When men become solutions…

  • Excerpt: Men may understand women’s rights violations differently from women, because they are not directly affected by it or experience it differently from their standpoint. They cannot always be expected to understand them from the same lens. It is also important to note that the frequency and normality of some of these violations may have desensitized them from understanding their gravity and costs to the society. Thus, it is crucial that the experiences of women are conveyed to them in ways that help them understand what is at stake. This may involve the use of analogies and examples that are outside issues of gender, especially where there are strict demarcations of men’s and women’s roles or a sense of acquiescence or surrender that religion or culture accepts or expects this. Analogies or examples that they can appreciate or have been through themselves may also be an entry point into discussions.

One method of doing this is using other examples of inequality. For instance a participant of the South African Men’s Forum was able to grasp the concept of gender inequality by comparing it to inequalities that existed during the racial apartheid in the region. 

Similarly a trainer of Islamic law to the Ministry of Justice in Afghanistan used the concept of slavery (now abolished in most parts of the Muslim world) to highlight its similarities with the complete subservience of a wife in exchange of dowry, as a way of deconstructing to the participants, the repugnant aspects of unequal relationships that Islam sought to gradually abolish through its revelations on the treatment of slaves now present in some marital relations.

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Empowering men as partners in women’s rights activists

I intend to begin this interpretive paper by exploring notions and definitions of key terms that arise in our discussions of men’s and women’s role in war and peace. I intend that this exploration will trigger readers to access more fluid definitions and notions that a) exposes the weaknesses of binary categories such as ‘men/women’, ‘powerful/subordinate’ and ‘oppressor/oppressed’ in the investigation of men and women’s daily-realities; and b) to use these fluid understandings (of the multiple roles that women and men play) to inform better grassroots programs, strategies and program content for new and existing training, campaigning and education activities in conflict and post-conflict situations.

This interpretive paper is designed as a set of reflective questions and a list of accompanying techniques of engagement with men, which I hope will serve as a useful framework for activists and organizations embarking to design programs to empower men in efforts concerning women’s (and men’s) rights.

Gender-based programs are often built upon a certain set of premises or assumptions that in theory frames the design and implementation of all activities.

The following are some examples of a premise:

  • The work of this organization is premised upon substantive equality between men and women as laid down in the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.
  • The work of this organization is premised upon the belief that women’s economic independence through micro-credit lending is key to advancing their agency in decision-making activities in their household.
  • The work of this organization is premised upon the importance of raising the awareness of women’s rights amongst men and young boys and increasing men’s involvement in women’s rights efforts.

Some features of organizational or program premises:

  • They may exist on a conscious or sub-conscious level.
  • They may be expressly written out on organizational documents  or communicated orally between staff.
  • They can act as guiding posts or benchmarks for the implementation of a project.
  • They may reflect an organizational culture.
  • They may not always be communicated to and agreed upon by all the staff.

Establishing the premises for any program is important because they lay down the foundations for the design of new programs; they act as success indicators; they frame discussions that take place during staff meetings; they encourage certain types of conduct amongst staff; and they create an organizational culture. Communicating these premises and reiterating them during staff meetings and other activities involving staff engagement will be important for the premises to effect meaningful outcomes.

Many gender programs are starting to realize the importance of engaging men as partners in women’s rights efforts. Often men are perceived as problems and not targeted as solutions to women’s challenges. Thus advocacy methods sometimes unconsciously reproduce negative discourses (both written and spoken) of men’s adversarial disposition towards women. This narrow frame of reference may deter many men from contributing positively to women’s rights efforts. Laying down and communicating a premise that posits men’s positive involvement can invite staff to reconsider existing advocacy strategies and programs, and tease out existing organizational philosophies, approach and language, that may evoke unnecessary negative representations of men or male/female relationships.

Men’s involvement, in certain contexts, is extremely essential due to their preponderant exercise of decision-making in micro and macro activities effecting women such as family planning, education of female children, attention to treatment of diseases, access to maternal healthcare during pregnancy and the control of economic assets. At the macro level, this extends to nearly every effort in law and policy-making, programming and budget allocation, at all levels of government; their exercise of political power, access to Ministries, ability to tap into larger network of resources and authority over law and policies affect the allocation and equitable distribution of resources needed for this work.

There are a variety of innovative ways and strategies that women can use to increase men’s involvement in the work for gender equality.

