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Feminism and men: time to stop making excuses

Emma Watson has launched the UN’s ‘He for She’ campaign with a fiery speech calling on men to take action against violence and discrimination against women. Nikki van der Gaag charts the growing movement of men for gender equality.

Nikki van der Gaag
29 September 2014

The dialogue has begun. At the launch last week of UN Women’s ‘He for She’ campaign, actress Emma Watson made a speech asking men to stand up and address inequality and discrimination and violence against women and girls: “Men”, she said “I would like to take this opportunity to extend you a formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue too…If men don’t have to be aggressive in order to be accepted women won’t feel compelled to be submissive. If men don’t have to control, women won’t have to be controlled.’

‘He for She’ calls on men to sign a declaration that they will take action against all forms of violence and discrimination against women and girls.  

But many people have long been asking, is it really so simple? What does involving men in feminism mean in practice? And can it really change women’s – and men’s lives? It seems a long way from the thousands of men who kill their wives or partners or those who view women and girls as second class citizens, as one woman in Ethiopia told me ‘as less than a donkey’.

I have spent many years writing about women’s rights and talking to girls and young women for Plan International’s State of the World’s Girls reports, including one that looked specifically at how and why boys should support gender equality. It was these issues that recently compelled me to write my book ‘Feminism and Men’.

Because of her speech, Emma Watson has already been targeted by internet trolls threatening to leak naked photos of her similar to those leaked of celebrity women Jennifer Lawrence and Kim Kardashian recently. ‘Emma You are Next’, said the trolls. How can we change a world where simply speaking out for women – and appealing to men – provokes such vitriol?

I am always humbled by the tenacity and determination of the young people I meet when I travel for my research. Young women like Dina, from Jakarta, Indonesia, who went from being a shy primary schoolgirl to one who spoke out about girl’s rights, or Awa from Senegal, who as a child picked shells from the beach to sell for food and became President of the African Movement for Working Children and Youth.

I am continually shocked by scale of inequality between men and women - and the way that girls have so little power to take decisions about their own lives. I meet girls like Hajra, from rural Pakistan, who is a mother at 14 – of her second child. Or Hawa from Egypt, who has managed to avoid female genital cutting but who is afraid that her brothers or her grandmother will force her to undergo the practice before she is married. Or Jenny, trafficked with her sister in the Philippines.

I also meet men and boys who wanted to change this; to make the world more equal and less violent. And they know that this benefits them too.  Young men like Luis, from El Salvador, who said simply: ‘Equality makes me happy’. Or Cristobal, from the Dominican Republic, who was abused by his violent father and was determined to do better for his own children, or Ernesto from South Africa, who said that becoming a father had changed his life.

As part of the research for my book, I carried out an online survey which provoked impassioned and thoughtful responses from women and men in many parts of the world. Some disputed the premise of linking men and feminism: ‘Making men the centre of a movement. This is what patriarchy is about.’ But overall they came back with a resounding ‘Yes’ (82.5%) to the question: ‘Should men be involved in feminism?

But the big question (that also hangs over the ‘He for She’ campaign) is: how is this going to happen?

The movement for men in gender equality is not new. The White Ribbon campaign of men against violence against women was founded in 1986 and has spread to many countries, including the UK. It has a pledge similar to ‘He for She’, asking men to make an active commitment that they will not commit or condone violence against women. This means intervening as a witness and speaking out in public.

There are many other organisations too. Instituto Promundo, founded in Brazil in 1997, works internationally to engage men and boys to promote gender equality and end violence against women. Sonke Gender Justice founded in 2006 in South Africa, works to strengthen government, civil society and citizen capacity to promote gender equality, prevent domestic and sexual violence, and reduce the spread and impact of HIV and AIDS. Ring the Bell encourages men in India to literally ring the doorbell when they hear a man hitting a woman inside.

All these organisations work for gender justice. They believe that although many men are part of the problem, men can also be part of the solution.  Crucially, they work with men as individuals and in groups, looking at what is means to be a man in today’s world, and they also address the structural barriers that keep women as second class citizens, whether that be in education or in health or in employment.  

Because the reasons why men have changed so little when women have changed so much are both individual and structural. And they are deep-rooted. Most men are socialised to behave in ways that do not promote gender equality. Many men benefit from the patriarchal system. By and large, men still hold the power in most societies. More than one in three women around the world have been raped or physically abused, according to a 2013 report by the World Health Organization. In four out of five cases, this is by a spouse or partner. Only seven of 150 elected heads of state in the world are women, and only eleven of 192 heads of government. Even in America, only twenty-three (4.6%) of the 500 largest corporations have a female chief executive officer. That power is key to men’s domination over women.

But, as Michael Kaufman, co-founder of the White Ribbon campaign, points out, men’s experiences of power are also contradictory, because: ‘the way we have set up that world of power causes immense pain, isolation, and alienation not only for women, but also for men.’

The price of that power for too many men is being disconnected from their emotions, absent in their children’s lives, often angry –and sometimes violent.  

Whether it is by sharing the household responsibility equally or passing a new law against gender violence and seeing that it is implemented, men have the power to change all this. To make men’s – and women’s lives better. So how to motivate men to change?

Gary Barker, International Director of Instituto Promundo. recognizes that: ‘men are going to have to give up privileges if they really want gender equality’ and acknowledges that we need to ‘find the sugar to go along with the medicine: helping men to understand that there are positive things that come with gender equality – better sex, happier partners, happier children, happier lives for men themselves because their children and their partners are happier’.

And though the other side of the question – what is in it for women? – should seem clear, it is also disputed. Not so much because, as Emma Watson put it, feminists are seen as ‘man-hating’ but because feminists have a well-grounded fear that men will take charge here as well, and take precious and hard-won spaces from women.

If ‘He for She’ is to change things on the ground for girls like Hawa or Hajra, or Emma and Jennifer, then it needs to engage men who see women as the enemy, as well as men in power. It needs to do more than get men to speak out. In her speech at the launch, UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka recognised this, calling for a ‘re-socialisation’ of men, and for heads of schools, of corporations, of religious institutions, of the media, to stop violence and discrimination against women.

This sea change needs to include changes in policy and practice as well as individual transformation: paternity leave so that fathers can be involved from the get-go in their children’s lives; laws that punish rapists as well as working with perpetrators of violence against women; ensuring that girls go to school but also that the curriculum works with boys on gender equality. The list is a long one. So go for it, Emma. It is about time that more men stopped making excuses and started taking action.

Nikki van der Gaag is the author of Feminism & Men published by Zed Books. The author will be in discussion with Dean Peacock of Sonke Gender Justice at an event at Bookmarks bookshop, London, at 7pm on Thursday 2 October.

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