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Published on février 1st, 2024

Engaging Men and Boys for Gender Equality

The photo depicts USAID's Maternal and Child Health Survival Project (MCSP) in Nigeria. Nwuguru Nwabam and his premature son are doing skin-to-skin, otherwise known as Kangaroo Father Care, to provide warmth and health benefits for his newborn son to survive and thrive. Photo Credit: Karen Kasmauski, 2023

Gender equality has long been incorrectly considered “a women’s issue.” But over the past decade, attitudes have shifted and in the donor space has gone to gendered programming. With this, the idea of engaging men and boys as allies and beneficiaries of gender equality has begun to be taken more seriously. Incentivizing men to care about gender equality is important for their individual betterment; for improving their relationships with each other and the women in their lives; for the strength of their economies, environments, and communities; and for the health and wellness of their children.

Creating male gender champions

Supporting the development of male gender champions starts as individual transformative social behavior in men’s personal lives. Advocating for gender equality starts at home by “meeting men where they are at.” This means addressing their behavior in nonjudgmental ways to shift perspectives on harmful gender roles and toxic forms of “traditional” or violent masculinities. Engaging men in development programming includes approaches such as positive masculinities where men can be mentored by local community members and provided with resources such as classes on positive parenting, healthy coping mechanisms when dealing with trauma and stressors, valuing care work, and preventing violence in their relationships. Although individual social behavioral change is the first step when engaging men as allies for gender equality at home, men also need to be persuaded to join the movement advocating for systemic change in laws and policies, and the cultural attitudes and inclusion of women within their communities and workplaces.

Working with men for systemic change

Engaging men in gender equality and women’s empowerment or devoting funding specifically to male-only facilitated spaces and programs may seem like an afterthought or a diversion of funding for the “real issue at hand.” But without involving men in this cultural and systemic change there is more likely to be adverse reactions to other gendered programming involving women in their community. The Director of International Development Studies at George Washington University, Christina Fink, asserts that “international development actors are now realizing that if you don’t change men’s attitudes towards women, then gender programs which focus on women first won’t be successful, and in many cases can bring about increased dangers to women.” Considering USAID has a “Do No Harm” policy for all their work, it is the responsibility of implementing partners to consider and prepare for men’s potential adverse reactions to gender equality and women’s empowerment programming. Involving men in this programming can mitigate negative reactions and violence towards women when redistributing power at home and in the workplace.

Changing gender dynamics may be intimidating for men as women take on more decision-making power in their lives, such as suggesting new or unfamiliar ideas of family planning or untraditional gender roles in parenting. Women spending more time in leadership positions or in the work force rather than at home could also lead to an increase in violence against them at home as men can perceive them as neglecting their gendered responsibilities.

Using gender transformative approaches to adapt norms

The International Center for Research on Women points towards gender norm transformation as one of the most effective approaches to gender equality, disability and social inclusion programming as it helps men to reflect on various forms of masculinities that are “toxic” due to unequal gender norms often perpetuated by their own exposure to trauma and violence. Encouraging men to move away from toxic masculinities of “strength” or “manliness” that are aggressive are good tactics for turning men towards positive definitions of what it means to be a man.

Engaging both men and women in conversations about shifting perspectives on gendered responsibilities and household dynamics can be a preventative practice of “do no harm” in gendered programming. Also, encouraging men to value traditionally gendered roles such as caregiving for family members helps redistribute household responsibilities more equally and reduces time poverty constraints on women. Time poverty is one of the main barriers for women’s ability to join the labor force as they are often expected to do more in the home. Assigning more value to care work can also bring men closer to their children and more positive forms of masculinity through parenting and elderly care. Generating mainstream media representations of men as caring and competent can motivate men to lean into positive masculinities that normalize care work as equal work. When men assign value to care work they can help to boost the national economy and household income. Paying for this labor, which is typically assigned to women, could increase is the world’s economy by 11 trillion, or 9% of the global GDP.

The argument for continuing to fund and draw attention to engaging men for gender equality programming is that it protects women since shifting societal and cultural norms can lead to adverse reactions from male peers. Men need to feel empowered to be involved in these changes as they occur. To achieve transformative change at the household level, men need to support women in household and care giving responsibilities that perpetuate gendered time poverty. Engaging men in care work is one example of how gender equality programs can foster positive outcomes for all members of a family.