Masculinity and Gender-Based Violence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia: Engaging Men in the Gender Equality Agenda

Charlie Walker

13 January 2020

Violence committed by men against women and girls, especially but not exclusively in the domestic arena, has been a feature of the social landscape in post-socialist Eastern Europe and Central Asia. While there is significant variation in the levels of domestic and other forms of gender-based violence recorded in countries across the region (Johnson 2007), the overall picture is one in which the social, economic, political and cultural transformations of the past three decades have exacerbated a problem more hidden during Soviet times. On the other hand, the greater political openness of the post-Soviet period has meant that there have been more opportunities for social activists, academics, and, in some cases, politicians, to raise awareness of and to address gender-based violence. Nevertheless, the majority of activity in this area has, as elsewhere in the world, focused on mitigating the ill-effects of the actions of men, through advocating for changes in the ways domestic violence is defined and prosecuted, for example, or the provision of crisis centres for women and girls.  Much less has been done to address why men might commit violent acts in the first place, or, beyond this, to follow the lead of feminist activists in countries across both the global North and South in actively engaging men as agents for more positive social change. Engaging men in the gender equality agenda, both in relation to gender-based violence and more broadly, constitutes a new frontier for activists and academics working in and on Eastern European and Central Asian states, but as a number of recent projects suggest, it is a frontier we are now approaching.

Central to any attempt to work on men’s violence against women and girls is to understand the link between men’s violence (against women and girls or against other men), on the one hand, and constructions of masculinity, on the other. The link between masculinity and violence has been the subject of attention from academics and from policy-makers for a long time, although a number of incidents in the 1990s – school shootings such as Columbine in the USA, where disaffected young men killed their schoolmates and teachers in order to be noticed, for example – were especially important in cementing both in the public imagination and in academic work the link between masculinity and violence, and according to Michael Atkinson, author of Deconstructing Men and Masculinities (2011), we have seen the emergence of “a general discourse about masculinity as inherently violent and bully-oriented” (48). Masculinity has been used to explain:

“school violence, gang violence, knife and gun violence, drug-related violence, sexual violence, sports violence, theft-related violence, domestic violence, crowd protest violence, violence against the environment, faith-related violence, violence against children, war and genocide, violence against animals, violence at work, hate crimes and homicide”


Of course, not all men are violent, so how has this link between masculinity and violence been theorised? There are number of different theoretical approaches depending on the discipline, with psychological approaches tending to associate psychopathology of various forms with masculinity. Social psychologists, for example, identify situated contexts that lead a man to become frustrated and to lose control of his impulses (‘frustration-aggression theory’ is one of these), while other psychological approaches portray male perpetrators of violence as having an inability to identify with others, rooted in, for example, misogyny, psychological disorders such as post-traumatic stress, low self-esteem, or substance abuse problems. By contrast, sociological approaches have traditionally focused on cultural and structural barriers that prevent men for whatever reason from fulfilling their social scripts as breadwinners, leaders, and otherwise dominant figures. In social disorganisation theories citing ‘anomie’ and ‘strain’, men who have failed to live up to normative, ‘hegemonic’ constructions of masculinity – because of economic change (deindustrialisation) or cultural change (the successes of feminism), for example – may then attempt to demonstrate forms of male power through different means, such as violence. Finally, newer sociological approaches drawing on ‘social learning theories’ argue that some men’s understandings of masculinity, consciously or unconsciously, include a belief in the ability to wield violence over others. To a large extent this stems from boys and men simply witnessing too much violence in the culture they live in (on TV, in movies and video games), and this learning can then be activated through contextual and situational factors that produce stress and aggression (drug abuse, financial problems, marital infidelity etc) (Atkinson 2011).

It is this latter theoretical approach that underpins the notion of ‘toxic masculinity’, which has become heavily popularised in recent years, not least in connection with the ‘MeToo’ movement, which has highlighted the widespread nature of sexual harassment. The notion of toxic masculinity has been criticised because it can come across as overly simplistic and normative, appearing to suggest that masculinity is somehow fundamentally violent and bullying, and therefore needs to be transformed. Understandably, many men feel quite alienated by the idea that they are carrying around some sort of social disease called masculinity that needs to be cured. But what exponents of the idea of toxic masculinity are really saying is simply that harmful practices and attitudes explicitly associated with masculinity are of course ‘out there’ in our culture, and men therefore have a choice as to whether they will blindly follow harmful ways of being a man, or whether they will think about the consequences of certain forms of behaviour and follow other ways of being a man, and encourage others to do so too. The notion of toxic masculinity is also very useful because it has highlighted how it is not just men in relatively powerless situations who abuse male power.

