INVOLVING MEN AND BOYS IN PROMOTING GENDER EQUALITY
The call for increased gender equality is not a lone call given out by a small group of feminists but a recognised global plea from International Institutions like the UN, to pursue a sustainable and fairer world.
The United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA, has invested many resources into their campaign for ‘Engaging Men and Boys’ in gender equality. They state that ‘Women cannot achieve gender equality and sexual and reproductive health without the cooperation and participation of men.’1
They believe that because men are situated at the top of the gender tree, the best way to tackle the structural issue of gender inequality is to engage the agents that live within it. For example, it is normally men who are the leaders, politically and socially or the heads of departments and the military; the ones who have more varied sexual relations; the ones that use contraceptives more as well as being husbands and fathers, giving them incredible power over women’s lives.
Men’s involvement is vital
Despite prevailing rhetoric about manhood, many men find the socially-constructed gender stereotypes an incredible burden to bear; hence men have much to gain from a gender equal society. To be ‘manly’ the stereotype emphasises the need to be ‘tough’ or be the ‘breadwinner’ resulting in many men internationally being forced into labour conditions that are harsh and sometimes involve injury, violence, imprisonment and sometimes even death especially within the military service, policing and fire fighting.
The wrong image of masculinity can lead men to engage in unsafe sex that jeopardizes their partners’ and their own well-being. ‘Men are victims of many forms of personal and institutional violence – primarily at the hands of other men – and have a great deal to gain from moving towards gender equality: it is an important step towards reducing violence.’2
It is also argued that because of this gender stereotype men miss out on a whole array of emotions and experiences that are’ immensely rewarding and socially valued’ due to gender stereotyping.3
In most cultures, men playing a role of a carer for their children, older or sick parents or showing their vulnerabilities is seen as an alien concept, even though many western women would gladly admit that they desire these qualities in men. However, the suppression of emotions can be deeply harmful to a man’s health.
- Real Men Can Handle Their Booze: this attitude is part of the reason why men have more than four times as many binge drinking episodes per year than women, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).4 Binge drinking leads to health problems, including heart disease, liver failure, mental health issues, and even an increased risk of cancer.
- Real Men Are Never Vulnerable: ignoring pain or not showing that you are ill can be very detrimental to health. Michael Addis, PhD, professor of psychology at Clark University in Massachusetts, explains that ‘Emotional stoicism can lead men to ignore signs of depression, anxiety, or other signs that all may not be well in life,’ caused by extreme self-reliance.5 This can also lead to relationship issues and marital divorce.
- Real Men Are a Turn-on for Women: Sex is seen to be important for true manliness to be achieved. However, men have a 5.5 times higher rate of syphilis than women and account for 75 % of new HIV/AIDS cases, according to statistics from Avert, an international HIV/AIDS charity.6
Getting to the root of the problem
To be effective in recognising gender roles and inequality, it has to be acknowledged that these roles are dependent on social contexts in which cultural, religious, economic, political and social circumstances play a part. Once this is accepted, it is easier to understand that these gender roles are malleable. Cultures change, societies evolve and the perception of gendered positions can be altered for men and for women alike.
If ideas about manhood are deeply ingrained from an early age, then the place to start evolving these ideas is in the home within families. However this is far easier said than done. Therefore, the platform for change can be within the classroom and in communities where classrooms are not present. If a child is not taught anything different, then their views on how to be a man or how to interact with women will cement the gender stereotype.
Therefore, boys and young men should be encouraged to reflect upon and discuss issues surrounding masculinity, relationships and sexuality in order to help them understand who they want to be. If they want to be big and strong then that is their choice to be that person but their attitude to other people’s decisions, especially to their peers should be one of respect. This also applies to a boy’s view of a girl. Women who choose to be more feminine or masculine should be allowed to. They should have the chance to express themselves and be respected for their autonomy.
International Programmes for Gender Equality
The UNFPA have been focusing on challenging gender stereotypes through different international programmes including:
- In the Dominican Republic, barbers were the conduit for getting messages about prevention of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections to almost half a million men.
- A project in the Philippines targeted an educational campaign about reproductive health issues to men, who are often the gatekeepers to their wives’ access to health services. Seminars and workshops gave men a chance to talk more openly about sensitive issues with their partners.
- In Uganda, UNFPA has successfully partnered with male opinion leader leaders in the country’s complex culture – including elders, kings, bishops and imams – to promote healthier behaviours and end harmful traditional practices.7
- The Men and Gender Equality Policy Project, seeks to build the evidence base on how to change public institutions and policies to better foster gender equality and to raise awareness among policymakers and programme planners of the need to involve men in health, development and gender equality issues. It is a multi-country research and advocacy initiative that has been carried out in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Chile, Croatia, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) India, Malawi, Mali, Mexico, Rwanda and South Africa (as of November 2012). Men Who Care
By Alexandra Williams
4 ‘Why Being a Macho, Macho Man Is Bad for Your Health’ http://www.everydayhealth.com/mens-health-pictures/why-being-a-macho-macho-man-is-bad-for-your-health.aspx#/slide-1
Volunteer Blog, Alex: Girls’ Education and Gender Respect
‘One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world. Education is the only solution.’
‘So let us wage a glorious struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism, let us pick up our books and our pens, they are the most powerful weapons.’
Malala Yousafzai – UN Youth Assembly 2013 Speech
‘Education is one of the most important means of empowering women with the knowledge, skills and self-confidence’ to ensure that girls participate in the development of their own country. This belief underlines the objectives of the UN’s Third Millennium Development Goal which seeks to ‘promote gender equality and empower women’ to ultimately eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education at all levels of education no later than 2015. Although, this target seems vastly over-ambitious and set to fail, its mission still holds value. This is because girl’s education is a crucial component to achieving gender equality. Globally, women are not equal to men in many societies due to unequal participation in government, finance, religion and cultural traditions. In a speech from Sarah Brown in an address to the Index on Censorship Magazine she exclaimed that ‘World leaders need to deliver on their pledges to institute universal primary education — especially for girls — if the world wants to empower the next generation’ as a woman who can read can lead.’
Although the international community commits to empowering girls’ through education, focus on improving gender equality and respect should arguably be centred on the domestic sphere in order to understand why girls are restricted from education.
Educating a girl can transform her chances in life, promote independence and self-reliance, and help to protect her from abuse. For example, research has shown that an education affords women greater economic opportunities and awareness of rights so that they may escape domestic violence and/or avoid entering into abusive relationships. However it is one thing to be economically empowered or given more opportunities to pursue higher ambitions, the problem still centres around traditions and family values that determine many women’s access to education. For example, in North-West Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai comments on the power of the Pashtunwali code which values Purdah an Islamic belief upheld in more traditional areas, where women are sought to be honoured through privacy. Purdah is normally seen visually as either veiling or women being escorted around by male family members. This means that girls are unable to go to school on their own as most of the men are out working. When we address the issue of gender respect in girl’s education the first obstacle is not within the school walls but within the family homes of girls around the world. Education is hailed as the only sustainable tool to improving a countries economic status however when families are faced with either allowing their daughters to learn to read or providing an income, many rationally choose finance.