.

Mobilisations and feminist activism, sustained by women in local communities and built-out across continents is, therefore, one of the most effective pathways to changing gender norms. Under pressure from coalitions, institutions are eventually forced to reform and delegitimise oppressive gender norms. For example, decriminalising and legalising abortion, recognising femicide as its own crime, and creating laws that target violence against women in politics or equal pay. This fosters new normative environments from which more egalitarian gender relations can develop. Benefits may take time, and whilst some of these may only be enjoyed by our daughters and sons rather than ourselves, social movements are undoubtedly critical ingredients of transformative change.

Where do male allies fit in?

It is crucial to recognise that the root causes of male violence will not be tackled by top-down or carceral responses alone. Sentencing rapists to prison only deals with the symptoms of our misogynistic and patriarchal culture, and certainly does not prevent women being raped and murdered. What this moment demands, is that we confront the deeper drivers of men’s violence – both towards women and other men.

It means starting early by re-thinking how we socialise our children and how social media content influences attitudes and behaviours. It means wholistic sex education and in-school conversations such as those promoted by the feminist movement Everyone’s Invited holding men and boys accountable to sexually violent behaviours in UK schools. This can sow improved and healthy understandings of relationships and romance. And it means facing up to the role of pornography in promoting excessively sexually violent and misogynistic material.

And what can men do? Calling out sexist banter and harassment is a start, alongside adding their voices to the calls of women activists, taking on childcare and domestic work, and educating their sons about consent. These may seem like small individual actions, but they are effective in challenging misogynistic beliefs about women. Creating men-only spaces is important too, where men can deconstruct their ideas about manhood in a safe mental health space and, where necessary, overcome trauma which is often linked to violence. Examples from Mexico and Uganda show how male movements against violence are transformative.

Our research shows that collective action used in creative ways can meaningfully erode the stubborn gender norms that create dynamics of injustice. Individual actions matter, however seemingly small. To eliminate male violence against women and femicide, we must take lessons from evidence that proves collectively organising and playing ones part in social movements does make a difference. In fact, it changes everything.