Hesperian Health Guides

Men can help stop violence

Every day 20,000 people visit the HealthWiki for lifesaving health information. A gift of just $5 helps make this possible!

Make a giftMake a gift to support this essential health information people depend on.


HealthWiki > Health Actions for Women > Chapter 6: Ending Gender-based Violence > Men can help stop violence


Women alone cannot stop the violence against them. No matter how many women leave violent relationships, support each other, or try to change the law, gender-based violence will only stop when men oppose it and help each other change. Men more than women teach boys how to "be a man." Fathers show sons how to treat women and girls. Those with power and influence — judges, politicians, police officers, doctors — are usually men. When they become allies, it becomes possible to change the ways men are expected to act, and to make laws and policies that protect and support women.

In fact, most men do not agree with the attitudes and beliefs that support gender-based violence, yet many do little to challenge or stop it. Some men do not use violence in their relationships, and others are working to prevent violence but lack support. Many more would probably get involved but don’t know how. Often, men are also survivors of violence, but like women, few get the support they need to heal from their experience.

Lessons from the Oakland Men’s Project

When Paul Kivel tells the story of the Oakland Men’s Project, he always credits their inspiration to women’s efforts to raise awareness about rape and domestic violence. Paul describes techniques they adapted from women’s groups:

a group of men discussing printed materials spread on a table.

First, we created a "picture and lecture" show using images from sex magazines, record covers, magazine ads, and comic books. Most of the images showed women being humiliated, beaten, or raped. We wanted men to feel shocked and angry at how violent the images were. Some men were shocked, others were not. The show rarely led men to take any action to end violence. And it did nothing to help men understand how the system of male violence worked or how it might affect them personally.

We also experienced anger from men as we spoke out. Some men felt unfairly blamed. We told men they were powerful and privileged, and that such violence was their responsibility. The men we talked with told us that, in fact, they felt angry, hurt, vulnerable, and powerless.

Then we held workshops with boys aged 13 and 14, to help them see that men were strong and powerful in the world and women were not. The young men said they were trying to be powerful but weren’t. We finally had to admit that young men are not powerful in our society. They are often victims and survivors of family, community, and institutional violence. We came to see that both boys and girls suffer from violence mostly at the hands of male adults. Boys are often taught to pass on the violence to others. Girls are expected to become victims of men’s violence for the rest of their lives.

We learned that men can change when we understand how we have been raised to be masculine and the pain we suffered in that process, and yet find ways to take responsibility for any violence we commit. This means understanding the connection between individual responsibility and how we as men have been influenced by expectations about masculinity.

How can a man be strong without violence?

A support group that meets regularly can help men discuss what kind of men, boyfriends, husbands, and fathers they want to be, including learning how to reject or avoid violence.

Diversidades, a men’s group in Oaxaca, Mexico, uses questions like these for discussion:

  • How has violence affected your life? How did you experience violence as a boy? As an adolescent?
  • In what ways do you use violence in your family and personal life? What kinds of violence? Ask yourself why you are violent. Is there another option?
  • How does violence affect your relationship with your partner or with your children? How might things improve if there were no violence?
  • How do boys and men influence each other either to use or avoid violence? How can you influence other men and boys to avoid violence?

Helping boys question gender violence

Adolescent boys are actively forming their ideas about becoming men, so it can be an important time to lay the foundation for healthy relationships with girls and women. Here is a story of one project that worked with adolescent boys in small groups over a whole year and sometimes longer. The goal was to enable the boys to analyze the world around them and develop their own views about gender roles.

Critical thinking helps boys question gender injustice

Between 1995 and 2010, the Conscientizing Male Adolescents (CMA) Program trained over 2,000 young men in Nigeria to consider the roots of gender inequality and the harm it causes. Much attention was given to violence against women because it is so common in Nigerian society.

CMA's question and answer approach helped the boys develop their communication and logical thinking skills. Here is an example of a group discussion about rape.

