Mobilising men to build gender justice: Strategies for effective movement-building

Mobilising men is a vital part of social change towards gender equality, but it is under-developed in Australia.

We can think of violence prevention in terms of a spectrum of prevention strategies, working at different levels of society. I'm focused today on community-level strategies, to do with engaging, strengthening, and mobilising communities. These involve bringing together groups and individuals for broader goals and greater impact. They address preventable risk factors which are larger in scope, to do with social structures and institutions, collective spaces such as neighbourhoods and communities, and the larger society and culture.

There is a growing consensus that strategies of community engagement and community mobilisation are central to violence prevention. The bulk of primary prevention efforts thus far have addressed individuals and their intimate relationships, while community and societal strategies have been under-utilised.

Community-level strategies are vital

Community-level strategies are vital to violence prevention efforts:

  • They contribute more than smaller-scale strategies to the fundamental social changes needed to end violence against women;
  • They are essential to shift the cultures, social relations, and structural inequalities which underpin this violence;
  • They bring violence prevention efforts closer to the general ideal in prevention that initiatives be comprehensive, relevant, and engaging.

Community mobilisation

Community engagement and community development are complemented by strategies of community mobilisation. This involves bringing individuals and groups together through coalitions, networks, and movements to broaden prevention efforts

The history of community mobilisation

Feminist movements put violence against women on the agenda.

Community mobilisation has a long history in violence prevention, and in fact it was only through the collective advocacy of the women’s movements and feminism that men’s violence against women became an issue of public concern at all. It was feminist community mobilisation, feminist movements, which formed the foundations of contemporary service and policy responses to domestic and sexual violence and which remains influential today.

Activist men’s groups emerged around the same time, on a smaller scale.

I’m focused this morning on mobilising men. Activist men’s groups focused on challenging men’s violence and building gender equality also emerged around the same time, albeit on a much smaller scale.

Contemporary community action: events, organisations, networks, movements

Some forms of community action have existed for a long time. There are long histories of women’s movement / feminist activism on violence against women.

  • Dating from 1970s, early efforts to set up services, change laws, etc. Reclaim The Night marches.

Also community-based initiatives which use social media. E.g.;

Also spontaneous, mass participation events held in response to incidents of MVAW. Two recent examples:

  • the community marches held to protest against violence after Adrian Bailey’s rape and murder of Jill Meagher in Melbourne in 2012.
  • the marches and vigils after Jaymes Todd’s rape and murder of Eurydice Dixon in Melbourne in 2018

Also large-scale, community awareness and community action government campaigns, e.g.

  • “Doing Nothing Does Harm” (Our Watch, 2018)
  • “No Excuse for Abuse” (Our Watch, 2018)
  • “Violence against women: Let’s stop it at the start.”

Other more local community campaigns. E.g.;

Examples of community mobilisations among men

Prominent examples of men’s collective mobilisations include Men’s Action to Stop Violence Against Women (MASVAW) in India, the One Man Can campaign in several countries in Africa, and the White Ribbon Campaign, which spans countries across the globe.

Men’s Action to Stop Violence Against Women (MASVAW): An alliance of men and organisations focused on men’s roles in building gender equality and ending gender-based violence. Came out of alliance with a women’s rights organisation.

One Man Can: A rights-based gender equality and health programme implemented by the feminist NGO Sonke Gender Justice in South Africa. One Man Can seeks to improve men’s relationships with their partners, children, and families, reduce the spread and impact of HIV and AIDS, and reduce violence against women, men, and children. It adopts comprehensive, multifaceted strategies, including training and technical assistance to government and civil society organizations, community education, community mobilization, and advocacy for the implementation of policy and legislation.

White Ribbon Campaign: The most widespread contemporary form of collective mobilisation among men addressing violence against women is the White Ribbon Campaign. It began in 1991 on the second anniversary of one man’s massacre of 14 women in Montreal.

