Laura Davies » Deputy High Commissioner to Sri Lanka and the Maldives

Laura Davies

Former Deputy High Commissioner to Sri Lanka and the Maldives

Part of FCDO Human Rights UK in Sri Lanka

25th November 2014 Colombo, Sri Lanka

What makes a man: why sexism is a men’s issue

I wanted to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women by partnering with others who feel as strongly. The reaction was so positive that I’ve ended up with two blogs and a campaign.

Kofi Annnan described violence against women as a pandemic. Globally, one in three women will have experienced some form of violence. In some countries, that increases to 70%. Problems in both the UK and Sri Lanka are well documented – violence against women isn’t an issue of geography, culture or wealth.  This post is written by Senel Wanniarachchi, one of Sri Lanka’s youth delegates to the 69th UN General Assembly. He talks168013_1712231038975_6058056_n passionately about why violence against women is also a men’s issue:

A wise man called Johan Galtung once said that violence exists in three main manifestations. Often, what we understand as violence is only ‘direct violence’ (everything from a genocide to a catcall). Other subtler, understated, but no less detrimental shapes are ‘structural violence’ and ‘cultural violence’. The former, Galtung said, is ‘violence that exists when some groups are assumed to have, and in fact do have, more access to goods, resources, and opportunities than others’. The latter refers to ‘prevailing attitudes and beliefs we have been taught since our childhood that surround us in daily life’.

When our women and girls are killed, gang raped, beaten or otherwise abused, we have learnt to recognize these, reluctantly, as expressions of violence that exist in our society. However, when women are denied equal opportunities, when they are underrepresented in our national legislatures and key decision making bodies, objectified and oversexualized in the media and when their potential is limited by restrictive gender roles and they are denied access to basic reproductive services and control over their own bodies, we fail to recognize these as equally brutal expressions of violence and, in extension, as social problems.

Sri Lanka's Legal Aid Commission pin the white ribbon onto British High Commissioner John Rankin
Sri Lanka’s Legal Aid Commission pin the white ribbon onto British High Commissioner John Rankin

We limit Gender Based Violence to a ‘women’s issue’. Almost never do we talk about how sexism hurts us men. Of course when we see the grotesque, perverse ways in which women are held back by patriarchy and gender roles, the focus on women is understandable. But this doesn’t mean men aren’t affected as well. Our society’s expectations of men, our very definitions of what it means to be a man, have made us internalize an idealized standard of manhood. The gender roles that dictate to our women and girls that they should be subordinate, subservient and timid, demand that men should be aggressive, dominant, authoritative and able to provide for their families. Boys and men are often socialized into accepting violence as appropriate male conduct, a means to display their masculine heroism and to protect their ‘honour’.

Often, men and boys who cannot or choose not to fulfil these expectations face immense pressure.Analysts suggest that this is part of the reason why Sri Lanka’s male suicide rate is much higher than that of females (particularly in rural agrarian communities), because men have the added pressure of providing for their women and children. Failing in this (largely as a result of macroeconomic disparities plaguing our society) makes one ‘less of a man’. These expectations also restrict men’s ability to see themselves as caring, non-violent and responsible partners.Too often in addressing Violence Against Women, men have been left out of the equation. While men are often perpetrators of violence, men, particularly young men, are also victims. The way we look at violence is often heteronormative; we do not recognize that men and women with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities may be double victimized.

Forum Theatre Group perform at aBHC hosted event for the campaign against sexual violence.
Forum Theatre Group perform at a BHC hosted event for the campaign against sexual violence.

Violence is learnt behaviour. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), boys growing up in families where the father is violent are three times more likely to become perpetrators of violence in their adulthood. The flipside then, is that if our children can be socialized into being violent, they can also be socialized into being respectful, kind and compassionate.

As a society we need to socialize our children, especially our boys, to stand up to misogyny, to intimate partner violence, to street harassment, to victim blaming and to all the other projections of structural and cultural violence that Galtung spoke about.”


The first post has contributions from Sepali Kottegoda, Director of the Sri Lankan Women and Media Collective and Nazeefa Saeed from the Maldivian organisation Hope for Women, in which they both take stock of our efforts so far.

One of the obstacles to stopping the violence is society’s reluctance to speak up: even across the European Union, only 13% of women report violence against them to the police. That’s why the British High Commission is supporting UN Women’s #orangeurworld campaign for 16 days of activism leading up to World Human Rights Day on 10 December. This year’s theme is “orange your neighbourhood” – to stand up and be counted, tweet or send us photos of yourselves in orange.