It is this kind of approach to masculinity that has underpinned major progress in what we might call ‘gendering men’ –  raising awareness of men’s behaviour as gendered behaviour rather than just natural, and drawing connections between gendered behaviour and wider gender cultures. And amongst the major protagonists in promoting the gendering of men and masculinity has been the international pro-feminist men’s advocacy movement led by NGOs and organisations such as Promundo and MenEngage, as well as international agencies such as the United Nations, all of which have sought to apply critical theories of masculinity in order to promote more progressive attitudes and forms of behaviour amongst men. According to Michael Flood, author of Engaging Men and Boys in Violence Prevention (2019), recent decades have seen ‘a vast range of policy and practical interventions on, and with, men and boys, as well as policy studies thereof… questions relating to policy, and practice questions around men and boys, have also been increasingly recognized as important in the struggle for gender justice worldwide’. That said, pro-feminist men’s advocacy is arguably much more developed in Western countries, where the women’s movement has advanced furthest, and in ‘traditional development contexts’ such as Africa and South America. The so-called ‘Global East’ represented by Eastern European and Central Asian countries have seen much less development in this respect.

Two recent international projects indicate that this may be starting to change. The first of these was a major sociological survey that took place in Ukraine in 2017 along the lines of the International Men and Gender Equity Survey (IMAGES) pioneered by Brazilian NGO Promundo, and resulted in the publication Masculinity Today: Men’s Attitudes to Gender Stereotypes and Violence against Women (UNFPA 2018). As elsewhere in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, NGOs directly addressing men and constructions of masculinity are extremely rare in Ukraine, so this survey and subsequent publications were intended to inspire a new direction, arguing that ‘understanding the culture of masculinity is key to engaging men themselves to advance gender equality’ (UNFPA 2018). The survey’s results make for sobering reading. According to the survey there are major cultural barriers to gender equality goals in Ukraine stemming from a culture of patriarchal masculinity whereby many men actively support harmful gender norms, ‘holding fast’ to traditional gender norms which are physically and in other ways harmful to women and girls. In this context, over a million women report that they have been victims of gender-based violence every year, although the actual figure is likely to be much higher since only an estimated 30% of victims come forward.

Masculinity Today: Men’s Attitudes to Gender Stereotypes and Violence against Women (UNFPA 2018).

This argument seems to be supported if we look at the fate of more women-focused forms of legislation that Ukraine has adopted in recent decades for the advancement of gender equality, all of which has been less effectual than they might have been. While Ukraine is a signatory to a wide range of international agreements on gender equality – Sustainable Development Goals, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and, more recently, the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement – indicators of gender equality indicate a large gap between de jure commitments and their de facto delivery. The gender pay gap, for example, placed Ukraine 67th among 142 countries ranked by the Gender Equality Index at 23.7% against an EU27 average of 16.4% in 2014 (United Nations 2015: 46). This and other indicators seem to suggest that the cultural embeddedness of gender stereotypes itself undermines governmental commitments.

As we have already seen, however, the link between masculinity and gender-based violence is about more than culture. On the other side to this cultural argument are structural factors such as inequalities between men, and between men and women, that shape the sorts of pressures different groups of men face. If we consider these, it becomes clear that the problem in Ukraine owes at least as much to the toxicity of the new, neoliberal capitalist economy as it does to the toxicity of masculinity. That is, divisions both between men and between men and women have been driven to extremes by the new economy, and it is this that has driven the very high levels of gender-based violence that we have seen. This is one of the findings of another new report, Masculinities and Transition: Enduring Privilege?, which explored gender inequalities and constructions of masculinity in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Egypt and Turkey (Edström et al. 2019)

Ukraine, like most post-socialist societies (Walker 2018), has experienced a retraditionalisation of gender roles in the post-Soviet period, especially because of the need to construct a new national identity in newly independent countries – gender traditionalism has been a vehicle for this. And the ways that men and women have had to deal with the economic dislocations of post-Soviet life have embedded this gender traditionalism, and all the inequalities that go with it, even further. If we look at constructions of femininity, women’s roles in the private sphere have been emphasised at the expense of their public lives (despite the fact that most women still work), partly in connection with Ukrainian nationalism, and partly because this fits the logic of market forces, as Zhurzhenko argues:

‘The essence of the problem of women’s social and economic marginalization in transitional society is that free market ideology perfectly corresponds with the patriarchal gender ideology construction of women as marginal and the conviction that this socioeconomic marginality is due to a ‘natural’ division of labour between the sexes’ .


