Kampala, Uganda (Minority Africa) — After an hour’s walk from the primary school he teaches in, Samuel Abong usually gets home at about 7:00pm. As is routine, he checks his children’s school books and helps with the remaining chores in the household.
His mornings are busy too. Abong makes sure the children are bathed and ready for school, something his wife used to do.
Although this comes easily for him now, it has not always been so.
“It was challenging,” Abong says, laughing. “But the more I did [house work] the more I got used to it. Now it is something normal for me.”
The 29-year-old father of four living in Moroto district in the northern region of Uganda has been following this routine since March 2021 after going through training on gender equality with MenEngage Uganda, a social network organization that focuses on working with men and boys on issues around gender justice and equality.
“I would drink alcohol and go home around 11:00pm and disorganize everyone’s sleep, causing confusion,” Abong says. “Now I am home by 7:00pm.’’
“Men feel like when they beat a woman, they have solved all their problems, yet, they have inflicted pain on someone. They will ask where the food is, and if it is not there, kiboko!” he adds, explaining the norm in his area and referring to the local term for a cane.
Since his training and from engaging in house chores, Abong has adopted a new way of thinking that does not ascribe to gender roles.
“I don’t even hold a stick anymore,” he says.“Before I joined this training, my children would see me coming and take off, but the life we have now is different. There is no violence. If there is a problem, we sit down and talk.”
His wife Agnes Namer agrees. Namer, who is a survivor of gender-based violence, has witnessed the change in her husband’s character. She says she knows two faces of Abong – the man before the training and the man after.
‘‘When my husband would come home and find no food, it was trouble for me and the kids, but now, he can put money on the table and say, ‘Get the children something to eat,’” she says, adding that her husband and children help with chores now, which lessens her burden.
Yet reconciling these two faces and accepting that change was not easy for Namer. Growing up and living in rural Uganda, widely held social perceptions and norms made her believe that the kitchen was a woman’s place in a home.
“I felt like he was trying to remove work from me,” she says about acclimatizing to her husband’s new behavior. “I wondered ‘Am I punishing him?’ He then explained that these are things he was learning in training. Later, I realized it also helped to simplify my work.”
In 2010, MenEngage Uganda began with the aim of working with men and boys to be part of the solution for gender equality. The organization held its first training on the importance of writing wills, a topic driven by the effects of HIV/AIDS in Uganda where, by 2010, an estimated 67,000 people had succumbed to AIDS-related deaths.
282 Men were trained in making wills, encouraged to test for HIV and adhere to their drugs if they were already positive. Since then, the organization has trained nearly 60,000 men.
“In the beginning, it was just a feminist approach of including men and boys but now it is an intersectional feminist approach,” says Hassan Sekajoolo, the country director.
MenEngage Uganda conducts 12-week training sessions; targeting men in relationships, men in positions such as Local Council leaders, men who work in garages, and fathers.
Sekajoolo explains the ideology: when men are involved in their home affairs, such as raising children and housework, it helps eradicate harmful norms they internalized which will consequently reduce Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV).
According to studies, parents reproduce inequitable gender relationships through the intergenerational transmission of domestic violence: boys who witness domestic violence are far more likely to abuse their partners, and girls to tolerate intimate partner violence.
In South Africa for example, males experiencing abuse or neglect in childhood is an important risk factor for committing rape as an adolescent or adult.
‘‘The highlight for us here is [that] we have been able to change the men’s perceptions towards women; it is now one of respect and equality. They now look at women as supportive partners,” Sekajoolo explains.
In traditional Ugandan society, culture and societal norms dictate gender roles; housework and parenting are reserved for women, and as such, men rarely participate in daily activities in a home.
“We work with them on their mental health because once they let go of some societal pressures, they are less likely to be violent,” Sekajoolo tells Minority Africa. “We also teach them practical steps to ensure they do not escalate or become the source of violence.”
Close to 3.3 million Ugandans are exposed to adult domestic violence each year. Between 2019 and 2020, there was a 29% increase in the cases of GBV reported from 13,693 reported in 2019 to 17,664 in 2020. During the COVID-19 lockdown, 22% of women noted experiencing sexual violence in Uganda, GBV cases also increased to over 3000 with less than half of that reported to the police.
