Engaging Men and Boys in Gender Equality

Achieving an aim of gender equality is a daily struggle that needs engagement from all sides. With gender-based discrimination and violence rife, much more needs to be done to reach the UN’s SDG 5 that aims for gender equality by 2030. One way is to engage men and boys as part of the solution.

The Barbershop Conference: Changing the Discourse among Men on Gender Equality
The HeForShe Campaign, founded by UN Women in 2014, works to engage men and boys with the issue of gender inequality. UN Photo/Devra Berkowitz.

Gender equality might seem straight forward – women and men on an equal footing, having equal opportunities and rights – but there are many nuances to the gender equality debate. To begin with, for many people, there are more genders than only women and men. Other aspects include calls for equal opportunities in education, equal citizenship rights, equal access to health care or decent work, equal pay and equal representation in political and economic decision-making processes. Although much is discussed in terms of women and men having the same opportunities and rights as each other, the discursive focus remains largely on women and girls being given the opportunities and rights that many (but certainly not all) men and boys already have. The UN, in their SDG 5, emphasise discrimination and violence against women and girls as a key issue in the aim for gender equality because “gender equality is not only a fundamental human right, but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world”. In order to achieve any kind of semblance of gender equality by 2030, the debate needs to open up further – also in regard to the non-dichotomisation of gender itself. Everybody needs to get involved and take responsibility – women, men, non-binary, trans, intersex, girls, and boys. This is vital for tackling a he versus she attitude that persists in many cases.


HeForShe Campaign: Key Messages and Policy Recommendations

With a particular focus on men and boys but also an understanding of the shared responsibility of all genders, the HeForShe campaign, founded by UN Women in 2014, invites men and people of all genders to make a difference by committing themselves to taking action for a gender equal world. Engaging men and boys in gender equality involves a nuanced approach but most of all, it involves time, patience and persistence. Attitudes towards gender equality will not change overnight; they are too ingrained within our societies. More research needs to be done on attitudes towards gender equality in order to build on our understanding of the social causes of gendered violence and discrimination. The HeForShe page on the UN Women Deutschland website lays out some key messages and policy recommendations. It begins by highlighting the importance of visibility – stating that the concept of gender and privilege must be made visible for men. This can be done by drawing up policies that help dissolve gender inequality and existing power relations. The policy recommendations include: publishing work done with men and boys in regard to gender equality; focusing on the socialisation of boys in their formative years – making sure that positive attitudes towards gender are instilled in them; involving men and boys in the prevention of gender-specific violence; motivating men in regard to fatherhood, care, and taking more responsibility for unpaid work; as well as engaging men in the areas of sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Another key message is that the causes of gender inequality are structural. Therefore, it is vital to begin by tackling gender inequality on the structural level in order to allow for changes to work more efficiently on the individual level. For example, in regard to gender-based violence (GBV), although individual cases need attention it is crucial to get to the root of this form of violence. It is clearly a structural problem, for example, that women and girls together account for 71 per cent of human trafficking victims across the globe or that 49 countries currently have no laws protecting women from domestic violence; gaps in legislation here are most common in the Middle East, North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. Although different global areas may have different focal points when it comes to engaging men and boys in gender equality, these key messages and recommendations for policies should be considered areas of significance in countries across the globe.


The Importance of Representation

All mediums should be used to make the concept of gender and privilege visible for men and boys in order to reach out to men and boys of all walks of life. Therefore, popular culture should also play a role in the HeForShe movement. Although the two may not seem directly linked – they are linked in many ways, with the use of twitter hashtags furthering the reach of the campaign and of celebrity figures involved – for example, Emma Watson, who kickstarted the campaign with her 2014 speech at the Headquarters of the United Nations, and other celebrities such as David Tennent, Harry Styles, Clueso or Klaus J. Behrendt pledging their commitment to the campaign. With the message of gender equality seeping into popular culture in a variety of ways, such as in the form of new regulations on TV adverts in the UK that ban harmful gender stereotyping, these steps can go a long way in changing our understanding of gender and gender roles. Representation plays a huge part in gender inequality. Therefore, combining changes in policies with changes in representation is a good starting point.


Building on Policies

The HeForShe campaign focuses on the involvement of men and boys in the cause and on advocating policies that promote the visibility of gender and privilege to men. Many current policies also attempt a preventative method – getting to the root of the cause of gender inequality, particularly in regard to GBV. Tied in with the importance of visibility is the policy recommendation of publishing work done with men and boys in regard to gender equality. And there are many organisations that have done exactly that. For example, MenEngage – an alliance of NGOs working together with men and boys to promote gender equality – advocates accountability and has published an accountability training toolkit, as well as standards and guidelines to help men and boys respond to issues and collaborate meaningfully with women’s rights organisations. CARE – one of the world’s leading global poverty-fighting organisations – has created a learning series that engages men and boys with topics of gender, equity and masculinities. This series includes stories of engagement and reflections on men and boys engaging gender work in development. Other projects using preventative methods are, for example, a project in Kenya that addresses sexual health and GBV – having taken steps to involve men and boys in its outreach in order to get to the root of GBV. Each of these projects brings us one step closer to a fairer, peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world. Although there is always still much work to do as gender equality is an ongoing project that needs continuous engagement, there are many people out there working hard to make a difference – changing policies, changing representations and changing attitudes, little by little.

Teri Shardlow

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