Seeing beyond the dichotomy

The following set of reflective questions is designed to encourage readers to contemplate more fluid definitions and accounts of women’s rights and men’s role in its advancement. The discussion of these questions amongst staff members may initiate new ideas in the mapping, design, implementation and evaluation of activities pertaining to men’s role either as perpetrators in women’s causes or partners in them. This can potentially alter the approaches of women’s rights investigation and data collection, and the presentation of data and evidence collected to establish the cause and effect of women’s rights violations. Perhaps more importantly, the ideas generated may also inform the design of training, education and advocacy programs, that strategically and meaningfully includes men in the delivery of these activities, or engage them as important participants in them. 

Going beyond rigid definitions

  • A social structure of a society is the organization of peoples within in. The roles that women and men play within a social structure cannot always be defined within a gendered dichotomy. The role that women play in any society is often too narrowly posed as that in opposition to or vis a vis men.
  • This neglects patterns of subordination that are outside the ‘male oppressor’ v ‘oppressed female’ dichotomy.
  • The identity of a woman should not be solely understood in terms of her gender. Class, educational attainment, wealth, tribe, religion, geography, health and even self-esteem are contribute towards her disempowerment and chances of advancement in life.
  • Women’s disempowerment take place at the cross-section of all these identities.
  • Not all violations that take place against a woman are violations committed on the basis of gender.
  • For instance, prevalent incidences of rape committed in a particular community can be attributed as a wrongful act committed against a woman by a man for the very fact that she is a woman. But in addition to that, incidences of rape persists as a result of poor complaint and correctional mechanisms, growing culture of aggression and violence that has resulted from decades of war, poverty, high rates of unemployment, the proliferation of gangs, accessibility to weapons and others.
  • It is very important that a nuanced and well-rounded approach to the investigation and presentation of women’s situation is used to ensure that the full-range of causes to women’s rights violations is explored. Thus manifold, new and creative solutions can be designed to address each of those causes.
  • Not all acts against a woman are committed against them on the basis of gender. Similarly not all victims of gender-based violence are female.

– Programs that target the protection of women and female children may marginalize violations that take place against young boys. For instance a law drafted and enacted for the protection of young girls against rape and sexual assault, may omit to offer the same protection to young boys who actually be more susceptible to such sexual violations by men.

  • Within a patriarchal social structure, it is often misunderstood that all men take superior positions over all women. Societies are however more complex than that. Men too experience various forms of subordination within the patriarchy. There are hierarchies of men, hierarchies of women, hierarchies men over women and perhaps to a lesser extent hierarchies of women over men. Within the various coexisting hierarchies present in a society, often the marginalized are the elderly, the poor, those inflicted with diseases, the disabled, youth and children. These categories of people include both men and women.
  • When these forms of hierarchies are hashed out and examples in real life are utilized to explore their manifestations in reality, then programs promoting equality between men and women may not be seen as promoting a uni-dimensional approach to understanding women’s rights.
  • Patriarchal structures can result both positive and negative consequences.
  • Women may participate in reinforcing a patriarchal structure.
  • Women’s participation in peace efforts may not always be guided by aims to advance a gendered cause.

Techniques of engagement based upon successful practices 

  • Identify sites for engagement. This may be male-dominated institutions like the judiciary, police and armed forces. Or they may be settings that include a mix of people from all backgrounds. The choice may depend on the objectives and strategies of the program concerned. Many violations occur at levels that require multi/cross-sectoral solutions that involve actors from fields of health, law enforcement, courts, schools and the workplace.
  • What kinds of violations are my program addressing?
  • What are the manifold causes that contribute towards these violations?
  • How have men consciously or unconsciously, maliciously or through benevolent intentions (to protect) caused them?
  • What social and environmental settings do they take place in?
  • Who do I target? Law enforcers? Religious leaders? Employers?
  • Young boys in their formative years could be targeted through formal educational settings and community peer programs. This may involve the revision of curricular and other educational materials as well as the incorporation of gender awareness in sex and health education classes.
  • Successful programs make effective use of public figures and influential religious leaders, celebrities and sports athletes who are highly regarded by the community. Take note that the younger demographic may be influenced by different people than the older demographic. Utilize the broad range of mediums to communicate information including art, music and sports.
  • What are the demographics of my community?
  • Can I map this out in order to identify the kinds of activities and also people (opinion shapers) who already influence the perceptions of the community?
  • Can I, for each demographic segment, appeal to these opinion shapers and in collaboration with them, design activities that will allow for the awareness of more equitable perceptions of women?
  • It is crucial to understand men’s motivation for engagement. They may not always be obvious. And they may not always be the same for all kinds of rights. For instance whilst there may be strong support to increase women’s access to safe healthcare, this might not extend to other kinds of rights like for example, women’s consent in marriage. Also their motivations may arise from different sources. Some motivations come simply from a sense of social justice. Others come from a concern for their family members.
  • Through simple discussions and methods of inquiry, ask,
  • What are some of the motivations behind participants engagement in the prevention of women’s rights violations and in the proactive promotion of their rights and well-being?
  • Are there different motivations for different kinds of rights?
  • How can programs be designed to fully utilize these motivations for meaningful engagement and encourage more men to participate?
  • Men may understand women’s rights violations differently from women, because they are not directly affected by it or experience it differently from their standpoint. They cannot always be expected to understand them from the same lens. It is also important to note that the frequency and normality of some of these violations may have desensitized them from understanding their gravity and costs to the society. Thus, it is crucial that the experiences of women are conveyed to them in ways that help them understand what is at stake. This may involve the use of analogies and examples that are outside issues of gender, especially where there are strict demarcations of men’s and women’s roles or a sense of acquiescence or surrender that religion or culture accepts or expects this. Analogies or examples that they can appreciate or have been through themselves may also be an entry point into discussions.

