Taking the bull by the horns? Men learn how to treat women better

Sexual harassment is a global problem needing local solutions. One common thread? It helps when men acknowledge of their own free will that they have a problem treating women with respect. Part 9 of Reaching for Equity: a global series on gender and power.

Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Commuters often jam into subway cars during the morning commute in Tokyo, as this 2008 file photo shows. Such crowding makes groping a common form of sexual assault on young women.

Women around the world have been finding their voice in recent months, accusing men – generally powerful men – of sexual harassment ranging from knee fondling to rape. High profile cases have made men more aware of the scale of the problem, and programs are popping up in many countries to help those suffering from “toxic masculinity.”

In this article, Monitor correspondents look at all kinds of ways of teaching men how to treat women with respect and redress the gender power imbalance, from anger management classes in Mexico to lapel badges on Japanese schoolgirls’ coats.

-Peter Ford

SOSHANGUVE, SOUTH AFRICA - On a recent summer morning, in the courtyard of a squat brick house in this township outside Pretoria, Tumelo Mabena leans over a white board and scrawls a short phrase in block letters.


He taps his pen against the board. “What do you think when you hear these words?” he asks the group of about 15 men slumped in plastic chairs in front of him. 

“It’s something that when a woman says it, you feel offended,” pipes up one man. “It means you’re showing too much emotion.”

“It means you must be man enough to kill a snake if a woman asks you to do it,” offers another, and the group explodes in laughter.

Mr. Mabena cracks a smile too. “We are laughing, but this is what we are here to talk about, in a serious way,” he says.

It’s the first day of a five-day training he conducts regularly in Soshanguve, a low-slung, sandy township, for men trying to change the way they interact with the women in their lives. Some are estranged from their families. Many have children they rarely see. And others simply want to control their anger.

The idea, says Pule Goqo, who manages the Soshanguve workshops, is to get men talking among themselves about one of the community’s most poisonous open secrets – sexual assault and domestic violence.

“All your life, you hear couples fighting next door, the woman screaming, and you see no one do anything about it,” Mr. Goqo says. “So you think that is normal life.”

This is true across South Africa. In Diepsloot, a township about 40 miles away, over half of men questioned in a recent survey admitted to having been physically or sexually violent with women in the previous year.

That violence has historical roots. For black men belittled daily by the apartheid system, control over their wives was often the last remaining shred of power they had.

Today it is unemployment that emasculates many men. “Guys feel helpless when they have to ask their wives or girlfriends for money,” says Mabena.

The men who come to his workshops realize that violence is destructive in their lives, and they’re looking for a way out, he adds.

He knows the story well: as a boy he often hid while his father beat his mother, and when he began dating himself, “I had a lot of anger. I would beat the girls whenever we would fight.” And sex came by force too. “When I wanted it, I took it,” he says. “I didn’t ask.” 

Then he became a father, and around the same time he met Mr. Goqo, who began inviting him to Sunday breakfast and taking him to church with his family. For the first time, Mabena says, he saw an example of a man who was powerful in a very different way than the men he had known growing up.

It was not long before he was leading the workshops himself, speaking to other men about the importance of setting new examples of masculinity in the township.

Back in the courtyard in Soshanguve, he’s asking the men to think about who their role models are and why.

“My mother, because she was there for me even when I was in jail,” mumbles one man.

“My gogo,” says a second, using a local word for grandmother. “She raised me up right.”

Mabena nods. “Why do you think we have so few men to look up to?” he asks. The men chime in again – their dads weren’t around, they beat their mothers, they drank and didn’t work.

“But that can change with us,” he says. Slowly, like they only half believe it themselves, the men around him begin to nod.

-Ryan Lenora Brown

* * *

Life in an American corporate office is rarely as violent as it is in a South African township. But sexual harassment is aggressive too, and nearly two thirds of US women say they suffer from it in their workplace. The standard tool to reduce offensive male behavior is a training video; does that work?

MILL VALLEY, Calif. - At first glance, Janet Conley looks more like an accountant than a crusader. Her mild manner and sweater-and-slacks ensemble seem better suited to crunching numbers in her climate-controlled office here than dealing with the murky business of sexual harassment in the workplace.

