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Men for women?

About the author
Tim Symonds is a partner in Eyecatcher / Shevolution and a member of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

The latest issue of Critical Half, the journal of Women For Women International is entitled "Engaging Men in Women's Issues"; its sections include one called "Women Are Not Islands: Engaging Men To Empower Women".

Women For Women International's president, Zainab Salbi, is here implying that women cannot achieve equality on their own: the mountain peaks are too numerous and too steep. Men are urgently needed to help build a gender-equitable society - men on every continent, in every capital and every village; men by the million, shoulder to shoulder.

Tim Symonds is a partner in Eyecatcher / Shevolution and a member of the Chartered Institute of Journalists To make a donation to a women's campaign, have a look at this page

It sounds attractive, a positive challenge. But is it rather the raising of the white flag of surrender?

The argument that women need to enter the fray and seize the reins of power for the sake of this benighted world is extremely persuasive. It implies that the course of human history could have been very different if women, at the start of settled agriculture and urbanisation, had gained control. But the argument that today, after several thousand years holding those reins and coveting that power, men might now on a grand scale engage in helping women to acquire the same degree of control is another matter entirely.

The cash nexus

True, there is real merit in the argument that if women achieved an equal (or predominant) say, the world would become better, safer, more life-enhancing. This belief was a principal reason why, with Lesley Abdela, I helped start the all-party "300 Group" - designed to advance women's place in politics in Britain - in 1980. This experience taught me two significant lessons:

* women in very large numbers are "out there", ready and certainly able to take on the effective management of a world in deep trouble

* women and women's campaign groups are, in stark terms, starved of the very element needed by everyone campaigning for change: money.

As with so many groups designed to increase the authority of women, the 300 Group was cruelly underfunded. By 1985 we had used up every penny we had. From that moment the 300 Group slowly sank into the mud.

The lesson? Money, not men's help, is what the women's movement needs. How do you lobby parliament for changes in the law when your pockets are empty and your lunch-box contains only packets of peanuts? How do you organise and run public events designed to alter voters' perceptions without the ability to pay staff, overheads and costs?

Women's greatest progress in the workplace was made by women in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s who started taking recalcitrant employers to court on grounds of discrimination. This resulted in the imposition of serious fines and was a definite encouragement to others to respect the letter if not the spirit of the law. One long-term result is that the US today has "Title 1X" (the education amendments of 1972, enforceable by statute), which obliges all educational establishments to spend the same amount of money on women's sports as on men's.

Also in openDemocracy on men, women, equality and freedom:

* Patricia Daniel, "Africa and HIV/Aids: men at work" (10 April 2007)

* Andrea Cornwall, "Pathways of women's empowerment" (30 July 2007)

* Srilatha Batliwala, "Putting power back into empowerment" (30 July 2007)

* Mulki Al-Sharmani, "Egypt's family courts: route to empowerment?" (7 September 2007)

The downside is that legal challenges are to the plaintiffs hugely expensive. Even today, groups like the Women's Sports Foundation in Britain can't contest the exclusion of girls and women from football by taking the sport's ultra-macho governing body to court.

So where can the large sums of money come from to enable women to achieve real emancipation and their full rights through advocacy through media and parliament - as well as resort (where unavoidable) to the courts?

The life route

A provisional answer might be: "not men". In a thirty-year association with some truly remarkable women's advocacy groups, I don't recall more than a handful of donations by men. When did any male you know give even a tiny donation - the price of a pint of real ale, or a football programme - to a women's campaign group? From research I conducted in 2006, I concluded that the United Nations Development Fund for Women (Unifem) was running on 10% of the budget it really required to carry out its mandate. That's the life-crushing burden almost all women's campaign groups labour under.

The problem goes wider. Even in western European democracies, in a region where Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark have led the way, few ministries for women are self-standing. Many are attached by a nose-ring to the ankles of more dominant departments (as in ministries for "industry and women", "sport and women", or the familiar "women and the family").

One reason for the woeful lack of financial support for women's groups is that potential donors don't see women as a convenient route to acquiring a more glowing reputation, political advantage, or merely a sheen of self-congratulation. Almost any other cause (especially emotive, especially involving animals) receives far more recognition than one with women at the centre. To my knowledge there is only one man in Britain, with its population of more than 20 million male adults, who has spent every hour of every day for the past thirty years working on behalf of a just and fair world for the majority population: Raymond Lloyd of Shequality ("who is he, what is that?", you ask, which is exactly the point).

When did any man you know send a donation to a single-parent group like Gingerbread? To Womankind? To the Fawcett Society? To Widows For Peace Through Democracy? The slaughter in the middle east, south Asia and central Africa (to name only those regions) means that there are immensely more young widows in the world today than at any time in history.

It might then be worth, when sending a donation to a major aid organisation like Oxfam, earmarking it for some of the millions of girl-children who get such a terrible deal in life in much of the developing world; or, when making a will, allocating it to assisting women to overcome centuries of oppression by men.

Indeed, the endurance of such oppression casts doubt on the image of human progress. A calculation of the daily ratio of people deliberately killed by men each day compared to those deliberately killed by women would be sobering. The motto of the world's men could be "no tomorrow".

Women For Women International's appeal for men to join in the drive for women's human rights is open-hearted and generous. But how many will respond? There is absolutely nothing in helping women achieve equality which appeals to men. There is no power in it, no guns, no trumpets, no statues, no promise of seventy-two virgins in heaven.

Zainab, good try, but don't hold your breath. Instead, work hard to raise the money and enable the world's women to do it alone.

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