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Initiative offers insights on enlisting men as allies for women’s rights


This new report documents the initiative to enlist men in the struggle for full gender equality.

13 February 2012 - “Men who abuse women misuse power,” says the sticker on the back of a boda boda taxi in Nairobi. The words point to imbalances in prevailing gender norms and to the role men need to play in changing power dynamics.

These are issues being addressed – by taxi drivers, among others – in reflective and participatory sessions organized by the Mobilizing Men initiative, which is supported by UNFPA . The sessions, many of them held in institutional settings, aim to clarify the ways in which gender inequities harm men as well as women. The aim is to enlist men as staunch allies for women’s rights.

Despite their dominant roles and position of privilege in most cultures, men and boys have lower life expectancies than women and experience high rates of premature deaths from accidents, murder and suicide. They also have high rates of work hazards in industries such as mining and manufacturing and experience higher substance abuse than women, especially alcohol and tobacco.

Rigid forms of masculinity deny men a full emotional range

Many physical and mental health problems relate to men’s adherence to gender norms that equate masculinity with toughness and suppressing one’s emotions, according to the report that documents the initiative. Under enormous pressure to be breadwinners, the can lose out on intimate connections with their children. Rigid notions of what it means to be a ‘man’ also contribute to risky behaviours, often starting at an early age. This perspective helps illustrate that challenging these values is good for women and men, girls and boys.

Challenging and changing harmful social norms about masculinity involves finding approaches to get men to stop and think about their attitudes, beliefs and actions – which can be so deeply embedded in societal institutions that it can be hard to see or untangle, according to the report.

“The innovation behind the Mobilizing Men initiative is that it takes a holistic approach to looking at the latent inequalities in institutional settings,” said Aminata Toure, Chief of the UNFPA Gender, Human Rights and Culture Branch. This kind of programme stems from the recognition that a genuine effort to end gender inequality will require addressing root causes. One critical way is to work with both women and men, in an attempt to achieve gender justice, she added.

Working with groups of men in three countries

The project, led by the Institute of Development Studies at
University of Sussex in Britain, has forged partnerships with civil society organizations in India, Kenya and Uganda. By working with many different groups -- from student activists to bicycle taxi drivers and refugees – the project is identifying effective ways to address sexual and gender-based violence and other types of discriminatory behaviour in various institutional settings.

Toward this end, the partners recruited and developed teams of male activists to work with women on campaigns that could change policies and socio-cultural norms that enable gender-based violence in both subtle and obvious ways.

A full record of the programme’s work, including tools, stories and testimonies, as well as lessons used in the training, is now available in a new guide, ‘Mobilizing Men in Practice’. It includes examples from
India through the Center for Health and Social Justice; from Kenya with the Men for Gender Equality Now project; and in Uganda with the Refugee Law Project.

Although still a pilot project, the initiative is getting results. For example in
Kenya, a Code of Conduct was developed and ratified for the boda boda driver community. In India, college campuses and villages now have a greater constituency of men who are committed to working for gender equality and an end to gender-based violence. In Uganda, Mobilizing Men activists have helped sensitize service providers to the needs of refugee communities.

Challenging the status quo

The participatory training first required the men to follow a self-reflective process to determine if they were actually willing to challenge the status quo of inequality between men and women. Not only did the process help them understand ways in which men benefit from patriarchal norms, but it also showed how they complied with it.
This approach opened up vistas for the participants. As Marcel Bahati, an activist in
Uganda said, the process made him see “how big this problem of violence is, and how it affects the community.”

Yet as the report suggests, learning new behaviours and methods of thinking that lead to full equality benefits everyone.

By the end of the training, the participants were ready to take action by following specific steps, such as identifying priority issues and creating a campaign to challenge the status quo of gender inequality.

At least one activist, a boda boda bicycle driver in
Kenya, had already moved ahead in his new role. “I no longer just let bad things happen,” he said, after the training. “I have reported four domestic violence cases to the police and also been involved in giving support to survivors.”