It's a sweltering afternoon at the village school in Binkolo, in northern Sierra Leone. The "students"--a group of 50 men, ranging in age from their early 20s to their 60s--are listening attentively to the teacher.
"How many of you have ever beaten your wives?" he asks. About two-thirds of the men raise their hands.
"And how many of you would do it again?" The same hands come up.
"How many of you want to see your mother beaten?" The men sit silently; not a single hand is raised.
The teacher speaks with quiet intensity. "When you beat your wife," he says, "you are beating someone else's mother--your child's mother."
This is no ordinary school, and its lessons will not soon be forgotten. The men of Binkolo village are attending "husband school," a project of the Fambul Initiative Network for Equality (FINE). They are learning new ways to relate to their wives and daughters, which could have far-reaching benefits for their families--and for the people of Sierra Leone.
The FINE project traces its roots to the civil war that convulsed my country in the 1990s. During that conflict, women and children suffered the most, as rape was used as a weapon of war. I worked to help the victims of the war, including women who were brutalized and impregnated through sexual violence. When the war ended in 2002, I prayed that the violence would end.
It did not. Gender-based violence and rape remain prevalent in my country. And girls and women continue to suffer in other, less obvious ways. Harmful traditional practices--such as female genital mutilation (FGM), which has affected some 90 percent of Sierra Leone's women, and early and forced child marriage--are common. Equal access to education and opportunity remains elusive. And poor reproductive health takes a devastating toll on women's lives. Sierra Leone has the world's fourth-highest maternal mortality rate; nearly one in 11 women can expect to die in pregnancy or childbirth. More than half of Sierra Leone's women have an unmet need for family planning.
Many organizations are working to turn this around by reaching and empowering women. But FINE grew from an important insight: too often, it is men who serve as the gatekeepers to women's rights and health. From tribal chiefs who control community resources to husbands who beat their wives, men can be a formidable barrier to women's empowerment. But men can also use their strength, and their power, to help women.
Armed with this insight, we set out to reach and educate men. FINE has trained hundreds of volunteer educators, who in turn have reached some 10,000 tribal chiefs, husbands and religious leaders. In village schools and courtyards across Sierra Leone, our husband schools teach men about the harmful effects of rape, gender-based violence, teen pregnancy and FGM. FINE volunteers encourage men to respect their wives' childbearing preferences, to care for them throughout pregnancy and childbirth, and to make sure they give birth in a hospital.
We realized that both the messengers and the messages are important. In a patriarchal society, the best messengers are often men. For example, when a wife tells her husband that she wants to use family planning, her husband may resist, because he is afraid that she will be promiscuous. But a male educator can say to a man, "Hey, your salary will go a lot farther if you have two children, rather than seven." We help men understand that family planning isn't just the right thing to do--it's the smart thing to do.
Our volunteers also work with policymakers to make women's rights and health a reality. For example, we partner with the ministry of health to arrange transport and lodging so that rural women can give birth in hospital. And we urge local chiefs and lawmakers to hold men to account for domestic violence.
The results have been dramatic. The villages where our volunteers work have seen a 60 percent decrease in rape and gender-based violence, and maternal mortality has declined by more than 60 percent. There has been a 75 percent increase in hospital births, and contraceptive use has soared from 30 to 51 percent.
Of course, FINE's work with men is no substitute for women-centered programs--there is still an urgent need to reach and empower women in Sierra Leone and elsewhere. But reaching men is an important complement to that work. For instance, we learned that more than 90% of the resources needed to perform FGM on young girls are provided by men--fathers, husbands-to-be or betrothed spouses. Getting men to understand the ramifications of FGM is essential to stop the practice in Sierra Leone and elsewhere.
When I sat in on husband school in Binkolo village, I could see the wheels of change moving slowly, inexorably forward. When the teacher pointed out that wife-beaters were also mother-beaters, some of the men broke down and cried. Many vowed never to raise a hand against a woman.
It is a change that is both subtle and profound.
During and after the civil war in Sierra Leone, I have seen men use their strength to do terrible things. But that strength can be transformed into a force for good. FINE is working to shift the attitude of men towards women by redefining masculinity and repositioning patriarchal beliefs, so that men can use their power to protect rather than harm. In this way, we strengthen the bond between husband and wife, and we strengthen the home. And, by ensuring equal rights and opportunity for all of our children--our sons and our daughters - we strengthen our nation.
This post was written by Reverend Songaye George-Buanne, the Director of Fambul Initiative Network for Equality (FINE). FINE is a male-led initiative to end gender-based violence in post-war Sierra Leone.