But how do programs such as MenEngage Uganda aiming towards behavioral change in gender perceptions measure their impact and what is the consequence of that not being measured correctly? Lisa Kanyomozi Rabwoni, a feminist organizer and media personality from Uganda says this is a crucial consideration.
“The thing with abuse and people who are trained away from abuse is that it doesn’t go away completely,” she says. “Six months of training is nothing for something that has been conditioned entirely for years and years to come, they can see their wrong, they can manage to be restricted for a short period of time but I do not think that it goes away fully and wholly.”
Rabwoni adds that it is then even more important for organizations working on such interventions to institute additional steps and phases within the communities that allow women to report if cases happen again and for those reports to be taken seriously.
“With abuse, a lot of times we think, it’s okay, it’s fine, we have moved on,” says Rabwoni, “And when that person strikes once or twice, we give them the leniency and forgiveness thinking, ‘Okay, it’s just a one-time event, probably not going to happen to me again, he probably slipped.’”
To address this, she says frameworks that allow reporting should be followed by training women to speak up and also be cognizant of instances in which their husbands lie in the wrong.
“You are training people to be able to report from a culture of silence so I don’t think open reporting is the best way to move forward,” Rabwoni says. “So how can [these women] report cases in a way that they are sure of confidentiality?”
Rhonah Babweteera, who is the head of Gender Equality and Violence against Women Prevention at the Uganda Network on Law, Ethics and HIV/AIDS (UGANET), which runs a similar program to MenEngage Uganda says the only measurable results are a shift or lack thereof in knowledge.
She admits this can be difficult to determine when organizations only train and don’t continually engage men.
“We also manage to measure attitude and behavioral change,” Babweteera tells Minority Africa. “These are measured through constant engagement [where] we look at how they have used this information in their homes.”
She adds, “We have had many men who say ‘Before I got training, I used to be the alpha and omega in my home. I conducted myself the way I felt like.’”
But despite this, women like Namer have to also deal with societal views on men engaging in household chores, even among other women.
“They asked me, ‘Why do you let your husband do this?’” she says. “I told them that work becomes simpler [and that] we don’t have any conflict when we do this. Eventually, they stopped asking me.”
Abong has faced similar scrutiny and has received criticism from people around him for participating in home chores. “I heard them ask each other, ‘Is this one a fool?’ Later, the neighbors realized the benefits and some have even started doing the same,” he says.
Foundation for Male Engagement Uganda (FOME), another organization in Uganda bringing men to the forefront in the fight against SGBV, employs a similar model called ‘‘reaching men from their comfort zones’’ to sensitize them on the dangers of SGBV.
‘‘We find men in their drinking joints and boda boda stages, speak to them, and sometimes share educational videos. Some men are interested in sports betting, so we partner with these sports betting companies and provide them with information,’’ says Joseph Nyende, the Executive Director of FOME.
FOME also holds community parliaments with men and women where they push dialogue about violence to find a solution.
During last year’s 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, FOME invited cultural and religious leaders who were in conversation on what the Buganda kingdom has done to break toxic masculinity and promote positive masculinity instead.
Yet for all the good intentions, organizations like MenEngage Uganda and FOME still have to grapple with a reluctance to participate. Sekajoolo notes that recruiting men for the training is difficult and he attributes it to their experience of social pressure forcing them to conform to conventional ideas of masculinity.
‘‘’You are trying to change us; you are trying to make us submissive,’’’ Sekajoolo says, recalling some of the comments he has received from men who are convinced that these organizations are trying to undermine their role.
Despite these hurdles, people like Abong say the training has changed them. He hopes that his transformation will set a good example for his two daughters and two sons.
Today, because he is more involved in the family’s well-being, the bond between the family members is stronger.
‘‘The children always wait for me after school and I ask them what they learned and what they would like help with,’’ Abong says.
His actions are also transforming attitudes in his community.
Through a module he was given for free, Abong happily shares the knowledge he received with other men, like his neighbor Amos Laalany, who was impressed by his transformation.
‘‘We would laugh at him but now he is changing our families,’’ Laalany shares.
This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Gender Justice Reporting Initiative.