One method of doing this is using other examples of inequality. For instance a participant of the South African Men’s Forum was able to grasp the concept of gender inequality by comparing it to inequalities that existed during the racial apartheid in the region.

Similarly a trainer of Islamic law to the Ministry of Justice in Afghanistan used the concept of slavery (now abolished in most parts of the Muslim world) to highlight its similarities with the complete subservience of a wife in exchange of dowry, as a way of deconstructing to the participants, the repugnant aspects of unequal relationships that Islam sought to gradually abolish through its revelations on the treatment of slaves now present in some marital relations.

  • How do participants understand women’s violations? Are they understood as violations committed against the family? As collateral damage?
  • How do participants frame their acceptance or tolerance of these violations?
  • How can I further their understanding by using analogies outside gender issues, that they can relate to?

Much academic discussion on women’s rights now surrounds the subject of masculinity. Masculinity and its various configurations are intrinsically related to crime, gangsterism, war, aggression and sexism. Highly masculinized societies can tend to engender deep-seated hostility against the weak (elderly, disabled, diseased, women and children), and are also often tolerant of aggressive responses to situations.

  • Within a patriarchal social structure, it is often misunderstood that all men take superior positions over all women. Societies are however more complex than that. Men too experience various forms of subordination within the patriarchy. There are hierarchies of men, hierarchies of women, hierarchies men over women and perhaps to a lesser extent hierarchies of women over men. Within the various coexisting hierarchies present in a society, often the marginalized are the elderly, the poor, those inflicted with diseases, the disabled, youth and children. These categories of people include both men and women.
  • When these forms of hierarchies are hashed out and examples in real life are utilized to explore their manifestations in reality, then programs promoting equality between men and women may not be seen as promoting a uni-dimensional approach to understanding women’s rights. More importantly, these examples can be used to encourage men to also talk about the ways in which they have suffered in unequal power relationships and to find common grounds with women’s experiences of them, even if they are situated in different power relationships. The crucial point in a discussion concerning this is to, through their anecdotes, highlight that violations occur and persists not because of abstract concepts like culture or religion, or war. Culture, religion and war can only be manifested through the actions of people. The persistence of inequalities exist from and through the abuse by people (i.e. the power-holders) in unequal power relationships.
  • What kind of unequal power relationships exist in my community?
  • Can I invite participants to share anecdotes of unfair situations that have arose due to this?
  • Can I discuss their costs to society; public health, children’s upbringing, low attendance at school, theft etc…
  • Gender identities and gender roles have never been fixed. Societies are in a constant state of flux; the media, economic growth and downturns, globalization, migration, the wield and exercise of good or poor governance, democracy, and changing market structures are always shifting men and women’s roles vis a vis each other. Some countries have seen major shifts to more gender equitable relations, with considerable benefits to public health, education of children, economic growth, peace and prosperity. It may be useful to use their examples to point out that fixed gender roles are not naturally endowed (that is a result of evolutionary biology) and immutable. New forms of family arrangements, some with female-headed households, demonstrate the diversity of family formations and roles, which show how traditional notions of male/female roles can be challenged, and may be challenged when the circumstances require it.
  • Can I use cases and analyses in the economics of prosperous countries to highlight how the education, health and security of women have contributed to the progress of nations?
  • Can I use examples of family arrangements (even eccentric ones) from different communities to showcase how families have arranged themselves in respond to changing needs, as a way of demonstrating that there are no fixed or natural arrangements.
  • Can I highlight examples of men who have worked and are still working towards the goal of gender equality?

Change is also problematic because underlying inequalities is some level of suffering by men. Many are disillusioned by high levels of unemployment, inadequate educational opportunities, communal violence and social exclusion. Thus programs that seek to eliminate gender inequality should also address these other causes. Programs should operate at different levels of the problems and engage with actors from all sectors.

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