MenEngage: MenEngage is a global alliance comprising over 700 non-government organisations, country networks, and UN partners

Strategies for community-level prevention

What then are effective strategies for mobilisation? First, some basic pointers on community-based approaches…

Community-based approaches to prevention ideally are holistic, engaging the whole community. They must be based on community ownership, with projects involvement and being led by members of the community. Violence prevention should strengthen the capacity of individuals, groups, and organisations to be agents of change in their community

In terms of community engagement and mobilisation, some of the first strategies for example are to find out about the community in question, develop community relationships (with groups, organisations, formal and informal leaders), and identify the community’s needs.

Mobilising men

To create opportunities for men to mobilise, perhaps the first task is to recruit men.

Recruit gender-equitable men

Identify men who are already supportive of efforts to end violence against women and build gender equality.

Recruit men at an initial event – whether an event aimed at men or not. Gather names and contact details.

Involve men in initial education and small tasks

  1. Small task/commitment

Ask those men to undertake some small, specific task or make some small, specific commitment. Sign a pledge. Put up a flyer. Attend a community event. Wear a button. Cook food for an event. Etc.

  1. Take a class or volunteer training (longer commitment)

Then ask men who have agreed to this to commit to a longer training or involvement. To training for advocates, to several meetings of a group, etc.

Provide mentoring and invite leadership

  1. Mentoring

“After the training, identify one or a few potential leaders in that group.  Make a relationship with them – mentor them.  Invite them to conferences where they can meet other leaders in the movement and network with them.  Encourage them to not only take leadership publicly, but be accountable privately to their own sexism” (Atherton-Zeman, n.d.).

  1. Leadership

Encourage those men to organize an event. And ideally that cycle then continues.

Use community workshops and events

A second key strategy is the use of community workshops and events. Key elements of effective practice here include working through pre-existing groups of men and community structures, using the preparation process as a tool for mobilising people, using the power of personal testimony, using the media for both recruitment and social marketing, documenting the event, and planning for follow-up among those who participated.

Work with influential groups and ‘gatekeepers’

A third key strategy is to work with influential groups and ‘gatekeepers’, whether these comprise police and legal personnel, or spiritual leaders, or others.

Use cultural work: art and drama

A fourth strategy is to use cultural work such as art and drama. Murals, street theatre, and other cultural tools are valuable means of inspiring interest and involvement. A valuable element here is to use the process of creating the art or drama as a change experience in itself.

Organise men for collective action

But this is not only about educating men but also organising them for collective action. In other words, we must bring men (and women) together to work collectively, fostering grassroots groups and networks.

Supporting men in ‘getting organised’ involves providing technical assistance, providing resources to make groups more sustainable, and hosting regular community meetings.

A well-established model for organising men (and women) to take action at the community level is the Community Action Team. Community Action Teams comprise groups of volunteers who get together to do something in their community about an issue of concern to them (Greig and Peacock 2005, s.9.2). CATs may come together for a single action or event, or stay together for a long period and carry out a series of activities and campaigns.

There are various practices which help CAT members to feel valued and involved: set specific, feasible objectives, give people responsibilities and recognition, build relationships among members, provide ongoing education, and so on.

Plan action for change

Groups and networks must plan action for change. A report titled Mobilising Men in Practice (2012) provides useful guidance on how to design a social change campaign.

It asks, for example: Objectives: What needs to change - now, sooner, later? Targets: Who can make the change? Demands: What must the primary targets do to make the change? Frames: How do we present the changes that are needed? Stories: What story of change is the campaign telling? What are our values and our vision? Strategies: How will we move to make the change? What are the entry points? Where is there leverage? What are the risks? Who is best

Form coalitions and networks

The formation of partnerships, networks, coalitions, and movements is a key part of community mobilisation.

A wide variety of coalitions and networks is possible in relation to engaging men in violence prevention.

  • Student groups, student councils, local non-profit organisations, boys’ and girls’ clubs and boys’ health organisations. Local men’s civic organisations or sports clubs.
  • Can collaborate with organisations with shared agendas regarding policy change, such as those addressing fatherhood, sexual and reproductive health, HIV/AIDS, or forms of violence other than men’s violence against women.
  • Can create new strategic or policy entities to engage men and boys in anti-violence work, such as Coordinated Community Response teams, Advisory Councils, or Mobilising Men Taskforces.

