Q&A: Expect 'exponential growth' of violence prevention work in Asia-Pacific

A counselling service for women in Papua New Guinea. Photo by: DFAT / CC BY

BANGKOK — Outdated social norms based on men’s power and control over women must be replaced by healthier norms based on equality, respect, and nonviolence. And the development community currently knows more about how to do that than ever before, said Anna-Karin Jaffors, deputy regional director of UN Women’s regional office for Asia and the Pacific, at a recent event in Bangkok.

The Asia-Pacific region has some of the highest reported levels of violence against women and girls in the world. The proportion of women who have reported experiencing physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime ranges from 15 percent in Japan and Laos, to 68 percent in Kiribati and Papua New Guinea, according to a United Nations Population Fund regional snapshot.

Ten years ago, Partners for Prevention sought to research root causes of violence against women in several countries in Asia and the Pacific. Later, that research informed localized interventions to prevent violence in Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Vietnam.

The joint U.N. Development Programme, UNFPA, UN Women, and U.N. Volunteers program celebrated its learnings as well as the end of its 10-year work this week in Bangkok. One of the greatest lessons is that violence is not inevitable and it can be prevented, Jaffors said. Not only this, but social norm change is “possible in a much shorter time frame than we had expected,” she added.

Evaluations of primary prevention interventions in the Asia-Pacific region are few, and “we still need to invest much more in preventing violence, and sharpen our ability to do so reliably,” Jaffors said, adding that intensive capacity building was necessary in each country in order to move from violence against women and girls response and awareness raising activities — which many project teams were more familiar with — to primary prevention.

The Partners for Prevention program worked from the ground up by first understanding social norms, then engaging communities and community facilitators in participatory group approaches to reflect on harmful norms and gender stereotypes, a process that looked different in every country. In Vietnam, for example, the program engaged male youths and older men to form male advocate clubs. In Bangladesh, meanwhile, the program targeted adolescents, parents, teachers, and sports instructors at community clubs for young people.

Most of the recruited program facilitators are from the communities where the intervention was implemented, and each project was overseen by a local organization. The hope, according to Anik Gevers, research consultant for Partners for Prevention, is that the community will use their greatly expanded capacity to continue building on the projects despite the end of the regional program.  

Devex caught up with Gevers, who has expertise in the development of evidence-based interventions focused on primary prevention of violence against women and children, to find out what she’ll take away from the program. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Earlier, you mentioned the goal of the project was not just to create a “nicer patriarch” in these communities. How did the engagement with men and young males in Partners for Prevention guard against that?

I think it comes down to making sure that the interventions are promoting critical thinking. It is key that your facilitators are sufficiently far along in their transformations to be able to do that for others. At the end of the day, how it happens on the ground is really up to the facilitators, so making sure that you have built good capacity and invested in their transformation to be able to support that among others is very important.

In the groups, you first have to get the men there and then encourage them to critically reflect on what’s going on: How do I see it in my community? How am I contributing to the problem? It’s also important that we don’t engage men alone, that women are engaged with them and are also given the floor — and men are present and have to listen and practice that behavior. We need to ensure that women’s opinions and voices are valued and reinforced and amplified throughout the intervention.

Several project stakeholders mentioned that the difficulty remains in “selling” the idea of prevention of violence — especially since ideally it would then be something you don’t see at all. How do you sell prevention to the more skeptical stakeholders?

I think we need to define as a prevention field what it is we’re moving toward and hoping to achieve rather than what we are moving away from. And so that forward looking part, and having many more nuanced indicators at the community level of gender equality manifesting in different ways, will be an important part of the conversation. We had men in Vietnam becoming more aware of women’s unpaid work and how much women are juggling, for example, and becoming more appreciative of that. In most countries we worked, I would say a lot of men now would phrase it as “Now I help my wife or my partner.” Obviously, we want to get them to the point where they’re not helping their partner, since it’s a shared responsibility, but I think it’s a positive sign toward transformation.

“At the facilitator level, people would come back and say, ‘I didn’t know it would feel that way that my grandchildren would be happy to see me instead of scared.’”

— Anik Gevers, research consultant for Partners for Prevention

What was telling was the profound changes in how emotional men got, that they could have close relationships with their children or grandchildren or wife or partner by approaching those relationships differently. Documenting that systematically across the board was really important. At the facilitator level, people would come back and say, “I didn’t know it would feel that way that my grandchildren would be happy to see me instead of scared.” It’s something they’d never thought about, which is why encouraging critical consciousness is so important.

What do you think the difficulties would be in trying to scale these interventions?

Scaling is something the field is struggling with overall, it’s not just this region and not just this project. I think the most feasible model may be something like a rolling scale-up, not taking it national right away. But identifying what organization could run a program in a certain area, whether a province or a district, and doing it that way while making sure you aren’t compromising on quality. When you grow community activists, that will help scale up a program, but it has to become part of people’s everyday lives

Several program stakeholders have mentioned that violence prevention is possible, and it’s the “how” of prevention that remains the biggest question. What do you think Partners for Prevention learned about the “how?”

“I would say we have a lot, in some ways I’d say it’s still growing, but we have more evidence than we’ve ever had before on how to do this work well.”

I think the biggest thing is that a lot of capacity development is needed. Quite intensive capacity development is necessary even for organizations and agencies that are experienced and successful at doing response work — because primary prevention is quite a fundamental paradigm shift. Just like we all had to learn how to do response and support work, which we have become very experienced in, now it’s about different learning and different models.

I think people need to be committed to strong and intensive capacity development partnerships, which requires a lot of funding. And to stick close to the existing evidence. In some ways, I would say we have a lot, in some ways I’d say it’s still growing, but we have more evidence than we’ve ever had before on how to do this work well.

The next few years you will see an exponential growth in evidence-based primary prevention because so many people are now doing more capacity building. The DFID What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls Program, the Prevention Collaborative, all of this is contributing to capacity. But I hope the partners involved in Partners for Prevention will have seized the capacity the program provided. It’s important to have that first group of pilot facilitators — those really talented people — to go on to build capacity in the country.

About the author

  • Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.