Transforming masculinities to end violence against women touches deeply on ingrained gendered social norms and requires a holistic approach to be successful. Traditionally, the approach to advance gender equality has involved empowering women through education, legal remedies, advocacy, and institutional engagement. While empowering women undoubtedly increases their awareness of their rights and their ability to confront discrimination and violence, engaging with men can make the process collaborative and addresses men’s accountability in achieving a gender just society.
Health Development Initiative–Rwanda (HDI) works to promote gender equality and create a world free from violence by engaging men and boys in partnership with women, girls, and individuals of all gender identities. Their interventions have drawn attention to the need for and mechanisms through which men can be involved both in supporting actions to achieve gender equality and in advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights (SHHR).
HDI focuses on changing traditional ideas of masculinity in order to decrease gender-based violence and encourage more gender-equitable attitudes. Through its programs, boys and men are engaged as allies to advance sexual and reproductive health and rights and prevent violence. It also addresses challenging aspects of masculinity that can lead to adverse outcomes, such as men delaying seeking health services, even for HIV and STIs.
In the last year, HDI conducted a series of trainings and meetings with fathers of teen mothers, a powerful entry point to transform gender relations and norms as a way to curb the rising number of teen pregnancies, and to prevent the stigma and rights violations that often follow. More than 160 teen mothers and their fathers gathered for an intensive two-day capacity building workshop in Kigali.
In the dialogue between teen mothers and their parents, participants agreed that teen pregnancy often leads to a number of devastating consequences including second pregnancies. Those consequences were attributed to poor parenting, including the teen women being abandoned. Some end up in forced, early marriages; others turn to prostitution, often after being kicked out of their homes, where they run the risk of contracting HIV and other STIs.
Teen mothers face multiple forms of stigma and discrimination perpetrated by both their families and the wider community. They experience depression, trauma, low self-esteem, a diminished sense of confidence, and little hope for the future. Their children often experience stigma and discrimination. One teen mother confessed that her father despises her child, discriminating against his own grandchild!
Aaron Clevis Mbembe, aciateciate director of the Policy and Advocacy Institute at HDI, explained that the purpose of such trainings is to involve male parents in understanding and helping to curb teen pregnancy and empowering teen mothers to advocate for themselves. “This is the first event of its kind that brings together male parents and teen mothers. It was a pilot phase and it has been successful. We explained to them the legal provisions around child rights and early pregnancy,” he said.
Beyond fathers, the program also works with male students and male teachers to end gender-based violence. HDI believes that teachers must play a central role in delivering comprehensive sexuality education. The information they offer guides adolescents, enabling them to make responsible decisions about their current and future actions in addressing their sexual and reproductive health. At the national level, this collective voice advocates that men and boys engage in gender equality, and both build on and improve efforts to achieve gender justice.
Additionally, HDI trained 46 subject teachers from 23 schools to teach comprehensive sexual education. This is in addition to offering a gender responsive pedagogy to build their capacity to teach sex ed in a friendly and gender responsive manner. To ensure that accurate, rights-based and quality comprehensive sex ed is taught requires an active network of trained and empowered teachers with the ability to pass their knowledge to other educators.
Fathers, and male teachers’ participation in addressing gender inequality is crucial. Their dialogues with women and girls are essential to build skills around positive communication and shared decision-making within families. For these ideas to penetrate into communities, media and journalists need to be involved.
HDI engaged male journalists and media professionals in the fight against gender-based violence. They play a significant role in shaping public perceptions about women and men. It is important that reporting avoids gender stereotyping, which often limits and trivializes females and males and presents an inaccurate view of the world.
Journalism is a male-dominated profession in Rwanda, which means training and engaging journalists primarily means working with men. More than two dozen male journalists actively participated in an HDI training to equip them with tools to become more gender sensitive in their reporting and interviewing. With continual training, HDI intends to ensure that these journalists maintain an unbiased approach in their reporting and that they likewise encourage their colleagues.
All these approaches are used by HDI to educate and raise awareness about gender and sexual rights. As key preventive public health practitioners and activists, HDI considers how it can actively shift harmful gender norms during the current period of major social change. Men have a responsibility to play a key role, including reflecting on their own attitudes and behaviors, modeling equitable and healthy relationships, and speaking up against violence towards women.
HDI’s work employs a gender-transformative framework to generate lasting change. It features MenEngage Alliance programs in a range of gender equality arenas—advancing sexual and reproductive rights, eliminating gender-based violence, addressing men’s responsibility in families, and supporting women’s leadership in governance—all are crucial components in order to achieve gender justice and equity.
Ange Iliza is a multimedia journalist based in Kigali, Rwanda, who aspires to be an international reporter. She has worked for major newspapers in Rwanda and throughout the region.
Juliette Karitanyi, director of communications at Health Development Initiative (HDI), is a health communications specialist, women’s rights activist, and advocate for gender equality.
As the gender mainstreaming officer at HDI, Honnete Isimbi is a gender justice activist working in community engagement, sexual and reproductive health, advocacy, and social inclusion programming. She is chairwoman of the Rwanda MenEngage Network (RWAMNET).