Build coalitions with obvious, and not-so-obvious, partners

Coalition-building can start with obvious partners: "service-based organisations which are likely to support anti-violence work – fatherhood campaigns, Boy Scouts chapters, support groups for men, groups working to end other forms of oppression (such as racism, poverty, or heterosexism), men’s civic organisations, and associations of male faith leaders – as well as victim services organisations, law enforcement groups, and family organisations".

Partnerships also are possible with more novel and non-traditional networks and coalitions of men and boys, such as high school sports teams, businesses, and corporations.

Addressing pervasive problems of gender inequality requires institutional strength, networking, and collaboration. In order to scale up and increase the impact of community mobilisations, it is vital to build existing activist networks, strengthen civil society coalitions, and collaborate with government for example through innovative civil society-government partnerships.

Build links with other social justice / progressive movements

A vital strategy for mobilising men is to build links between feminist or pro-feminist movements and other social movements, including building alliances with men in those other movements.

There is value in linking struggles and movements, building collective solidarity, and expanding understandings of how gender justice is linked to other forms of social justice.

Strong partnerships with civil society platforms and feminist movements are “critical to ensure accountability of our work, and leverage impact of advocacy efforts”.

Further processes for movement-building

Experience among activists and movements suggests that several other processes are important elements in movement-building:

Use consciousness-raising and critical reflection

  • Consciousness-raising and critical reflection
  • Strategies of group learning and reflection,…
  • Activists are encouraged to ‘Be the change we want to see in the world’.

Adopt gender-equitable processes for decision-making and leadership

  • Gender-equitable processes for decision-making and leadership
  • Groups and organisations involved in movement-building for violence prevention should model gender justice in their internal processes. I.e., democratic decision-making structures and fair divisions of labour. 

Build communities of support

Supportive groups, networks, and communities can help men engaged in personal and collective change by providing personal inspiration and nourishment, offering anti-sexist peer networks, lessen the potential stigma associated with men’s involvement in anti-violence and pro-feminist work, holding men accountable, and creating spaces for personal reflection and collective mobilisation. Another way of putting this is in terms of ‘building the base’. One-on-one outreach and network building are valuable ways to provide support, build solidarity, and create sites of personal change.

Making policy

One of the key roles activist groups and networks can play is in influencing policy and legislation.

Advocate for policy change

We can mobilise men to engage in grassroots advocacy for policy change. E.g., in the USA, the organisation Men Stopping Violence organises and educates groups of men and fosters their involvements in lobbying. Male volunteers monitor relevant state and federal legislation, meet with lawmakers, and testify at legislative hearings.

Educate men to foster their support for new policies on gender and/or violence

We can also educate men to foster support for gender equality policies. Defensiveness and hostility are common reactions among men in response to new laws and policies promoting gender equality or addressing men’s violence against women. So we can try to increase men’s support for gender equality legislation, educating them about the positive value of such legislation and steering them away from perceptions of such measures as anti-male.

Hold policy-makers to account

Organisations such as Sonke also have used high profile political advocacy to directly confront men in public office who made sexist or violence-supportive statements or whose track record on these issues was poor.

Two case studies

I’ll briefly offer two case studies, at opposite ends of the scale: a small community initiative in the western suburbs of Melbourne, and a major national campaign.

Case Study: Working Together With Men

WTWM is a primary prevention initiative based in community development and community mobilisation. It recruited men from local communities to develop and implement primary prevention strategies in their local settings. The WTWM project took place over 2015-2017 in Brimbank.

The project uses a range of strategies to educate, train, and mobilise men as violence prevention advocates. Its two primary strategies, once it has recruited men as participants in the project, are face-to-face education (comprising a long-term,  staged series of educational workshops and sessions) and tailored support by a dedicated project coordinator (including technical advice, mentoring, and support) These strategies are complemented by peer support among the members, the guidance of an Advisory Committee, and the provision of financial support for participants’ projects (if approved).

The project was successful in the first instance in encouraging men to participate. Fifty or so men turned up to the two opening events, 17 then opted to participate in further training sessions, and seven men continued with the project then for a further 15 months in designing and implementing their own prevention project.

