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Engaging men to stand up to violence and harassment

Last edited: July 08, 2020

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Gendered social norms encompass expressions of male superiority, bound up in male social bonding and stereotypes about male sexuality. Such norms have a unique effect in cases of violence and harassment against women, as they can foster a culture of “victim blaming”. Furthermore, men can also be harmed by these unequal gender social norms (Flood, 2010), which often discriminate against certain forms of masculinity that are not considered acceptable. Real transformational change – and improvement in working conditions for both men and women - ultimately requires engaging men to change negative gender power relations.

For example, when sexual harassment prevents or discourages women from working in an all-male environment, men can model respectful behavior, thus helping to change the negative social norms that underpin sexual harassment.  When men take on roles as social change agents in challenging violence and harassment against women, they can help to shift perceptions, beliefs and rigid social norms.[1] This should be discussed with men involved in formulating policies and strategies, in trade unions and employers’ organizations, in academic and educational institutions, in health services and in community organizations. The promising practices below highlight men’s active roles in challenging violence and harassment against women at work. Programming guidance on working with men and boys to end violence against women that includes working within institutions and employing various methodologies can be found on the UN Women Virtual Knowledge Centre.[2]

Engaging men as change agents in the workplace

FUTURES without violence: How men can support workers experiencing violence and harassment (Futures without violence, 2017)

FUTURES is a pioneering collaboration among anti-violence advocates, trade unions, service providers, worker associations and employers, to implement change through innovative solutions to address the vulnerability of low-wage workers experiencing violence at home and at work. The virtual campaign #HowIWillChange stresses the importance of believing women who make complaints.  It encourages men to “call out” other men whose behaviour is harassing or discriminatory, and to promote and implement effective policies in the workplace. It provides further guidance about how to respond when a worker reports that she or he is experiencing sexual harassment.  This includes responding compassionately, prioritizing safety planning, assuring confidentiality consistent with your workplace policy, to the fullest extent possible, and giving space for the victim to have a say over the workplace’s response.

“The Hands Off Pants On” campaign videos

Men from the union representing hotel workers in Chicago, Illinois (United States) were mobilized to take a strong stand against sexual harassment and violence against women in hotels and casinos. When they were asked to read out testimonies of violence and harassment experienced by women hotel workers, the stories genuinely shocked the men, and they publicly pledged to end violence and harassment against women.[3]

The White Ribbon Campaign: Men working to end violence against women

The White Ribbon Campaign[4] is a global campaign by men to end violence against women and girls. The white ribbon symbolizes a man’s pledge to never commit, condone or remain silent about violence against women and girls. Men in companies and trade unions across the world have also carried out white ribbon campaigns. For example, an Australian campaign led by unions in the construction sector, “Real men don’t abuse women”, spreads the message that violence against women is unacceptable and encourages men to speak out. The Australian Mariners’ Union has displayed white flags on sea-going vessels on the White Ribbon Day.

An innovative program is the White Ribbon Australia Workplace Accreditation Program.  It focuses on workplaces across all sectors of the economy to engage them in driving cultural change to prevent violence against women. It also links workplaces through the appointment of what it calls “White Ribbon Ambassadors” and “Advocates” in key positions, the provision of e-Learning and on-line resources, and participation in the Annual White Ribbon Campaign (White Ribbon, Undated B).

Changing men’s awareness of violence against women in the transport sector in Rwanda and Uganda[5]

The Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union (ATGWU) in Uganda, and other ITF affiliates from Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya and Tanzania, are supporting projects for long distance drivers along the Northern Corridor in Central and Eastern Africa. The ATGWU runs a drop-in centre at four border crossings where truckers are often delayed by border controls for several days – a wait which often involves casual or transactional sex. In the centres, fulltime coordinators work with teams of trained HIV/AIDS peer educators and counsellors. They conduct sessions for both drivers and local community members, at which violence against women and sexual violence are challenged. Although specifically a project on HIV/AIDS, this is an example how violence against women can be introduced as a topic of discussion on the foot of another topic, providing an important entry point for the issue to be discussed in a non-confrontational way.

Men in trade unions take a pledge to end violence against women

Men have been encouraged to take a pledge to end violence against women, often through global union-led actions, and inspired by union actions in Australia and Canada.  For example, in the opening of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) Congress in 2014, the White Ribbon Campaign posters were exhibited and trade union leaders were photographed making a pledge – “This is my Oath” – to end violence against women. This action followed a resolution by the ITF Women’s Committee in May 2013 asking general secretaries of all ITF affiliated unions to lead and implement the ITF campaign against all forms of violence against women and to support the UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on 25 November. Since then, other global union federations have carried out similar pledges.[6]

Tackling how men workers discuss violence against women through theatre

In Denmark, unions working together to raise awareness about the impact of domestic violence in the workplace have carried out a range of activities with men. This includes a play commissioned in 2009 by the theatre company “The Travelling Stage” in partnership with the White Ribbon campaign, which looked at the difficulty faced by men when they talk to a male colleague who is perpetrating domestic violence (ETUC, 2016).


[1] An example is Oxfam’s ‘We Can’ Campaign in South Asia which urged participants – male and female - to reflect on their own attitudes and beliefs and to reject all forms of violence against women before encouraging participants to become ‘Change Makers’. The aim is to move beyond behaviour change to wider social transformation. See: https://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/our-work/gender-justice/ending-violence-against-women/we-can

[3] The videos of the men reading the testimonies can be seen on: https://www.handsoffpantson.org/

[4] The Campaign – using the symbol of a wide ribbon – started in response to the horrific murder of 14 women on 6 December 1989, at the E?cole Polytechnique in Montre?al. The Campaign has become a global campaign and focuses on changing policy, raising public awareness and challenges men on their actions, ideas and beliefs. See: www.whiteribbon.com.

[5] See: https://www.itfglobal.org/en/region/itf-africa  

[6] See the 2017 Public Services International Congress: http://congress.world-psi.org/documents/psi-pledge-en/

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