EMERGE blog 9. Reframing gender equality and sustainable change: should men be in the picture?

The Global Goals for Sustainable Development recognise that the achievement of equitable and transformative development will not be possible if women continue to be denied their full human rights and access to equal opportunities. This is certainly true, but critical questions remain and have been integral to the discussions of the link between sustainability and women’s empowerment at CSW60 over the past week: How will this change happen? Who is accountable? Who will make the necessary demands? Where does responsibility lie for the full realisation of women’s rights and for sustainable gender equality?

Recent research from the EMERGE project highlights that men and boys can be important allies and agents of change in working with women and girls to drive momentum on their empowerment. Importantly, the project has learned that men working together with women to challenge problematic gender roles and expectations (amongst both men and women) can strengthen accountability claims and also provide space for mutual learning and redefinition of gender norms.

This research finds that men and boys have diverse and important roles to play in the change needed to achieve equal access to quality education, decent work and political participation for women and girls. Engaging with men across different spaces and institutions, challenging certain rules, gendered norms and forms of masculinities, is also needed if we are to ensure that sexual and reproductive health rights are realised and that caring and domestic work is sustainably redistributed within households and communities. In relation to CSW60’s review theme, initiatives to address gender-based violence have demonstrated the enormous value of work with men to challenge harmful norms and practices that fuel this violence.

Whilst many gender equality policies and programmes only target and work with women and girls, there is compelling evidence and experience from the EMERGE project that shows how engaging men and boys more explicitly in these processes is crucial for sustainable change.

Why better engaging men and boys is crucial for lasting gender equality

Engaging men and boys in work for gender equality is important for a number of reasons:

  • Addressing inequalities between genders means understanding unequal power relations and addressing their root causes, including men’s roles and investments in these.
  • It helps to achieve positive impacts for women and girls and for their empowerment, since men and boys need to change their behaviour, adapt to new circumstance and support women’s new roles.
  • Patriarchy and harmful masculinities are also bad for men and boys and broader societies, acting as a key driver of poor health and education outcomes for men, which also impact on others.

Current challenges in approaches to change gender relations

Whilst some progress has been made to engage men and boys in work on gender equality, challenges remain. Many of these come back to how we conceive of ‘gender’ and ‘women’s empowerment’ in terms of how the problem and solutions are framed. For example, many preventative strategies to reduce the incidence of violence for women and girls remain compromised by a single-sex as opposed to a gender relational focus.

EMERGE has found that men and boys are often invisible in gender policy frameworks and theories of change, and the roles that they can play in challenging unequal gender relations not recognised. This is compounded by the fact that change towards gender equality is often seen in linear cause and effect ways and does not recognise opportunities to engage different men across different areas of work and societal levels. Moreover, change is often conceptualised without recognition of broader shifts in societies or institutions meaning that contextual dynamics are often disconnected.

How to work with men and boys for gender equality

Strategies for change toward gender equality must therefore address relations of power between men and women, as they play out within their actual contexts. Addressing gender inequalities with men may also be more effective if tackled in combination with other inequalities, which reinforce patriarchal power structures and privilege and compound multiple forms of discrimination. We have learnt that gender equality initiatives should be:

  • Engaging men and boys on interpersonal issues to oppose gender inequality, through creating safe spaces for consciousness-raising, engaging men across public and private spheres and promoting role models.
  • Working strategically for institutional change, building movements of men and women to engage with laws, policies and decision-makers, thus politicising men’s engagement.
  • Remaining context specific in order to understand and engage with structural drivers of inequality ensuring that approaches learn adaptively and respond to changing dynamics.

Reframing men and boys in policy for gender equality

Beyond lessons on good practice at community level, policymaking is itself also a political process which can shift or reinforce different gender identities, norms and practices.  It therefore plays an important role in enabling and shaping the uptake of different kinds of strategies.

Although there is increasing recognition that men and boys need to be a part of the solution, there is often a lack of clarity on the actual and potential roles of men and boys in changing gender relations and how this contributes to theories of change on women’s empowerment. This includes a lack of clarity over the actual and potential roles of policymaking processes themselves for affecting gender in development. EMERGE research highlights the role of policymaking in challenging harmful normative assumptions and positions on gender.

So, what should a gender policy framework that incorporates masculinities effectively look like? There are six key directions for reframing policy to enable the transformative engagement of men and boys for gender equality and the achievement of women’s empowerment. Policy needs to be:

  • Relational and inclusive: Avoid replicating gender stereotypes, such as framing women as powerless or men as the problem, and always powerful. Systematically make visible, and interrelate, a greater range of roles and contributions for men and women.
  • Intersectional: Link gender inequality and other social inequalities. Improve gender mainstreaming by focusing on the most marginalised women and men
  • Linking the personal and political: Use a range of approaches on gender in communities and within institutions. Don't just try to change individuals. Support alliance building and institutional work.
  • Long term and adaptive: As changing gender norms is a slow process, support longer term strategies that are adaptive to changing realities. Use longer term means of evaluation and look for 'contribution' to change, over 'attribution' of impacts.
  • Enabling sufficient ongoing financing: Protect good work by women's groups, but ensure enough funds for gender equality, irrespective of groups’ gender identification. Invest in collaborative planning, building relationships, networks and learning between actors.
  • Focused on men’s accountability, not leadership: Guard against male protectionism or the reinforcement of male supremacy. Support collaboration between women’s movements and men and boys working for gender equality.

Read more of our findings on Reframing Men and Boys in Policy for Gender Equality here.

This is a vision of a better approach to working with men, boys and masculinities in policy on gender equality for the future. It is a broader reframing of policy in gender and development that includes men and boys within a relational perspective, enabling pathways of change to intervene in the personal, political and structural relationships that maintain power inequalities and hold back progressive social transformation.

Such a reframing demands a more holistic and transformative approach to gender equality, that we would argue this is essential to forging the link between sustainability and women’s empowerment, and ultimately the sustainability of women’s empowerment.

As the deliberations move towards a close at CSW60 we encourage you to join us in critically reflecting on these issues at the IDS side event: “When Women’s Empowerment Isn’t Enough: Provocations on Privilege and Power to Address Intersectional Inequality and to Promote Sustainable Development for All”, Wednesday 23rd March. 12.30pm EST. Boss Room, 8th Floor, UN Church Center, 777 UN Plaza.

March 2016

Thea Shahrokh

Research Officer
IDS

Thea has worked as a researcher in International Development for over five years, with a particular focus on issues of gender, citizenship, exclusion and violence. Her research specialises in qualitative and participatory methodologies with a critical approach and adapting these methodologies to working with people living in extreme poverty, marginalisation and on intersecting issues of inequality. She has strong facilitation experience using participatory and visual methods in trainings, policy dialogues, and research groups.