Part of the Solution: Uganda's men rise to tackle gender-based violence
25 November 2023
As a village health worker, Timothy Mbene Masereka went from house to house in some of the most remote places in Kasese District, Uganda. He enjoyed helping people and was adept at managing illnesses such as malaria and pneumonia. However, there was one health emergency that he didn’t know how to address: violence against women and girls.
“During my sessions [in people’s homes], I saw that gender-based violence was a problem and I tried to handle it at a lower level, using my own reasoning, but I lacked the skills to really solve the issue,” he says.
What Mr. Masereka saw wasn’t unusual – violence against women and girls is the world’s most pervasive human rights violation, affecting one in three women globally. In Uganda, almost 30 per cent of women and girls report experiencing intimate partner violence in the past 12 months.
Despite its prevalence, Mr. Masereka says violence against women and girls was treated as a private issue. “In my community, men dominated, and gender-based violence wasn’t discussed openly.”
Change starts at home
When Mr. Masereka was approached to complete gender-based violence training supported by Spotlight Initiative through the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), he jumped at the opportunity.
“The Community Development Officer talked to me about Spotlight Initiative and its work on preventing violence against women and girls. She said men have a big role to play in preventing violence and asked whether I wanted to work as male action group mentor,” says Mr. Masereka.
Mr. Masereka attended a training run by ACORD, a national non-government organization that promotes social justice. During the course, he learned how to talk to men and boys about gender-based violence, how to counsel couples to resolve disputes through dialogue and how to identify and refer women and girls experiencing violence to the appropriate authorities and services.
The training also opened his eyes to subtler forms of violence, such as economic violence, and unequal gender power dynamics.
“For example, the women plant [crops], but they were given no say in what happens to the crops. The men made [all] the decisions,” he explains.
The course forced him to examine the distribution of power and labour in his own household.
“I learned that chores in the home can be performed by both men and women. The pounding and cooking of food and bathing the children are all tasks that can be done by both the mother and the father.”
When he first began to take on domestic chores, he says people laughed at him: “They would say ‘He has been put down by his wife,’ things like that.” But when they saw how much more productive his house became, their attitudes changed.
“You get things done faster. For example, if my wife is preparing food, I can wash the dishes. If my wife is collecting firewood, I can get water. [This way,] we all eat earlier.”
Mr. Masereka says this shift has improved his relationship with his wife and children.
“I feel happy because now the children can tell me anything, my wife doesn’t hide anything – she is very clear and transparent, as I am with her.”
Shifting attitudes and supporting survivors
Spotlight Initiative aims to eliminate violence against women and girls through comprehensive programming that addresses all key drivers of violence. It promotes laws and policies that prevent violence, strengthens institutions, promotes gender-equitable social norms, strengthens women’s movements and provides essential services to survivors of violence.
Since 2019, more than 1,500 men in Uganda have trained as positive male role models with the support of Spotlight Initiative through UNFPA. Each of them plays a critical role in changing the norms and attitudes that lead to violence and supporting survivors to access the services they need.
Mr. Masereka raises awareness of the issue by distributing information at church and community functions, conducts home visits to help couples resolve issues and leads discussions about violence among men and boys at the male action groups he visits.
He also follows up on girls who drop out of school, child marriage cases and supports survivors of violence to access health and justice services. This includes escorting women and girls to the police and local council offices to report violence.
To him, engaging men and boys is a critical step in eliminating violence.
“Most perpetrators of gender-based violence are men,” he says matter of factly. “[But] men and boys can be part of the solution. They can use their power to change the community for the better.”
The global Spotlight Initiative to eliminate violence against women and girls is a United Nations high-impact initiative in partnership with the European Union and other partners. In Uganda, it is implemented by the Government of Uganda, the European Union, UN Women, UNFPA, UNICEF, UNDP and UNHCR in partnership with OHCHR, IOM, Pulse Lab and civil society. Since 2019, Spotlight Initiative has supported almost a million women and girls in Uganda to access essential services.