The discussion leader begins by asking the boys what their girlfriends say in romantic moments. The boys eagerly raise their hands:

the group leader asking questions that the boys answer in turn.
Q: What do your girlfriends say in romantic moments?
A: "Darling, I will always love you!”
“Please hold me and don’t let go.
Q: And what do girls say when they do not wish to have sex or spend time with the boys?
A: "Leave me please."
"I’m not in the mood."
"Love has nothing to do with sex."
Q: So why do boys think a girl means YES when she says NO?
A: "Girls can’t be seen to say YES, so they’ll always say NO."
"That’s not true, a girl can say YES. I know that."
"If a girl comes to my house, doesn’t it mean she’s ready for anything?"
Q: But if my neighbor comes to my house to talk to me, does it mean she’s ready for anything?
A: "No."
"Actions speak louder than words."
Q: What are those actions?
A: "Wearing a mini-skirt...sitting close to me..."
Q: And when I’m sitting in my living room in my boxers, with my shirt open, does that mean I’m ready for sex?
A: "No!"


The boys soon accept that girls mean NO when they say NO.

The next activity can be used with any group, but it can help men especially to think about ways to actively oppose gender-based violence and prevent it in real-life situations. In the activity, participants imagine witnessing threats of violence by a man against a woman, or being present at a moment of possible violence or sexual assault. They are then asked to think of ways they might intervene before, during, and after the event, either by confronting the man or men, or somehow helping the woman.

ActivityRole play the bystander

  1. To prepare, brainstorm a list of situations people might witness. You can use situations like the ones in Preparing to role play and add others like these:
    • Outside a party, you see a girl who has been drinking. A boy is urging her to go with him but she seems unsure.
    • A girl is walking down a dark street alone. A group of boys call to her, whistling and shouting rude things, and begin to follow her.
    • You hear a friend make a joke about rape.
  2. Put people in pairs and give each pair one of the situations. Ask them what might happen and to make a list of at least 4 ways they could react. Suggest that they think of actions or ways they could talk with the man or the woman to prevent or stop violence. Also suggest they imagine what they could do before, during, and after the event has passed. How could they make a difference?
  3. Ask each pair to share their situation and their list of actions, explaining which reaction would be most realistic for them, and why. Help people feel comfortable sharing what would be difficult for them to do and why.
  4. Give the whole group a chance to discuss the various ideas and to decide which response would be most successful at stopping violence.
You might end the activity by reflecting with the group about ideas of ways to make it easier for friends, neighbors, and bystanders to act to prevent or stop abuse that they witness.

a woman speaking.
Especially when working with groups of men and women together, try not to just blame men. We must find ways of loving and accepting men while rejecting and opposing the violence men do. Help men see how stopping violence against women benefits everyone.

The White Ribbon Campaign

Campaigns about human rights, women’s rights, and the right of every person to live free of violence and coercion by any other person are fairly new. Only in the last 40 years, women around the world have organized to call attention to gender-based violence as a human rights and women’s health problem. As a result, there are many national and international campaigns aimed at showing the injustice of gender-based violence and gaining support to change the laws, customs, and beliefs that allow it to happen.

2 men talking.
Why are you wearing that ribbon?
It means I pledge to never use violence against women or stay silent about it.

Some men are also following women’s lead and are organizing with men in their communities to help break this pattern of violence. These men have found it useful to begin discussions asking people to reflect on everyone’s right to live without violence, and then asking people to question why that right should be different for men than for women.

The White Ribbon Campaign was started by a group of men in Canada in 1991 after 14 women students were killed by a single gunman at the University of Montreal. The campaign has since spread to over 60 countries around the world. It is now the largest effort in the world of men seeking to end violence against women. Every year in November and December, men all over the world wear white ribbons as a personal pledge against violence. They also organize educational events and support groups, and use all kinds of media to reach as many people as possible. If a group can get many people in one community to participate in this campaign, it can lead to a lot of discussion.