An interesting feature of post-1994 politics is the emergence of men who fight violence against women. From "everyday hero" campaigns to conferences, pledges and marches, something new is going down. Could this be the solution to violence against women?
Some features of this trend would suggest not.
Feminist criticism of masculine power and privilege disturbs the status quo. Thus when men campaign against rape and domestic violence it is often on condition that the "f" word remains unspoken. This might produce a superficial cosiness in working relationships, but it fails to challenge the inequalities between men and women that contribute to gender violence.
A different strategy argues that gender oppression affects both men and women. Some take the argument further by then claiming that men are also the victims of gender oppression. Certainly men are discriminated against on the basis of race, socioeconomic status, religious belief or sexual orientation, for example. Drawbacks and difficulties also go with occupying dominant positions in society. But claiming to a victim in this instance is a way of avoiding responsibility for change.
Finally, why is men's violence only a problem when it targets women and children? Men, after all, assault one another at least as often as they assault women, and the frequency with which they kill one another far outstrips the rate at which they kill women. Yet we are silent on this appalling state of affairs. Our silence implies that men's violence only becomes abnormal when it is directed at women.
"Real men", however, must continue to take one another 's violence "like men" – without complaining or feeling helpless or vulnerable. Inadvertently, and with the best of intentions, we are back with those gender stereotypes that cast women as helpless victims and men as strong and silent.
Men do need to be part of efforts to combat gender violence. However, involving men for the sake of involving men is no solution either. Rather, partnerships need to start from a common analysis of the causes of gender violence, as well as agreement around strategies to challenge such violence. Because they occupy different positions in society, men and women may, on occasion, need to adopt different – even separate – strategies to combat gender violence. Perhaps there is even a place of sorts for therapy and support groups enabling men to "heal the pain" of being sexist, but such programmes are not a substitute for political change.
Ultimately, understanding why men are violent towards women requires an appreciation of what makes men violent in any situation. So let us not ignore men's violence towards other men any longer.
Lisa Vetten is the former Manager of the Gender Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
Originally published in The Sunday Independent, 24 September 2000.