Why Men and Masculinities Matter for Gender Equality
Working with boys and men for gender equality is nothing new, but seems to have expanded exponentially as both an academic theme and programming approach over the last decade.
Working with boys and men as an approach for enhancing gender equality has truly “arrived”. Last November, nearly 1,000 participants gathered in New Delhi for a Global Symposium on Boys and Men and Gender Justice, and in early March a major International Conference on Masculinities took place in New York.
Working with boys and men for gender equality is nothing new. In fact, this work has been ongoing for decades, but seems to have expanded exponentially as both an academic theme and programming approach over the last five to ten years.
Last year, I spent some time exploring this expanding field; where this work came from, its challenges, and the notable successes as part of research for an article published in The Lancet. My co-authors and I looked back at the history of where, when and why this work developed over time, and reviewed evaluation evidence to explore what has been working on this approach, based on published project evaluations.
In this research we found, put simply, that the results are quite mixed. There is no doubt that boys and men have critical roles to play in increasing gender equality, and that some interventions are effective for achieving certain gains towards gender equality. But questions remain as to how best instill long-lasting changes, and if implementing discrete interventions with boys and men is always the best way to do this. The main challenges with a project-based approach relate to the scale, duration, and actual changes influenced by projects.
There are successful interventions that have shifted attitudes and practices of some men toward the more gender-equitable. In the best examples, the effects of these interventions last for years after the project is over, and are often based on group education and cognitive-behavioral approaches. However, these projects are limited to relatively small groups of boys or men, and are not generally scalable for larger populations.
Other interventions—such as using focused curricula—attempt to plant the seeds of gender-equitable attitudes and practices with boys and young men before they enter into adult relationships. Although curricula can be scaled up within education systems, in Asia these projects tend to be implemented by local NGOs (not education ministries) and tend to last only as long as external funding is available, which is often just a few years..
It is not that men are naturally violent or hard wired to oppress women and girls – so we do have hope. There are plenty of men in Asia who are opposed to violence and oppression and who support gender justice to varying degrees. The problem is essentially that we will not achieve broad-based gender equality goals by working with a few boys and men through a smattering of small-scale interventions. We need to transform the larger social narratives about men, or the gender norms and expectations for “how to be men” in our societies. In other words, for greater gender justice we have to work toward transforming masculinities. And to transform masculinities, we have to work in more comprehensive and coordinated ways.
The goal is to shift gendered norms so the most valued ways of being men in our societies are associated with caring, peace, gender justice and harmony within personal relationships, with different groups of women and men and with the environment at large. This is no easy task, as such transformation requires new ways of thinking, new types of partnerships, and long-term vision and commitment.
We can start with the known effective models for norm change, those that engage leadership, and those that explicitly transform gender relations. These approaches are based on a strong theoretical understanding of gender and transformational change – and what these have to do with each other. They also recognize that gender norms, as social expectations for women and men, are taught and reinforced by all types of people: mothers, fathers, local leaders, friends, teachers, and so on. So our work for transforming masculinities for gender justice does not simply involve boys and men, but is it also strategic about which boys and men, and which groups of women and girls are mobilized for the task.
In Asia, we also have homegrown initiatives to build on. Some efforts already underway have moved beyond solely engaging boys and men, and have applied a more nuanced and politicized view of gender justice. These initiatives are focused on transforming the norms that support the oppression of women and other groups, and adhere to feminist principles of human rights, justice, and equality for all groups and identities. Examples include two civil society networks in Asia that have been focused on transforming masculinities for the past 4 to 5 years: the South Asia Network to Address Masculinities and the East and Southeast Asian Regional Learning Community.
There are those already coming together and taking up the challenge and hard work of trying to change oppressive structures and social norms for gender equality, rather than chasing a fads of small scale project approaches. To explore these issues more deeply, ADB, the UN Development Program and AAKAR India are hosting on 20 March the forum “Why Men and Masculinities Matter: Addressing the Final Frontiers for Gender Equality” at ADB’s headquarters in Manila. This event will explore the critical importance of understanding masculinities and their impact on the lives of men and women; the diverse body of work across the region; motivations behind it; and suggestions for what we can do next when working with boys and men for gender equality.