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On December 15, Peace Corps hosted a panel discussion in D.C. titled, Engaging Men and Boys: A Call to Action Against Gender-based Violence. I learned a lot about gender-based violence (GBV) during my own Peace Corps service in Tanzania, so I was curious to see how Peace Corps headquarters would frame the issue. The USAID ASSIST Project and WI-HER work together to address GBV in improvement activities, from identifying GBV as an unintended result of a program to addressing GBV prevention and treatment in medical and nursing school instruction in Nicaragua.

All of the anti-GBV work highlighted at the event addressed the underlying power differentials and rigid gender norms of masculinity and femininity that negatively affect men, women, boys, and girls. Panelists discussed the importance of community buy-in from both men and women, and how to get that buy-in. They agreed it is essential to work with community members who will be seen as credible messengers to the rest of the community. They also agreed it is best to start with familiar vocabulary and a primary, secondary, or tertiary driver of GBV that is accessible and easy for your particular audience to understand. One Peace Corps Volunteer explained using sports as an entry point, and another discussed expanding the dedication and capacity of key stakeholders already interested in combatting GBV in their communities. Representatives from Men Can Stop Rape, Promundo-US, and Raising Voices/Beyond Borders also discussed how their organizations achieve community buy-in, as well as how achieving that buy-in generates lasting change.

One panelist shared that what she finds so exciting and inspiring about anti-GBV work is that we know what works; more research and evidence is absolutely necessary on more programs and in more locations, but evidence already exists on how to reduce and prevent GBV. She referred to the Raising Voices SASA! Program, which targets power imbalances between women, men, girls, and boys to address violence against women and HIV. Focusing on power and both its positive and negative uses, the program shifts away from the traditional gender focus of anti-GBV work towards the heart of the problem—the power imbalances that underlie GBV. In a study of the program, the level of physical partner violence against women was 52% lower in SASA! communities than in control communities, and 76% of women and men in SASA! communities believed physical violence against a partner was unacceptable compared to only 26% in control communities.

Stepping Stones is another program that has been shown to significantly reduce physical and sexual partner violence. Focused on gender, communication, and HIV, an evaluation of the effect of a 50-hour Stepping Stones program found a statistically significant reduction in men’s self-reported perpetration of physical or sexual intimate partner violence across two years of follow-up and a statistically significant reduction in men’s self-reported perpetration of rape or attempted rape at one year of follow-up. (These reductions were compared to the control intervention of a single three-hour session on HIV, safe sex, and condoms that did not including any training on violence.)

Bystander intervention trainings similarly aim to change the community mindset on GBV, but they are much shorter programs and focus on encouraging people to intervene when they see abusive behavior. By focusing on what someone can do as a bystander, these trainings aim to make it clear that abusive behavior is an issue for which the entire community is responsible. Many of these trainings focus on sexual assault, and they have mostly been implemented on college campuses in the U.S. The U.S. Army has also implemented a bystander intervention program, and a study of enlisted soldiers who participated showed statistically significant positive changes for self-reported bystander willingness to help, bystander intervention efficacy, rape myth acceptance, likelihood of raping, and likelihood of committing assault. For more information on these types of programs, see Bringing in the Bystander developed by the University of New Hampshire’s Prevention Innovations Research Center, a multidisciplinary research group that focuses on the prevention of sexual assault, relationship abuse, and stalking.

These evidence-based, community-focused programs engage men and boys as well as women and girls because the power imbalances and gender norms underlying GBV affect everyone. I learned this firsthand during my Peace Corps service, when I had tough conversations with Tanzanian friends about being unable to leave abusive relationships because they had no other option. I saw students kicked out of school for being pregnant, with no consequences for the father and/or no effort made to discover who the father was. I heard girls told they were not smart enough or strong enough to do something, and boys told not to cry and to act like men. I heard both male and female colleagues say that sometimes a wife deserves to be beaten and it is a husband’s duty to beat her.

But I also talked with men and women who wanted to do something about GBV in their communities. I had a male student who was outraged that his sister was pulled out of school early to be married. One of my male colleagues asked me to help his daughter with math homework so she would have a female role model in math and science. Another told me how he and his wife refused to participate in the tradition of paying a bride-price because they believed it supported the idea of a woman being someone else’s property rather than her own person. By working with such men, women, boys, and girls, we can change communities’ acceptance of GBV and prevent new men, women, boys, and girls from victimization.