But that’s what she does, writing scripts for videos meant to train employees to recognize and combat sexual harassment. Her goal: to craft stories that reflect real-life situations women face at work, and show clients of all genders how to put an end to bad behavior.

“Hopefully we can create some empathy – or at least make the point [that] this is not OK, and there will be consequences,” Ms. Conley says.

For decades, this sort of video has been standard fare at US firms; managers require their employees to watch them on the assumption that they explain what constitutes harassment – and that men will behave better towards women when they understand that.

But recent revelations of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse in workplaces across America have made it clear that this is not really happening. Around 60 percent of women still say they experience sexual harassment in the workplace, according to a 2016 report by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

One big problem with sexual harassment training is that much of it was not designed principally to prevent harassment; it was mainly meant to protect companies from legal liability. Since the Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that a firm could avoid responsibility in a sexual harassment suit if it had put anti-harassment policies in place, boilerplate training videos have boomed.

“Most [companies] have installed training and grievance procedures and called it a day,” sociologists Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev wrote in the Harvard Business Review. “They’re satisfied as long as the courts are. They don’t bother to ask themselves whether the programs work.”

Conley and her colleagues at Kantola Productions are well aware of the bad rap surrounding training videos. “You hear people complain about harassment training and ‘Ah, it’s hokey,’ ” says Steve Kantola, who founded the firm in 1985. “But it doesn't have to be that way.”

His aim, he says, is to produce thoughtful, high-quality videos that draw on real-life situations. Each module takes about a year to produce. And he hires legal experts and researchers to keep him up-to-date on the latest laws and studies about what makes anti-harassment training effective.

The company’s latest project, for example, encourages bystanders to intervene if they witness incidents of sexual harassment, and suggests things that employees can actually say.

“We don't want to put the pressure only on the victim,” Conley explains. “If you’re comfortable speaking up, you have every right to speak up and say something. It’s about building a sense of obligation.”

 “We have seen progress,” says Conley, who recalls a time when pin-up photos of naked women hung on the walls of auto repair shops. “But this goes to pretty deep human nature, so it’s going to take time. We just have to keep working at it.”

-Jessica Mendoza

* * *

In few parts of the world do men pride themselves on their authority over women as strongly as they do in Japan. That sometimes manifests itself in grotesque ways. But schoolgirls are fighting back.

TOKYO - In much of East Asia, even talking in public about such a taboo subject as sexual assault has long seemed an impossible task. But that appears to be changing as more and more women speak out against the region’s deep-seated misogyny. 

Take the “Groping Prevention Activities Center” for example. Launched in 2016 by Yayoi Matsunaga, a freelance journalist in Osaka, Japan, its mission is to help protect women from chikan, a Japanese term denoting the notorious bane that is men groping women and girls on crowded trains.

Ms. Matsunaga got the idea for the center after she heard about one of her friends’ daughters who had been regularly groped on her journey to and from school. To ward off aggressors the girl had made a card that she attached to her bag by a string. “GROPING IS A CRIME” it read. “I WONT BEAR IT SILENTLY.”

The label worked, but it made the girl feel self-conscious because no one else had one. That’s when Matsunaga stepped in. She launched a crowdfunding campaign to pay for thousands of attention-grabbing badges with similar warnings and colorful cartoons. The campaign raised more than $19,000 in three months and now the badges are available in shops near metro stations in Osaka and Tokyo.

Michael Holtz
Anti-groping badges are on display at a souvenir shop in Tokyo.

“I believed it was wrong to let my friend’s daughter fight all by herself,” Matsunaga says. “I wanted more people to become aware of the problem.”

She has succeeded. Last year, her center held a competition to design a new badge. It drew more 1,300 entries from over 250 schools and universities and sparked a public debate about the prevalence of groping and sexual assault. The winning design features a drawing of a girl with pink hair holding a pair of gold handcuffs in front of her eyes as if they were glasses.