As regards masculinity, as well as a new emphasis on historic nationalist figures such as the Cossacks and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (the UPA), men’s more immediate public and private roles have been transformed by the shift from state socialism to a market economy with a massive emphasis now on their status as breadwinners, best exemplified by the new business class. And consistently the biggest problem facing men, and particularly men occupying the lower echelons
of the labour market – has been the near-impossibility of meeting expectations of them as providers in what continues to be a low-wage economy characterised by widespread income insecurity. This contradiction elicits responses from men that range from the proactive – 40 per cent of men usually work more than 40 hours per week (UNFPA 2018: 29) – to the reactive – alcoholism is 6–7 times more prevalent among Ukrainian men than women, and particularly widespread in rural areas, where poverty is endemic (Bureychek 2013: 354). What is important to point out is that it is not only the reactive responses to insecurity that are harmful both to men and women. The tendency for men to make up for poor wages by working excessive additional hours on the evenings and weekends while their wives take full responsibility for childcare is the perfect illustration of how people’s responses to insecurity draw on traditional gendered scripts and make gender inequalities worse – women are more tied to domestic responsibilities and the need to combine these with work and men become absent fathers tied to harmful and stressful working lives. A typical case of a man in a low-income family is Ivan, who hadn’t taken a day off for 2 years as he saved for a property deposit:

It was really difficult to buy a flat, I’ve been living in Kiev for 11 years and we only just bought a flat. It’s small but it’s ours. Until recently, I had a period of two years when I worked without a day off, for two whole years. I’ve got

this as my main job and I worked weekend days as a chef… Also on holiday days… Of course, it’s diffcult because we’ve got a baby, my wife’s on maternity leave, so as a man [kak muzhik] I have to look after everything, I have to keep everything together. I’ve done security work too, one-off jobs, whenever I can, I don’t turn anything down.

(Ivan, 37, despatch manager, clothing factory, Kiev)

Not all men are able to hold things together, and the problems they face can and often do lead to violent outcomes. But they are not simply cultural problems – they are structural adjustment problems, macro-economic problems of market failure or failures of the welfare state, of a low-wage economy dependent on cheap labour both formally and informally, of a housing market that does not work for ordinary people, of a healthcare system that bankrupts people when they get ill.

If we take the findings of both of these reports together, it is clear that the fight against gender-based violence in Eastern European and Central Asian countries would benefit from moving beyond a focus solely on mitigating its effects towards an approach that tries to deal with its root causes. Such an approach must include an assessment of different constructions of masculinity in any given society as well as of the kinds of problems men face and the ways they and their families deal with them. It will require NGOs, governments, and international agencies both to find ways of engaging men in the gender equality agenda, as has been taking place elsewhere in the world, and to address the structural problems of economic transition that continue to make life in many Eastern European and Central Asian countries so difficult for so many people.

The recent studies cited in this article are:

UNFPA (2018) Masculinity Today: Men’s Attitudes to Gender Stereotypes and Violence against Women, Kiev: United Nations Population Fund

Edström, J.; Aly, R.; Greig, A. and Walker, C. with Babenko, S.; Çağlar, M.; Kudaibergenova, D.T. and Müller, C. (2019) Masculinities and Transition: Enduring Privilege? Report produced for EBRD, Brighton: IDS

Walker, C. with Babenko, S. and Greig, A. (2019) Masculinities and Transition in Ukraine: Country Brief, Brighton: IDS

Edström, J. and Greig, A. with Aly, R.; Walker, C. and Müller, C. (2019) Masculinities and Transition: Summary Brief, Brighton: IDS

Other references:

Atkinson, M. (2011) Deconstructing Men and Masculinities (Ontario, Oxford University Press)

Bureychek, T. (2013) ‘Masculinity in Soviet and Post-Soviet Ukraine: Models and Their Implications’, in O. Hankivsky and A. Salnykova (eds), Gender, Politics and Society in Ukraine, Toronto: University of Toronto Pres

Flood, M. (2019) Engaging Men and Boys in Violence Prevention (London, Palgrave)

Johnson, J. E. (2007) ‘Domestic Violence Politics in Post-Soviet States, Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State & Society, 14, 3, 380–405

UN (2015) Millennium Development Goals Ukraine: 2000–2015, National Report, Kiev: United Nations

Walker, C. (2018) ‘‘I just don’t want to connect my life with this occupation’: working‐class young men, manual labour, and social mobility in contemporary Russia’, British Journal of Sociology, 69 (1), 207-225.

Zhurzhenko, T. (2001) ‘Free Market Ideology and New Women’s Identities in Post-socialist Ukraine’, The European Journal of Women’s Studies, 8 (1): 29–49

Charlie Walker is a trustee of The BEARR Trust and Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Southampton.

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