The Working Together With Men project has had a significant and positive impact. The experience of the project confirms that interventions such as this:

  • Can get men ‘in the door’, recruiting men successfully from communities to contribute to violence prevention efforts;
  • Can, through focused, participatory education, build men’s non-violent and gender-equitable understandings;
  • Can foster sustained groups and networks of male advocates; and
  • Can build men’s skills and capacity in violence prevention.

Several features of the Working Together With Men project contributed to these positive impacts, as follows.

  • Participation: The participation of individuals who recognised the problem of violence against women and who felt some level of personal commitment to taking part in efforts to address it;
  • Education: An intensive, long-term, and staged process of education and training (comprising 10 hours of face-to-face education and a further 40 hours of education, discussion, and interaction in face-to-face meetings);
  • Facilitation: Tailored support throughout the project by a dedicated project coordinator, including technical advice, mentoring, and personal support;
  • A supportive group: The creation of an inclusive and supportive environment, which came to be a valued social space for the participants;
  • Expert guidance: The use of violence prevention experts as educators and guest speakers;
  • Expert advice: The influence of an Advisory Committee including representatives of community and women’s services;
  • Resourcing: The provision of resources, including funds to support small community activities designed and implemented by the participants.

The Working Together With Men project demonstrates that it is possible to recruit, train, and mobilise men in local communities to take action in the name of preventing violence against women. Given this, replicating and scaling up this work are obvious next steps.

Case study: White Ribbon Campaign (Australia)

Introduction to the campaign in Australia

The world’s largest collective mobilisation engaging men to help stop men’s violence against women is the White Ribbon Campaign. In Australia, this campaign is led by White Ribbon Australia (WRA), a non-profit organisation that coordinates White Ribbon activities around Australia. WRA works towards the primary prevention of violence against women through school-based education, workplace accreditation programs, community events, and social marketing.

I’m going to focus on one arm of White Ribbon’s activities, the Ambassador Program.

The White Ribbon Ambassador Program

White Ribbon Australia’s Ambassador Program involves men as public anti-violence advocates, inviting them to ‘stand up, speak out and act’ to influence other men’s attitudes and behaviours towards women. Ambassadors are expected to take part in and contribute to annual WRA events, often as speakers, to give media commentary, and to advocate for the campaign in other ways.

To become an Ambassador, individuals must apply to the national organisation WRA, submit letters of recommendation attesting to their character, undertake a screening process by staff members, and complete several online training modules. The national organisation distributes regular e-newsletters to its Ambassadors, calls on them for speaking and media engagements, and invites them to education and other events.

Drawing here on data collected in late 2015 by Kenton Bell, and must acknowledge that various things have changed since then.

Activists must turn up.

The White Ribbon Campaign is good at getting men ‘to the door’ – at making initial contact with the campaign. There are about 1,100 men signed up around Australia as public advocates for the campaign. In fact, the numbers were much larger several years ago, but after a 2014 review, White Ribbon put all Ambassadors through a re-commitment process, raised the bar for what it means to be an Ambassador, and trimmed the number of Ambassadors from over 2,300 to 1,100.

Activists must be knowledgeable, skilled, and have the capacity to act.

Activists must develop knowledge and skills in violence prevention. And certainly if you ask WR Ambassadors themselves, they report that in becoming Ambassadors, they have developed an increased understanding of MVAW, they have had an impact in helping to reduce or prevent MVAW, and many feel an increased confidence in standing up for what they believe in, and a sense of purpose or fulfilment.

White Ribbon does provide education and training for Ambassadors. Ambassadors must complete a short online education course, and they are provided with resources for public talks and media appearances. My impression is that what White Ribbon does less of, though, is bringing Ambassadors together for more intensive, participatory, and collective processes of learning. E.g., getting 20-30 men together in a room, two hours or half a day, for discussion and critical reflection.

Activists must do the work.

If activists are to make change, they must, of course, do the work. And this has been one feminist criticism of White Ribbon: that the campaign in Australia engages men largely in tokenistic and superficial action, and that it relies on women’s labour while men receive status and accolades.

I don’t know what the gender divisions of labour look like for White Ribbon activities. Certainly I get the impression that much of the work around Australia is done by women, not men. Still, I should also note that White Ribbon Australia has raised the bar for what it requires of Ambassadors.

