The UN's statistics on sexual violence are shocking, but they also point the way for change

Changing our idea of masculinity is the key to preventing violence against women

Where I come from, in Indonesia, to be a man means to be tough. It means, at times, to exercise your power over others, especially if they are weaker than you. It means using emotional, physical and sexual violence directed at women. I first noticed the normalisation of violence against women in our society while working at a women’s crisis center as a student. I listened to the women who attended the center, and understood, with horror, the prevalence of beatings and rape in their lives. But I didn’t know what other men thought, why some of them hurt the women they knew or sought out, whether they understood the effect of their actions.

Domestic violence became illegal in Indonesia in 2004, and we do have a Ministry for Women’s Empowerment to look after women’s interests, but engaging men on the topic has taken longer. Over the past seven years, I have been working with several organisations across Asia to listen and speak to men about their beliefs and experiences, and established a pro-feminist men’s movement called Alliansi Laki-Laki Baru (New Men Alliance) to help promote alternative ways of being a man.

This month, and after four years of research, the UN multi-country Study on Men and Violence in Asia and the Pacific has been published by Partners for Prevention, a UNDP, UNFPA, UN Women and UNV regional joint programme. In-depth interviews have been carried out with 10,000 men (as well as 3000 women) in six countries in Asia and the Pacific to understand men’s motivations, attitudes and beliefs surrounding gender-based violence, and the largest data base on this topic has been created. Using specially adapted hand held computer devices, the team behind the study were able to collate honest answers to sensitive questions about abuse, rape and relationships with women anonymously. At last, we can begin to understand why some men perpetrate violence against women, and others don’t, which will enable us to form solutions that encourage greater gender equality and prevent violence in the future.

The study reveals two important findings. First, it demonstrates how widespread violence against women is. Overall nearly half of those men interviewed reported using physical or sexual violence against a female partner, ranging from 26 per cent to 80 per cent across the sites. Nearly a quarter of men interviewed reported perpetrating rape against a woman or girl, ranging from 10 per cent to 62 per cent across the sites. Half of the men who had raped a girl or a woman did so for the first time when they were just teenagers, and a vast majority never faced any legal consequences. This is in alignment with other recent studies, for example a report from the World Health Organisation published earlier this year, which revealed that as many as 1 in 3 women around the world have been raped or physically abused. 80 per cent of these cases occurred at home with an intimate partner.

Second, it gives us insight into why this is the case. We know that gender inequality and unequal power between women and men are the main drivers of violence against women and girls. The study also reveals strong links between rape and sexual entitlement; the most common explanation provided by men who had committed rape was a belief that a man has the right to sex with a woman regardless of consent. It also shows links between men’s use of violence as an adult and their experiences of violence as a child. Many men who have used violence subscribe to ideals of masculinity that promote being tough controlling women and celebrate male heterosexual performance. 87 per cent of men interviewed believed that to be a man you need to be tough, and those who used violence against an intimate partner were also more likely to also control their partner’s behaviour and appearance.

The seeds for change have been planted, both at a policy and grassroots level. In Indonesia, the idea of a “new man” is beginning to take hold. Around the country I now run workshops for men who have perpetrated violence where they are invited to reflect on the effect violence has on their families, their wives, their children and themselves. Once men understand the true consequences of their attitudes and behaviour, they feel stronger, more respected, when they exercise the right not to use violence, not to strive to be dominant over women. We have a long way to go, but we are on the right path. We just need to make sure we follow it all the way to the end. As one man in Aceh put it, “I learned conditions that were not fair for women, and I think it is unfair to make women alone fight this inequality. If men get involved in working on empowerment, the results would be different.”

The UN multi country study 'Why do some men use violence against women and how can we prevent it?' Is available to download online at