AFRICA: Gender Equality, Why Involving Men is Crucial

Tuesday, October 4, 2011
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The involvement of men is key to the success of the gender-equality movement, but changing long-held social structures and convincing men of the importance of equal opportunities for women will not happen overnight, experts say.

"Men giving up their superior position is akin to acting out of the normative or prescribed way and [means men can be] ridiculed for acting differently - not like men," Maria Magezi, programme officer with the NGO, Akina Mama wa Afrika, told IRIN in the Ugandan capital, Kampala. "This also means that men will feel as if some kind of power is being taken away from them and the normal thing is to fight to restore their position and power."

A new report by the NGO, Plan International, says gender equality cannot be achieved unless men and boys are convinced of the importance of equal opportunities for women and girls.

"Policies alone can't do it - we need to start looking for ways to engage boys and men so that they start to see the value in equal opportunities for girls," said Edith Wanjohi, gender advisor for Plan's regional office in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

According to Plan, when it comes to gender equality, men generally fall into three categories: those who acknowledge that women and girls deserve equal rights but fear that boys will lose out if girls are allowed to enjoy these rights; those who do not believe in equal rights - the largest group; and those who believe in equality and put these beliefs into action - the smallest group.

A Plan survey of more than 4,000 adolescent children in India, Rwanda and the United Kingdom found that boys were often conditioned to have negative attitudes towards women. Some 65 percent of respondents from Rwanda and India totally or partially agreed with the statement that "a woman should tolerate violence in order to keep her family together". More than 60 percent of children interviewed in India agreed that "if resources are scarce it is better to educate a boy instead of a girl".

Include men in programming

"The cost of not working with boys and young men is that programmes and policies [working] with young women and girls will continue to come up against the barrier of male power and expectations, structures and beliefs that benefit men over women," the authors state. "The price that will be paid is simple: the continuing disempowerment of girls and young women down the generations – and the restriction of boys and young men to traditional 'male' roles."

As a result of the women-centred approach of gender programmes over the years, men have largely been sidelined in the discussion and have often felt alienated by the sometimes confrontational approach taken by gender activism.

If a boy sees his father treating his sisters and mother with respect, he will pick up on it; if he sees his father beating his mother up, there's a much higher chance that he too will be abusive "At international gender meetings - from Beijing to the UN - the vast majority of participants are women... we are preaching to the converted; not involving those who have the power to change things means you can't achieve the change you want," said Gezahegn Kebede, Plan's regional director.

Plan recommends involving men in the policy-making, implementation and activism around gender equality.
"Though gender equality is being pushed for, to an extent there has been failure by the implementers or advocates of gender equality to actually transform the institutions where this happens, which means that work is being done on the surface in the name of gender equality but in actual sense the root causes - such as patriarchy - are not being tackled, which makes the struggle unfruitful and has led to many projects... to being women-only projects," said Akina Mama Wa Afrika's Magezi.

Plan's report notes that by excluding men from the gender agenda, young boys also feel alienated by the gender message; the report quotes a research project led by the Institute of Education in London, which quoted an example of a participant of the Girls Education Movement in South Africa, who "was working with school kids from 15 to 19 years and talking about the girl child. There was booing from the boys."

Back to basics

Real change must start at home. "If a boy sees his father treating his sisters and mother with respect, he will pick up on it; if he sees his father beating his mother up, there's a much higher chance that he too will be abusive," said Wanjohi.

She noted that schools, religious institutions and other key areas of society must also be involved in ensuring men and boys understand their role in improving the lives of women.

"Despite the positive developments towards attitudes regarding girls' education, gender roles back at home that put too much pressure on the girls makes the whole environment unfavourable to girls," Celestine Magero, a teacher at a Nairobi school, told IRIN. "When a girl gets back home, she has to do house chores before settling down to read. Girls from poor backgrounds miss many school days, for example, during their menstrual cycle, because they can hardly afford sanitary pads."

The report found that engaging men in women's rights programmes gave them much-needed momentum; Wanjohi said involving male cultural leaders in Kenya in efforts to end female genital mutilation had had positive effects.


Changing long-held views will take time, as many men continue to resist change. "The role of a woman in the society is to be a man's helper. That is the way things are supposed to be when you look at it culturally and even from a religious point of view," said Julius Mueni, a Nairobi preacher. "It is not bad to give women opportunities but to say they should be equal to men is an impossible dream."

Mueni says given limited resources, his male children would always get priority.

And many women still adhere to antiquated notions of gender roles and pass these on to their children. "I train my male children to always act strong because that is what society expects from them and that is what I believe in," said Helen Omamo, a 37-year-old mother of four girls and two boys. "I can't send a boy child to the kitchen yet I have a girl child watching television.

"Equally I can't stomach my boy coming home crying that another boy has beaten him - let him retaliate," she added. "My children have learned to accept that. If you train a girl to be abrasive, then you are training somebody who cannot be married."