Can You Really Change Men Who Abuse?

A new study shows how change is possible.

Father and son.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

When the first flood of #MeToo stories began, a handful of men, including Matt Damon, invoked their outrage because they had daughters. Though many were castigated for this myopic cry of support—after all, shouldn’t they be upset about any women being treated badly, regardless of whether or not they might be their daughters?—research shows that dads in particular can play a critical role in either perpetuating or reducing gender-based violence, and not just dads of daughters. When men experience violence as kids, they’re 2.5 times more likely to use it against partners when they’re older. In other words, sons are more likely to be abusers later if they see their fathers acting violently toward their mothers.

How do we get fathers around the world to shift their attitudes and change their behaviors—and not just if they have daughters? It’s a tall order. But new research from the global nongovernmental organization Promundo suggests a way forward. Promundo, an organization that engages men in the fight for gender equality, developed a social science–based curriculum for couples in Rwanda that it said reduced intimate-partner violence by 40 percent after almost two years, shifted relationship dynamics (especially when it came to decision-making and use of contraception), and increased the amount of time that men spent on unpaid care work tasks—like caring for kids, cooking, and cleaning. A test of this curriculum through a randomized control trial showed significant and sustained change in men’s behavior over time—at both nine months and 21 months into the curriculum.

The program—called Bandebereho (meaning “role model” in Kinyarwanda)—featured a series of 15 classes developed based on the sociological theory that “gender inequalities are reproduced or transformed through everyday interactions, and in particular through personal relationships,” said Ruti Levtov, director of research, evaluation, and learning at Promundo and one of the project’s lead researchers. Couples attended some classes together—and other courses were for men only. Participants learned about the difference between sex and gender, how to be an active father, and what intimate-partner violence looks like. (You can access the curriculum here.) They answered survey questions before they started, then again almost two years after finishing the courses, and participated in focus groups about the experience.

“We know that fathers’ behavior can have a huge impact on their children,” said Levtov. “Fathers who have close, nonviolent relationships with their children and who share in the child care and chores can help raise sons who are more supportive of gender equality. We also know that men’s rigid attitudes about manhood and masculinity are the strongest factors associated with perpetrating sexual harassment. We need training like this in the #MeToo age to start thinking how to raise the next generation.”

The circumstances in Rwanda were unique—for instance, in the rural area where the research was conducted, the government encouraged participation and broadcasted support for gender equality. But because the basic concepts of the curriculum are part of a global program, called Program P, researchers are confident that some of key ideas undergirding the curriculum can be adapted to the U.S. and other contexts.

For instance, targeting men as they’re transitioning into fatherhood and helping couples develop communication skills to strengthen their relationships are particularly important features that should be replicated, researchers say. And like the Rwanda intervention, other programs should create a space for couples to question and reflect on gender norms, practice new, more equitable behaviors, and start applying them to their own lives and relationships. A few other rules of thumb: The curriculum is more effective with multiple sessions over time rather than a one-off (in Rwanda, participants attended classes over a period of four to five months), and if they’re integrated into existing, local health systems. In the U.S., that could mean including them in existing programming for birth preparation and prenatal consultations.

Many men who participated in this program reported realizing that they didn’t need to feel embarrassed for doing what they previously considered to be “women’s work.”

“In my perspective, I found that there is nothing a husband cannot do,” said one Rwandan man after finishing the program. “You take clothes and wash them. There is no shame doing that really! … Having washed her clothes and your clothes while she was busy doing other things which are important for your family, there is no shame there. That is why I say that our roles are equal; there is nothing she can do that I can’t do. Similarly, there is nothing I can do that she can’t do.”