Articles & Opinion

Engaging men and boys for gender equality… What do women have to do with it?

17 May 17 Gender-Based Violence

I still remember one of my first conversations with a male colleague at Sonke when I had just joined the organisation in 2010. As a women’s rights and feminist activist in Latin America and Africa, I was new to the strategy, the still relatively new world of ‘engaging men and boys for gender equality’. The discussion centred on a training project on sexual and reproductive rights with religious leaders, and who should facilitate the training. I found myself arguing that we would have to send one of the male colleagues – most of them at Sonke at the time, anyway – because…would these traditional leaders listen to a woman?! To the credit of my colleague, he thought a woman colleague could do it. And that was the beginning of my learning curve in the new world of engaging men and my re-empowerment as an activist.

Fast forward to April, 2017, and I find myself sitting in a training workshop of one of the MenEngage networks, and suggesting that the hashtag for the training could be #WomenLead. The proposal causes a bit of controversy and giggles in the room full of mostly men. I am convinced more than ever of the need to ‘engage men and boys’ for gender equality. But I am also more aware than ever of the need to see it as it is: one of several strategies to achieve gender equality, and not the silver bullet that will overnight end centuries of inequalities. Most importantly, as an activist, I am aware of the need to constantly make men in the streets, male leaders, and men in gender equality organisations accountable for their words and actions.

As an organisation, Sonke Gender Justice has gone through a number of changes over the years to address what has been perceived by the traditional women’s rights movement as a lack of accountability and the perpetuation of yet another men’s club. For a start, we have now a 50/50 staff component and women in senior management positions, including a co-director. This is far from the roughly 70% men and 30% women I encountered when I joined Sonke, with women mostly in junior positions. But many questions remain: is equal representation enough? Do we have empowered women trainers that can confidently stand in front of traditional and religious leaders and ‘teach’ them about their role in the struggle for gender equality, without ‘sugar coating’ the message? Have we made a substantial contribution to dismantle patriarchy within the organisation and in the communities where we work? Have we changed the discourses and practices of what engaging men and boys for gender equality means? Most importantly, can we positively show that women’s lives have changed for the better?

The 50/50 game and token appointments

Numbers do matter, but they are meaningless without real power. As we have seen in political spaces, increasing the number of women in gender equality organisations implementing men’s engagement strategies will not advance equality, unless women take positions of power and run with feminist principles. Sonke has made concerted efforts not only to employ more women, but also to promote them to senior management positions, but more needs to be done in this regard. There might, for instance, be a need to create women’s forums to provide safe spaces to discuss specific needs and challenges encountered within and outside the organisations, such as surprising patriarchal attitudes from male colleagues, as well as the sometimes overt antagonism from women in other gender equality organisations.

The role model temptation, learning the hard way

Directly linked to the point above is the old discussion about role models and good men. Historically, most organisations working in the field of engaging men and boys were mostly staffed by men. This led to the perception that these were the good men, who fashioned themselves and were perceived as role models in the gender sector and society in general. They were the ones in the know, the ones who would not only teach, but would lead the change. The pitfalls of the approach were clear when campaigns were run and these good men became the only ones seen as capable – in an ‘innovative fashion’ – to teach equality and how to end violence against women to others, whether men or women.

In South Africa, the approach became very prominent and led to civil society and government initiatives where prizes would be given to selected ‘best men of the year’ in communities across the country. The standards were not always clear, and we had situations where good men had turned from abusers to ‘changed’ men, just to be caught abusing their partners again a few months later. Sonke Gender Justice also developed during its initial year a flagship campaign called One Man Can (OMC), which was based on the belief that change starts at the individual level, before moving to community spheres. As our work became more intense in communities, though, we realised that many women were attending the workshops and community events. In some cases, they outnumbered men.

So we had to ask the hard question: how can we still call it One Man Can campaign, when we have women mobilising for change? Are we not making women’s contributions invisible in the quest to count and show mostly the men’s participation and – hopefully – change? In the past years, we have consciously tried to move away from the OMC name, but we continue targeting men as agents of change, supporters of women’s struggles in the gender equality quest.

The role model strategy has its benefits, particularly when it comes to making public figures and leaders accountable for their actions and commitments, but it should not become the centre piece of any strategy to engage men and boys, as it reinforces the notion of change coming from good, illuminati men, and not from communities and women.

WE CAN DO IT!: “I don’t know whether we will be able to continue with the workshop tomorrow…I hope they come back.”

