Women’s battle for equality is bringing benefits in health, finance and political participation but there could be an ugly side-effect – rising levels of violence against them.
Campaigners at Women Deliver, the world’s largest conference on women’s health and rights in a decade, said many men saw women’s increasing empowerment as a threat to their masculinity.
“It’s something we observe in many parts of the world,” said Babatunde Osotimehin, head of the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA).
“We need to work with men to make them feel less threatened about their wives.”
He cited Bangladesh as an example of a country where there were signs of increased gender based violence as women improved their status, became more educated and entered paid work.
Osotimehin also described visiting a project in Mexico which was helping women expand their coffee businesses.
The increased profits had helped them send their children to school, but their success was fueling resentment among their husbands.
“They said we were trying to turn their women against them,” Osotimehin said. “The husbands felt that we were taking away their power and authority. I expect that if we don’t manage that situation very well there might be a spike in gender based violence.”
Osotimehin, who comes from Nigeria, also cited three separate cases where Nigerians living in the United States had killed their wives.
The men had married very young, unskilled women from Nigeria. But when the women had arrived in the United States they gained degrees, got jobs and started earning a living.
The statistics on gender-based violence are shocking. One in three women will be subjected to violence during her lifetime, according to U.N. data, and one in four women is physically or sexually abused during pregnancy.
Plan International CEO Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen said it was disappointing to see the statistics had moved little in 20 years and were, if anything, getting worse.
“We are going through a period where the empowered woman is … scaring a lot of men,” Albrectsen told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“The notion of masculinity and role of men in society is changing as rapidly as the role of women. That is creating a tension which unfortunately often ends in violence.”
Osotimehin agreed that many men could not cope with the changes.
“One of the things we haven’t done well … because we have been so seized by trying to make sure that women get all their rights … is that we haven’t worked enough with men and boys,” he said.
“We need to get them to understand that it doesn’t take anything away from you if you have parity with your girlfriend, your wife, your friend.”
He called for sexuality and relationship education to be included in every school curriculum and integrated into wider development initiatives.
This is also crucial for girls, many of whom grow up believing that men are justified in using violence against women, experts said.
But some speakers said it was simplistic to say increasing empowerment would lead to more gender-based violence.
They said empowering girls and women in conjunction with wider education campaigns was a way of reducing violence.
Experts also pointed out that as women became more empowered they were more likely to report abuse, as seen in some Nordic countries.
Some 5,500 delegates from over 160 countries are attending the four-day Women Deliver conference in Copenhagen.
Vivian Onana, a Women Deliver youth activist from Kenya, told a session on gender-based violence that many women kept quiet about domestic abuse because of stigma.
Parents would often send daughters in violent marriages back to their husbands because it was shameful for them to return to the parental home.
“It’s very sad … do you want to die in your marriage because you have to keep a face for your family?” she said.
Onana told men in the audience they should get involved.
“If you empower a woman you empower yourself. If you’re a strong man you need a strong woman,” she said.