Starting in 2018, Ambassadors must log their activities each year, via an online portal, to demonstrate that they have achieved the Key Milestone Achievements (KMAs) – that they have done at least 15 points of activity for each of the three areas: educating themselves, engaging their communities, and acting (events, promotion, and personal and professional change).

Activists should come from, and engage, diverse communities.

The men who are the formal advocates for the White Ribbon Campaign in Australia tend to be older, more highly educated, more socioeconomically advantaged, and less religious than the average adult male in Australia. They have a mean age of 50, and most are highly educated, married, in white-collar professions, and speak English at home.

A key reason why the Ambassadors are relatively privileged, and relatively homogenous, is that many came to WR through the Workplace Accreditation Program, and this takes place largely in white-collar workplaces.

In response, White Ribbon has intensified its diversity and inclusion program, intensifying its efforts to engage Ambassadors, Advocates, and Supporers from ethnically diverse communities.

Activists should feel connected to other activists.

Collective mobilisation involves people working together, and this requires solidarity, cooperation, and partnership. White Ribbon looks slightly weaker here. Only close of half (45.9%) of Ambassadors indicated that they felt a sense of community or solidarity with other Ambassadors, and under one third (30.7%) felt positive about meeting other Ambassadors.

Activists should feel that they are participating in a collective effort or movement.

Activists should feel that they are participating in a collective effort or movement. The 2015 survey found that this was not strong among Ambassadors. One quarter of Ambassadors complained of not being utilised properly, one fifth complained of a lack of year-round involvement, and one fifth complained of a lack of communication from White Ribbon Australia.

White Ribbon has taken steps to address these issues. In response to this data, White Ribbon began monthly, regional newsletters for Ambassadors, it has stepped up the level of involvement it expects from Ambassadors, and it has expanded the role of Regional Ambassador Commitees, alongside the State and Territory Committees.

In the 2015 survey, about one-fifth of respondents also complained that White Ribbon lacked a grassroots feel: that it focuses too much on high-profile, powerful men (political figures, celebrities, and so on), that its events are expensive, and so on.

The steps White Ribbon has taken will improve levels of communication among Ambassadors. However, this communication is largely one-way: from the top down. It is vertical, rather than horizontal, communication.

I may be unaware of new processes or structures in place. But it looks to me like White Ribbon’s processes of networking are still top-down. That is, it is difficult for Ambassadors to make contact themselves with other Ambassadors, to exchange information, to build networks at a grassroots level.

Groups and movements should build solidarities with other like-minded groups and movements.

Finally, efforts to engage men in preventing violence against women build solidarities with other like-minded groups and movements. And above all, with women’s groups and movements, and overlapping with this, the violence prevention sector / movement.

In that 2015 survey, some Ambassadors expressed disquiet about the White Ribbon campaign, conscious of the criticisms made by some feminist commentators. I have heard these criticisms too, and I just don’t know how good, or bad, White Ribbon’s reputation is. So let’s ask:

ASK for audience vote:

  • White Ribbon has a good reputation among the women’s and violence prevention sectors? AGREE?
  • White Ribbon has a poor reputation among the women’s and violence prevention sectors? AGREE?

So, to sum up on White Ribbon, I think that White Ribbon should do more to educate and politicise its public male advocates. It should do more to faciliate grassroots, horizontal networking and movement building. And it should build alliances and networks with women’s groups and movements and other social justice movements.


To prevent violence against women, we also have to mobilise men – through events, networks, and campaigns. We have to get men into grassroots men’s groups, on the streets, and in coalitions and networks. We need men doing the work – not just up the front here, holding the microphone, but making the lamingtons and typing the minutes. And yes, we need stroppy activist movements, making noise and trouble and change.


Citation: Flood, M. (2018). Mobilising men to build gender justice: Strategies for effective movement-building. Keynote address, STOP Domestic Violence Conference Australia, Gold Coast, December 3-5.


  • Also see the Powerpoint slides for this presentation.
  • Sections of this talk are summaries of the relevant chapter in Michael's book, Engaging Men and Boys in Violence Prevention, available in full here.
  • See this wide-ranging collection of resources for men themselves and those engaging and mobilising men.
  • For a bibliography of guides to activism and movement-building, including some books in full text, see here.