On a crowded shopping street in the Harajuku neighborhood of Tokyo, one of the city’s most popular destinations for young people, dozens of Matsunaga’s pins hang from the sides of souvenir stalls. Each one sells for about $5 and comes with a brochure with information about the center and police statistics about groping: 73 percent of victims are in their teens or 20s, 54 percent incidents happen on trains, and 30 percent of those incidents occur during the morning rush hour.

Aoi Osawa, a 14-year-old girl with braces and her hair pulled back in a ponytail, studies the badges warily. She says she would buy one if one of her friends did too, but she doesn’t want to be the first. She likes the idea of the badges; she’s just skeptical of how much difference wearing one would make.

“Most of my friends say they’ve been groped on the train,” Aoi says. “It’s a big problem in Japan. I’m really not sure what it would take to change men’s attitudes.”

-Michael Holtz

* * *

‘Machismo’ – it’s a Latin American word that has entered the global vocabulary, but at home it has an especially lethal meaning: Latin America is the most dangerous continent in the world to be a woman. In Mexico, a non-profit is trying to change that culture, man by individual man.

MEXICO CITY - On a chilly Tuesday evening in Mexico City, sixteen men trickle into a beige-and-mint colored meeting room. They sit down in a circle of folding plastic chairs, sharing hushed “hellos” and shy “how are yous” and wait for the clock to strike seven. 

They are a mixed crowd: one man with silver hair and impeccably shined dress shoes sits across from another with paint-stained fingers and a knit hat. But they’re all here for the same reason. These men have treated their partners or spouses violently, and they want to change.

Latin America has a deadly and deserved reputation for violence against women and machismo. Seven of the ten countries in the world with the highest female murder rates are in Latin America, according to a recent international report. (Mexico ranks sixth.)

Gendes, the nongovernmental organization organizing tonight’s meeting, is working to tackle cultural attitudes towards masculinity, power, violence, and authority. At tonight’s meeting, participants will grapple with those issues up-close and personal.

Unlike the US, courts in Mexico don’t send men to therapy like this after committing acts of violence. Each man turned out tonight of his own will. Most have heard about Gendes from the women’s group to which their partner had turned for help.

The participants go around the room introducing themselves and confessing to an act of violence that they’ve committed this week. Intimacy is a key part of the program, explains Iván Salazar Mediola, who runs the counseling program known as Men Working (on themselves).

The men scooch their chairs together into pairs and read out pledges. “I promise to be intimate and not violent,” says one. Looking him in the eye his partner responds, “I can help you.”

Carlos is attending his second session today. He learned about Gendes from a friend at work who was worried about the increasingly heated conflicts Carlos was having with his girlfriend.

“She’s obsessed with Facebook and social media,” Carlos says. “I let my mind run wild about what she could possibly be doing on there all the time.”

He has threatened her and verbally abused her, he admits. “I’ve felt jealousy before, in past relationships,” he says. “But it’s never been like this.” So he joined this group to regain control of his emotions.

“I want to find a way to not let my anger take over,” he says.

As the two-hour session progresses, the men work their way through the coursebook, taking it in turns to read out definitions of issues such as authority or frustration, and then applying the vocabulary to their act of violence that week.

Next, one participant walks the group through his violent act from start to finish. The rest of the men listen, helping him decipher what set him off, what his reaction stemmed from, and who had been affected by the violent altercation.

Jose has been coming to these sessions for more than a year; recently he was asked to repeat the first part of the two-part course after “committing a very violent act,” he says.

“I’ve exploded violently toward so many people in my life. I grew up around violence and learned it as an effective way to express myself. I realized I needed to change for my own physical and mental health,” he explains.

“For me, this is about getting more tools to deal with a violent past and the way I feel or become when I’m overwhelmed by anger.”

Mexico and 16 other Latin American and Caribbean countries have passed laws recently to punish femicide more heavily than other murders. But sloppy police work and sexism mean few of these crimes have been punished, according to a report last year by UN Women.

“We still live in a world driven by a culture of violence,” says Salazar. “It’s not just about a new law or political proposal, but a cultural change with tangible results. That takes time and hard work.”

-Whitney Eulich

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