Men at work for gender equality

Gender, Gender & Development Journal, Methodology

Gender & Development editor Caroline Sweetman introduces the latest issue of the journal with a call to challenge damaging gender stereotypes of all kinds.

I have twin sons, and I’m bringing them up to be feminists. And anti-racist, and pro-gay rights. Their father is Ethiopian, and they’ve experienced being called racist names from time to time at primary school in the UK. Recently they’ve been called ‘gay’ by boys playing football, and last night one of them came home from the park, where some slightly older boys called him and his friends ‘pussies’. 

…ideas about gender identity need to be loosened up and challenged…

Being called unpleasant names is, for many children, the first time they come across the practice of putting someone firmly in their place by referring to some aspect of their identity in a shaming or humiliating way.  As their mother I find it upsetting, but my sons know the politics which lie behind all this. Name-calling among children is part of the training they receive as they grow up to ‘learn their place’. It’s a way for elites – dominated by affluent, socially successful men – to keep hold of their power. And part of progressive social change is to fight for
people’s right to be different, and to choose identities and roles freely, without the fear of social opprobrium.

The new issue of Gender & Development (G&D) showcases fascinating examples of pro-feminist work with men, to challenge limiting stereotypes of what it means to be male in a world in which power remains the reserve of the few, yet being seen as a successful man means getting a slice of the action: in business, with women, in public life. 

Articles in the issue show the importance of enabling today’s men and boys to see how ideas about gender identity need to be loosened up and challenged – allowing them to show emotion, to stay at home and care for their children, to have faithful, deep relationships with women (or men). 

Critically, because the journal focuses on gender in relation to international development, authors show how this work impacts on development outcomes for both sexes. Without it, sustainable change for women is not possible in the near future. Working with men from a feminist perspective is the flip-side to working on women’s empowerment.

How so? Here’s a story to explain why. In 1997, a few years after I returned from living in the tiny country of Lesotho in southern Africa, I suggested to colleagues in Oxfam that we should focus on Men and Masculinity in G&D.  Reactions were strong. ‘Would we focus on landlords if we were talking about landlessness?’ asked one. Yet the experience I’d had living in Lesotho was one which showed me the need
to analyse men’s roles and realities.

First, this was out of the sheer humanity of not allowing children’s opportunities to be determined by their sex – every year, one or two pre-adolescent herd-boys froze to death in the mountains while their sisters got an education (boys in the 1990s were not seen as needing education, because of unskilled work opportunities in the gold mines of South Africa).  

Today, Lesotho is right at the top of countries with high ‘female empowerment’ – a result of women’s relatively high education and role in work and public life. Yet this obscures the story of why they are there, which rests on those lost opportunities for boys. And the story of successful female empowerment hides the appalling levels of gender-based violence in the country, as men who have lost their role as breadwinners and leaders vent their anger on women. This is the second reason for feminists to welcome pro-feminist work with men which gets them to think about
what makes a ‘real man’ – the cost to women. The 1997 issue of G&D spoke about all this.

Anti-rape protesters in Dehli carrying a sign that reads: 'Don't tell your daughter not to go out, tell your son to behave properly'.

Sixteen years on, this new issue on Working With Men On Gender Equality shows the current popularity of working with men on gender equality. In her article in this issue , Desiree Lwambo tells the story of the impact of conflict on men’s notions of masculinity in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This context is an extreme example of a society in which
the same tensions are present as those in Lesotho. 

In DRC, where norms support men’s dominance of women both at home and outside, confusion abounds about gender relations, past and present. Neither peace nor the ability to provide for families is a reality, and male violence is condoned by society.  Desiree argues, alongside other contributors to this new issue of G&D, that ending sexual and gender-based violence requires working with men to challenge their own behaviour.  A colleague of mine here in Oxfam this morning told me about a visit to a Pakistan village where one man told her, ‘if you come here any more
talking about empowering women, we will kill you’. 

The social rules of status and success tell us all very clearly that men should be dominant, provide for their families, elicit admiration from other men and from women. For men who can’t live up to these ideals of masculinity, name-calling and abuse about their ‘failure’ lead to anxiety, embarrassment  and struggles to try to live the dream.

Development organisations are piloting new approaches to help men through this labyrinth, value harmony and sharing, and champion women’s rights and gender equality. Save The Children is working with pre-adolescent boys and girls in Nepal to get them to accept ideas of female education and ultimately plan their families, seeing girls as more than future mothers and wives. Community educators from organisations including Sonke Gender Justice Network, Promundo, Healthbridge International, Oxfam, and CARE are working with men as spouses and fathers in countries all over the world, including Peru, Vietnam, Rwanda, South Africa, and India.

Yet there’s a health warning attached to the popularity of working with men on gender equality: and that’s the cost to working with women. Ironically, in a male-dominated world – and aid industry – this kind of work often attracts funds and gains praise because it seems not to be challenging or ‘difficult’ in the way feminist work with women seems. If this work hijacks the change agenda and results in women’s movements finding it impossible to get the support they need from aid agencies and governments, we’re back to square one, in a male-dominated

Mature understanding that this is feminist work, which is difficult and just as challenging as working with women, is required. And we need a bigger overall pot of money, with resourcing and goodwill, to work at both ends of the gender change agenda. A key part of progressive work is for pro-feminist men’s organisations to work with women’s movements in ways which mobilise funding for both, and increase the impact of the work overall.  

Gender stereotypes are sticky things, and they make happiness more elusive by constraining the activities we can do, policing our behaviour, and endangering us if we dare to defy them. Let’s try to work together to get greater understanding of the damage they do to all of us.

Picture information

Main picture:  Richard Nguna Kagaba, Jean Ngabu Safari, and Malosi Lotsove from the Kotoni village in Ituri, DRC, during a community meeting with Oxfam partner UFD. UFD have trained local people to teach the rest of their community about the rights of women and children. Liz Lucas/Oxfam America

Second picture: Anti-rape protesters in Dehli, December 2012. 

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Author: Caroline Sweetman
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.