Those were the concerned words of a female colleague running a One Man Can workshop in a township in the East Rand area of Johannesburg. The workshop aimed to discuss violence against women, the services available in the area for victims of sexual violence and how could the community – including men – support victims. The workshop was well attended by a good number of men, including a policeman who indicated that they were expecting a male facilitator, so he was not sure they would take part in the workshop. My colleague’s response was, “I know how to run this workshop; you are welcome to leave, but I hope you stay. I am here to stay”. In the end, everyone stayed and the workshop ended on a very positive note.

This anecdote is unfortunately not isolated and it illustrates the challenges encountered by women working in this space. After years of women contributing to the development and adaptation of curriculum materials; of running workshops in communities where both women and men are present; of tirelessly conducting door to door campaigns and information and education talks in townships and rural areas of South Africa; of conducting research and creating tools to measure change; of contributing to the academic production in this field, women are still questioned in terms of the capacity to implement this strategy, and we still have organisations or teams that are staffed mostly by men. The underlying thinking is that only men can do it; however, as probed by my colleague, we can do it.

Will navel gazing contribute to social change?

Many of the theoretical frameworks on which the work with men and boys rest come from the public health and psychology fields. They have been highly influential in the way the strategy has been implemented across the world.

The masculinities studies have emphasised individual analysis and change, which definitely has a part to play in the strategy, but the overemphasis on this aspect has led to misunderstandings in terms of how to implement a strategy that should lead to social, not just individual change, and led by the oppressed, not by the oppressor. The misled reading of the strategy has led to a proliferation of ‘men’s organisations, men’s groups, men’s forums among civil society, and also government structures, which have a mixed bag of objectives, and many with a ‘men’s rights’ agenda.

In South Africa, Sonke is still invited to give talks to men’s forums in government departments – particularly during Women’s Month and 16 Days of Activism, nogal! – and to address in the same space issues as divergent as violence against women, child abuse, HIV and AIDS, men’s health and well being, mental health, just to name a few. In many instances, the request is for men facilitators. In line with our strategic vision, we now promote presentations to inclusive groups and by mixed teams. In these spaces, we also reinforce the message: men as partners in the struggle for gender equality, not as leaders, not as victims, and becoming conscious of their privileges and power.

Long duree and accountability: Lessons from the feminist movement history

Long-term societal and cultural changes don’t happen overnight, millennial patriarchy will not end because a new strategy becomes popular among civil society, government and donors. Most importantly, any innovative strategy in the gender equality field has to take into account the history of the women’s rights and feminist movements.

This approach, which sounds like an oxymoron to old feminists, was not always what I encountered when I entered the new terrain of engaging men and boys. Maybe because our exasperation with the slow change in the face of extreme violence against women and other forms of structural violence, maybe because we need to respond to the pressure from donors to be really innovative, new generations of gender activists – fortunately many men – have implemented a strategy without acknowledging the gains from the past and the need to learn and adapt from it. Sonke has understood the danger of this approach and has developed training courses that put an emphasis on sharing the history of the women’s rights movement and the advances already made.

Men activists need to understand that they have a supportive and not leading role in furthering gender equality, and must resist the temptation to rename and reclaim gains from the women’s movement. This approach is consistent with the need for accountability identified by MenEngage formations across the world, and which only in recent years has become a key ethical and programmatic consideration. The accountability is not only towards donors and women’s rights organisations and networks; it extends well beyond them.

Have we made a difference in women’s lives? The golden accountability question

This is a key question that remains mostly unanswered when it comes to the strategy of engaging men and boys for gender equality and to end gender-based violence. Sonke has been a partner in studies conducted at the request of donors in different settings across the world, and there are positive findings. Sonke has also made concerted efforts to strengthen its research and monitoring and evaluation capacity, and we have partnered in a number of randomised control trials aimed at probing the long-term impact of the work. Furthermore, we have collected qualitative evidence through stories of change, photo, voice and digital stories, mostly among men.

However, the voice of women in communities remains largely silent. We have been asked in several forums: what about the women? What do they say about the men in the community? Do they experience less violence? As we move forward and try to instill a feminist culture at Sonke, we need to increase our efforts to credibly respond to this question.

Article by
Angelica Pino

Angelica joined Sonke in June 2010 as Resource Mobilisation Manager, and in 2014 she took the position of Sonke's Director of Programmes.

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17 May 2017
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