KASESE DISTRICT, Uganda – Through his work as a village health team member in Kasese District, Uganda, Timothy Mbene Masereka had become adept at treating community members for illnesses such as malaria and pneumonia.
He felt out of his depth, however, trying to tackle one major health challenge he witnessed while making house calls: Violence against women and girls.
“During my sessions [in people’s homes], I saw that gender-based violence was a problem and I tried to handle it – but I lacked the skills to really solve the issue,” he says.
“In my community, men dominated, and gender-based violence wasn’t discussed openly.”
Globally, the topic of gender-based violence remains subject to shame, silence and stigma, despite being one of the world’s most commonly experienced human rights violations. According to the World Health Organization, nearly one in three women has faced intimate partner violence, non-partner sexual violence or both at least once in her life.
"I saw that gender-based violence was a problem – but I lacked the skills to really solve the issue.” - Timothy Masereka, male action mentor
Meanwhile, In Uganda, a staggering 95 per cent of women and girls reported in 2021 that they had survived physical violence, sexual violence or both since the age of 15.
Mr. Masereka was looking for a way to combat the abuse in his community. And on his journey towards advocacy for women and girls, he learned that while violence often starts with men, it can also end with them.
“Most perpetrators of gender-based violence are men,” he says. “[But] men and boys can be part of the solution.”
Shifting attitudes and supporting survivors
Gender-based abuse is propelled by norms and practices that perpetuate gender inequality. Changing a society’s beliefs and customs can be a difficult job – but it’s one necessary to stopping vicious cycles of violence.
It’s also one Mr. Masereka was excited to take on. In 2019, he was offered an opportunity to attend a training focused on addressing gender-based violence through Spotlight Initiative, a global United Nations initiative to eliminate violence against women and girls. There, he learned how to talk to men and boys about gender-based violence, how to counsel couples to resolve disputes through dialogue and how to identify and refer women and girls experiencing violence to authorities and services.
More than 1,500 men in Uganda have trained as positive male role models under Spotlight Initiative since 2019.
He also learned how to spot subtler forms of gender-based violence, including economic violence. “For example, the women plant [crops], but they were given no say in what happens to them,” Mr. Masereka said. “The men made [all] the decisions.”
Mr. Masereka is one of more than 1,500 men in Uganda to have been trained under Spotlight Initiative as a positive male role model since 2019. The training offers male mentors the opportunity to learn strategies for changing attitudes and norms that lead to violence, and supporting survivors’ access to services.
In Kasese District, Mr. Masereka works to raise awareness of gender-based violence by distributing information at church and community gatherings, conducts home visits to help couples resolve issues and leads discussions about violence among men and boys.
He also follows up with girls who drop out of school and works to support survivors of violence – including by escorting them to the police and local council offices to report incidents.
“[Men and boys] can use their power to change the community for the better,” he says.
Change starts at home
Uganda has made progress in recent years towards rejecting gender-unequal norms. Between 2000 and 2016, for example, the proportion of men who agreed with one or more justifications for physical abuse against a spouse dropped from 64 per cent to 41 per cent.
But many other gendered attitudes and expectations have proven difficult to break down. Some even held court in Mr. Masereka’s household until his training.
“I learned that chores can be performed by both men and women,” he says. “You get things done faster. For example, if my wife is preparing food, I can wash the dishes. If my wife is collecting firewood, I can get water. [This way,] we all eat earlier.”
People laughed at Mr. Masereka when they first saw him taking on domestic tasks. But their attitudes changed when they saw how much more productive his house had become.
His family dynamic has also shifted; Mr. Masereka says his relationship with his wife and children has improved.
“I feel happy because now the children can tell me anything,” he says. “My wife doesn’t hide anything – she is very clear and transparent, as I am with her.”
The global Spotlight Initiative to eliminate violence against women and girls is a United Nations high-impact initiative in partnership with the European Union and other partners. In Uganda, it is implemented by the Government of Uganda, the European Union, UN Women, UNFPA, UNICEF, UNDP and UNHCR in partnership with OHCHR, IOM, Pulse Lab and civil society. Since 2019, almost 300,000 people in Uganda have attended community programming on women’s rights with Spotlight Initiative support.