Making the Connections: Harmful Masculine Norms and Physical Violence Against Children

The 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence is an international campaign used by activists around the world (November 25-December 10) as an organizing strategy to call for the elimination of all forms of gender-based violence. 

This year, we will be sharing out research on the links between harmful masculine norms and eight different forms of violent behavior, as well as insights and recommendations to eliminate all forms of violence.

While there is nothing inherent about being male that drives violence, how we socialize boys into their identities as men and what we expect of them – that is, society’s masculine norms – are undeniably linked with violence. 

Indeed, boys and men are often raised, socialized, and encouraged to use violence in some form; on the whole, men and boys are disproportionately likely to both perpetrate most forms of violence and to die by homicide and suicide. However, the research affirms that this violence is preventable, gender equality is achievable, and nonviolent norms and ideas about manhood are prevalent and powerful. 

Promundo and Oak Foundation’s report Masculine Norms and Violence: Making the Connections, examines the links between harmful masculine norms and eight forms of violent behavior. This second blog in the Making the Connections, 16 Days of Activism series focuses on physical violence against children. It breaks down the facts on this issue, explores links between physical violence against children and other forms of violence, and provides recommendations for action.

Physical Violence Against Children

The Facts

Violence against children includes a wide range of behaviors, from corporal punishment (which many in a given society may consider a normal part of raising a child) to more extreme manifestations of physical violence, to acts of emotional abuse and neglect. According to United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) data from 30 countries, nearly half of all children aged 12 to 23 months are subjected to corporal punishment and/or verbal abuse at home

The Links 

Violence is also a mechanism by which parents control the gender performance of children, calling them out or punishing them for acting in “unacceptable” masculine or feminine ways. Violence within the childhood home is also a primary means by which children see, learn, and internalize the hierarchical power imbalances among and within genders.

As decades of research into the intergenerational transmission of violence have demonstrated, children who witness or experience violence in the home are significantly more likely to perpetrate or experience domestic violence as adults, compared to those whose childhood homes are violence-free. Violence against children, then, doubly entrenches the gender order, traumatizing children directly at the same time as it increases their likelihood of following similar behavioral patterns with their own children, as well as the likelihood of men’s use of violence against partners and acceptance of gender-based violence as “normal.”

The Intersections 

In interaction with the individual characteristics and life experiences of caregivers and children, there are three compelling factors underpinning violence against children:

  1. Poverty and structural inequalities shape care settings and frequently affect whether or not parents, families, and other caregivers have the means to adequately care for their children in nonviolent and non-stressed ways.
  2. Cultural and social norms are related to child-rearing practices and the acceptability of corporal punishment and other forms of violence against children (and against women, gender non-conforming individuals, and between men and boys). The degree to which violence against women, including and in addition to transgender, non-binary, and gender nonconforming individuals, and children is normalized in society challenges the narrative that perpetrators are ‘monsters’ – particularly “bad men” – or that the problem is not cultural and societal.
  3. Gender norms and dynamics underpin violence against children, specifically the ideas that boys need to be raised to be physically tough and emotionally stoic, while girls should be fragile, inferior, and/or subordinate to boys and men.

From Theory to Practice 

Initiatives aiming to prevent violence against children should focus on the following transformations of harmful masculine norms:

  • Ask participants to reflect on and recognize gendered divisions in patterns of care work, financial provision, and discipline.
  • Encourage fathers to embrace a full range of nurturing, caring behaviors in their relationships with their children.
  • Allow safe spaces for parents to practice positive parenting approaches and non-physical discipline.
  • Ask participants to name, recognize, and discuss power inequalities in their relationships with their children.
  • Ask participants to reflect on ways in which they raise or discipline their male children differently from their female or non-binary children.
  • Ask participants to reflect on the limiting effects of gendered socialization for the development of children’s identity, potential, skills, aspirations, relationships, and opportunities in life.

Read the rest of the Making the Connections, 16 Days of Activism blog series to learn more about intimate partner violencechild sexual abuse and exploitation; bullying; homicide and violent crime; non-partner sexual violence; suicide, and conflict and war.

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