The participation of men in gender equality work

At the center of Kim Thuoung Commune in northwest Vietnam, villagers stand in three lines, blinking, squinting and making other interesting facial expressions toward one other. Bursts of laughter fill the room as each group tries to communicate a specific number down through their line, without speaking or using hand motions. The exercise is supposed to highlight the challenges of communicating when lacking helpful tools. One encouraging aspect of this exercise is the number of men among the group of about 30 villagers contorting their faces in the spirit of a friendly competition. The workshop which the men are attending is animated by the conviction that the active participation of men is vital to address domestic violence at the community level.

When MCC conducted domestic violence trainings in partnership with women’s unions in Vietnam from 2010 to 2014, participation from men was almost nonexistent. In a culture in which men are typically the heads of households, garnering significant male support or  attendance for an event arranged and run by women proved challenging. A review of that
initial project stressed the importance of men’s participation in these trainings if attitudes and behaviors regarding domestic violence were to change. Training women’s union members, who then trained other women’s union members at the village level, was not successfully engaging those who hold disproportionate power in patriarchal family structures, namely men.

So in 2014, as MCC began new projects with villages of displaced ethnic minority Muong and Dao peoples in northwest Vietnam, project organizers approached the farmers’ and youth unions—which have mostly male membership—to take part alongside women’s union members in conflict resolution training. Instead of domestic violence being the primary focus of the training, it became one subject interlaced into broader conversations about understanding conflict, managing anger and fostering good communication.

Vuong Chien, a project manager with MCC Vietnam, is hopeful that imparting general conflict resolution skills will help to change attitudes about domestic violence and give couples the tools to navigate conflict in a positive way. “Many participants entered the training believing that conflict is always a negative thing, that it cannot be positive,” observed Chien. “So we shared some examples of how conflict can be positive, and also how to deal with anger in the initial moments of a conflict.”

Through lively role plays, group discussions and other interactive activities, both men and women are learning to understand conflict better, how to communicate effectively in resolving conflict and what to do with initial feelings of anger when a conflict arises. Workshop facilitators urged participants to try taking a break in the moment of their anger—to exercise, practice deep breathing, journal or talk with a friend—instead of jumping straight to violent reactions. “Do these alternate things first,” said Chien, “then go back and address the conflict after you’ve been able to calm down.” Participants were surprised to attend such a lively workshop, but also seemed to enjoy all the interaction, Chien reported. “We asked a lot of questions that made them have to think reflectively and respond.” After the initial trainings with representatives from the women’s, farmers’ and youth unions, participants returned home to share their newly acquired learnings with their corresponding union groups in the villages. By this method, both men and women have received the same information together, with women then passing along the information to women, and men passing the information to men. After the union representatives hold their own trainings at the village level, all of the villagers will be invited to a drama performed by the three unions, who will compete with one another in presenting what they have learned and how they are implementing that knowledge in their village groups. Such cultural performances will involve all members of the community: men, women, the elderly, children and influential village leaders.

The interactive workshops, corresponding local trainings and drama performances are also a way to get the conversation started about conflict and domestic violence. As in many other contexts globally, domestic violence is not often discussed in community settings in Vietnam, as it is still largely considered a private family issue. Typically, only serious cases are reported, such as those resulting in death. In 2010, the General Statistics Office of Vietnam conducted a national survey to determine the prevalence of domestic violence. Results indicated that 32 percent of women who had ever been married had experienced physical violence within their marriages, while 54 percent of women had suffered emotional abuse. Programs and communication campaigns that have sought to raise awareness have focused on women rather than men, thus arguably not addressing the causes of domestic violence.

In the Xuan Dai and Kim Thuoung communes, where MCC currently supports community development initiatives, issues of domestic violence are linked to the stresses of poverty and food shortages and exacerbated by alcohol consumption. In Xuan Dai Commune, roughly 30 percent of households live below the poverty line, and an additional 30 percent hover just above it, earning less than US$25 per person per month. Most of these villagers used to be forest dwellers, until much of their land was declared a protected national park in 2002, and they had to relocate outside the forest perimeter. Lacking knowledge of effective cultivation techniques, they struggle to farm the little arable land available. Men are traditionally responsible for the “heavy” labor of loading and transporting their limited crops, which is intensive only at certain times of the year. Women are tasked with more continuous responsibilities, such as weeding, fertilizing and similar tasks of tending the fields. This leaves many men with bouts of inactivity in a culture in which drinking alcohol is a social way to pass the time.

Alcohol has also been cited as a coping mechanism for men who are stressed about food shortages and being unable to provide for their families. Villagers report that idle time, combined with these life stresses and lubricated by alcohol consumption, results in some men becoming physically or psychologically aggressive with their families. As MCC seeks to involve both men and women in conflict transformation trainings in Xuan Dai and Kim Thuong communes, concurrent MCC projects strive to address the intertwined issues of food security and education. Each project was designed from the villagers’ own assessments of their communities’ needs.

Present cultural norms regarding gender equity and domestic violence are not likely to be reshaped with just one workshop, or even through a multi-year series of workshops. But there are glimpses of hope for reducing domestic violence. As workshop participants gathered to eat together after the first training in December 2014, people quickly noticed the absence of alcohol typically present at such meals. “This is the first time in my life I have eaten a [celebratory] meal like this without alcohol,” noted a surprised Phung Van Thuon from Kim Thuong Commune. “But if not drinking alcohol might mean less violence,” he reflected, “I can do without it.”

This project is still in its early stages. But men’s growing participation in the conflict transformation workshops, trainings and community awareness performances are encouraging steps forward in villagers being able to address family issues without violence.

Karen Treadway is MCC Co-Representative in Vietnam.

Learn more by reading the Spring edition of Intersections – Participation.

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