Do more equitable divisions of caregiving contribute to lower rates of violence against women or children?

According to the recently published State of the World’s Fathers (SOWF) report on fatherhood and caregiving, the answer is yes it does. Alarmingly high levels of violence against women persist worldwide, with the World Health Organisation revealing that 35 per cent of women around the world have experienced either intimate partner violence, or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.

These figures are echoed in the SOWF report, which found that ‘approximately one in three women experiences violence at the hands of a male partner in her lifetime’. Additionally, ‘three-quarters of children between two and 14  years of age in low- and middle-income countries experience some form of violent discipline in the home.’ The report also reveals that rates of gender-based violence (GBV) against pregnant women ranged from 2 per cent in Australia, Cambodia, Denmark, and the Philippines to 14 per cent in Uganda.

Involved fatherhood is one way to address these high levels of violence, according to the report. Specifically, it argues that a more equitable division of caregiving contributes to lower rates of violence against women and children. It draws on evidence from Norway where a nationally representative study found that rates of violence against children – by mothers and fathers – were lower in households where men’s and women’s caregiving were more equal.

With data showing that ‘boys who saw their fathers use violence against their mothers are more likely to grow up to use violence against their own partners compared to the sons of non-violent fathers’, the report sees working with men, as fathers and partners, as a strategic entry point to ‘concurrently address intimate partner violence and violence against children, as well as to break the intergenerational cycle of violence.’ It argues that when daughters and sons see their fathers in respectful, non-violent, equitable relationships with their mothers and other women, they internalise the idea that men and women are equal and pass this on to their own children.

Involved, non-violent fatherhood can also help break cycles of violence against women. To address violence, according to the report, men need to become more involved in unpaid care work, but there is also need for ‘a transformation in social norms and attitudes around gender, power and violence.’

This first State of the World’s Fathers report is extremely important for making the case that engaging men and boys in unpaid care work contributes to gender equality, and I wholeheartedly support the argument that men’s increased involvement in caregiving – as fathers and partners – can play a significant role in creating more respectful and egalitarian relationships and promoting non-violent relationships. At the same time, given that violence against women and children can take multiple forms and is perpetrated by a variety of actors, tackling it requires attention to a number of interrelated areas, including prevention, treatment and legal frameworks, as revealed in a multi-country study on engaging men and boys to address sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV).

There also needs to be a more comprehensive, multi-layered approach to be able to address the different types of violence. For example, drawing on stories of activists working to end SGBV, and the experiences of civil society practitioners and researchers working on the issue, Institute of Development Studies researchers found that ‘legacies of racial and economic inequality in South Africa shape contemporary experiences of violence’. As such, they argue that addressing SGBV is not enough if it is not connected to political processes of change. In the case of South Africa, it ‘cannot be disconnected from the intersections between gender, class and race-based discrimination and inequality that manifest in the political and economic realities, and struggles experienced in people’s everyday lives.’

Still, addressing violence against women and children is not simple, and this report must be applauded for its well-researched and insightful efforts to ensure men and boys greater involvement in unpaid care work as a way to move us closer to a non-violent and more gender-just world.

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