Men and Boys in Uganda Work to Stop Cycles of Violence Against Women

Village health team member Timothy Mbene Masereka shares information about violence against women and girls in Uganda. © Spotlight Initiative/Timothy Webster

KASESE DISTRICT, Uganda – Through his work as a village health team member in Kasese District, Uganda, Timothy Mbene Masereka had become adept at treating community members for illnesses such as malaria and pneumonia.

He felt out of his depth, however, trying to tackle one major health challenge he witnessed while making house calls: 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 – but I lacked the skills to really solve the issue,” he told UNFPA, the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency

“In my community, men dominated, and gender-based violence wasn’t discussed openly.”

Globally, the topic of violence against women and girls remains shrouded in shame and stigma, despite how common it is. According to the World Health Organization, nearly one in three women has faced intimate partner violence, non-partner sexual violence or both at least once in her life.

Meanwhile, in Uganda, a staggering 95% of women and girls reported in 2021 that they had survived physical violence, sexual violence or both since the age of 15.

Mr. Masereka was looking for a way to combat the abuse in his community. On his journey towards advocacy, he learned that while violence often starts with men, it can also end with them.

“Most perpetrators of gender-based violence are men,” he says. “[But] men and boys can be part of the solution.”

Shifting attitudes and supporting survivors

Changing a society’s beliefs and customs can be a difficult job – but it’s necessary to stopping vicious cycles of violence. It’s also one Mr. Masereka was excited to take on.

In 2019, Spotlight Initiative invited him to attend a training focused on addressing violence against women and girls in Uganda. There, he learned how to talk to men and boys about violence, how to counsel couples to resolve disputes through dialogue, and how to identify and refer women and girls experiencing violence to authorities and services.

He also learned how to spot subtler forms of violence against women, including economic violence. “For example, the women plant [crops], but they were given no say in what happens to them,” Mr. Masereka said. “The men made [all] the decisions.”

Mr. Masereka is one of more than 1,500 men in Uganda trained under the Spotlight Initiative to be a positive male role model since 2019. The training offers male mentors the opportunity to learn strategies for changing attitudes and norms that lead to violence. It also teaches men how to support survivors’ access to services.

In Kasese District, Mr. Masereka works to raise awareness of violence against women and girls. He does this by distributing information at church and community gatherings, conducting home visits to help couples resolve issues, and leading discussions about violence among men and boys.

He also follows up with girls who drop out of school and works to support survivors of violence. Examples include escorting them to the police and local council offices to report incidents.

“[Men and boys] can use their power to change the community for the better,” he says.

In Uganda, community activists play a critical role in connecting survivors with the services they need.  © Spotlight Initiative/Timothy Webster

Change starts at home

Uganda has made progress in recent years towards rejecting gender-unequal norms. Between 2000 and 2016, the proportion of men who agreed with one or more justifications for physical abuse against a spouse dropped from 64% to 41%.

But many other gendered attitudes and expectations have proven difficult to break down. Some even held court in Mr. Masereka’s household until his training.

“I learned that chores can be performed by both men and women,” he says. “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.”

People laughed at Mr. Masereka when they first saw him taking on domestic tasks. But their attitudes changed when they saw how much more productive his house had become. 

His family dynamic has also shifted; Mr. Masereka says his relationship with his wife and children has improved.

“I feel happy because now the children can tell me anything,” he says. “My wife doesn’t hide anything – she is very clear and transparent, as I am with her.”

The global Spotlight Initiative is a United Nations initiative with the European Union and other partners, aiming to eliminate violence against women and girls. In Uganda, the Government, as well as several organizations, are implementing change, including: the European Union, UN Women, UNFPA, UNICEF, the UN Development Program and the UN Refugee Agency, with support from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, UN Migration,Pulse Lab and others. Since 2019, almost 300,000 people in Uganda have attended community programming on women’s rights through this initiative.

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