Four things I wish all human rights activists would remember when discussing violence against men

* This article focuses on popular discourse in the field of GBV through a binary lens, as that is the unfortunate contextual reality in many parts of the world. Dissecting this discourse is a critical first step in moving towards a world which is more inclusive of people of diverse sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics (SOGIESC). COFEM’s definition of women is inclusive of trans women. *


by Fatima Saeed, COFEM member and feminist activist

Within the human rights community, there are often tensions on constructive and meaningful ways to address violence against men. In a community often united on many fronts, this chasm on formative ways to address violence against men without undermining efforts to address violence against women and girls is not only disconcerting, it is also unnecessary and holds us back from achieving our mutual objectives. Why is it that a community that advocates for similar causes cannot align on one close to all our hearts – ending men’s violence against men and women? 

As a woman’s rights activist, I have often experienced a multitude of emotions while reading reports on violence against men—I can relate to the pain experienced by the survivors, the frustration of those fighting for justice on their behalf, and the despair of service providers overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem. At the same time, I have often felt uncomfortable when reading reports that draw unnecessary comparisons between violence against men and women and indignation that alleges structural discrimination against male survivors. Resolving the tensions within our community requires nuanced analysis and recognition of distinctions as well as the similarities between violence perpetrated against men and women. A feminist perspective offers just such a framework. Integrating the following feminist perspectives in our discussions can open the way for constructive dialogue, build on the lessons learnt by women’s rights activist over the years and create synergies in our work to prevent violence against men and women:

  • Similar yet distinct: Almost all discussions on violence against men mention and inevitably draw comparisons with violence against women (VAW). This is understandable since all violence is gendered. However, even though gender plays a role in almost all violence that occurs, violence against men and VAW is very different in that they have different root causes and drivers. Unlike VAW, there is no evidence to suggest that violence against men has one underlying determinant: gender inequality and misogyny. While all forms of VAW are rooted in women’s inferior social, political and economic status  (also known as the global gender hierarchy), violence against men is often driven by other factors. For instance, sexual assault against groups of men in conflict can be used as a military tactic to assert power over a rival ethnic or political group. 

Not addressing these unique root causes can conflate different issues and create the impression that men and women suffer equally from violence. This is incorrect and hurtful for those who have fought for decades to ensure that women’s unique vulnerabilities and experiences are recognized. Therefore, all human rights advocates  must highlight the distinct drivers and impacts of different types of violence on men and VAW and insist on specialized programming, services and responses to meet the distinct needs of female and male survivors.

Recognizing men as the overwhelming perpetrators of violence against men and women is key to challenging patriarchal conceptions of power which drive all violence. Within the human rights community, we must critically analyze and gather further evidence on the drivers, patterns and prevalence of male violence against men and women and use that to inform our work.  

  • It’s not a competition: As mentioned above, discussions on violence against men often (understandably) include comparisons to violence against women. However, far too often, the comparisons are drawn in a manner that can quickly devolve into a competition. For instance, it is often stated that sexual assault against men in conflict settings is underreported, male victims get less help, or men face more stigma when reporting sexual assault. Notwithstanding the lack of sound evidence to back up these statements, they are also problematic because they can perpetuate a number of misunderstandings, ultimately causing more harm than good. For instance, such assertions can (un)intentionally, create the impression that the gender hierarchy does not exist or that violence against either sex impacts their agency in the same way. Similarly, it can divert resources and funds from GBV programming focused on women and girls by implying that women focused services are discriminating against men. 

All human rights activists must actively be aware of and counter the use of language perpetuating victimhood competition and take special care to dedicate attention to the distinct drivers of violence against men and VAW. We must also work together to ensure that limited resources are distributed equitably, and funds are not diverted from the already underfunded field of services to address VAW.

  • Policies on violence against women: Advocates calling for legislative action on violence against men often complain about lack of legislation on violence experienced by men particularly in relation to laws addressing violence against women and girls. This is a legitimate concern, and in line with feminist perspectives on this topic which advocate for specialized and separate services for male and female victims of violence. When advocates mention this concern without drawing attention to the longstanding efforts of feminists’ activists towards the development and implementation of these policies, it can create the misconception that policies on VAW are a result of partiality towards women. In reality, policies focusing on VAW are not a serendipitous happenstance or a result of partial treatment of women. Rather, they are the result of decades of relentless feminist activism dedicated to drawing attention to the overwhelming magnitude and scope of VAW.

 Acknowledging the efforts of women’s rights activists can create solidarity within the human rights community and create opportunities for learning and collaboration. 

Integrating the above feminist informed methods in our work can not only help bridge the divide within the human rights community but also act as a transformative force in our efforts to tackle the structural inequality and oppression that is at the heart of all violence.