UN CSW: engaging men and boys in ending violence against women as allies not protectors

Without a feminist lens, the expanding efforts to work with men and boys to promote gender justice are often patronizing and reinforce the idea that women need protection by men.

Karin Attia
31 March 2016

The call to engage men and boys as allies in building gender equality has become an increasingly popular theme, from the UN Women HeforShe campaign, to finding a central place in the recently-concluded Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York (March 14 – 24). It makes sense; men are half the population so it is only logical to engage with them in the fight for gender equality and against gender based violence (GBV). However, enthusiasm for recruiting men to the women’s rights struggle masks considerable confusion about precisely how to engage them as allies and on whose terms are they really being engaged.

The UN CSW emphatically asserted the need to “fully engage men and boys as agents and beneficiaries of change in the achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls and as allies in the elimination of all forms of discrimination and violence against women and girls.” But there are few convincing examples of how this can be done effectively.

At the CSW side events, the language about engaging men and boys as allies in ending violence against women and girls (VAWG) and GBV teetered between invoking men as equal, engaged partners and a more archaic, patriarchal conceptualization of male gendered responsibilities as protectors.

Angry Man Panel.jpg

Angry Man panel at the CSW organized by the Czech Republic and the NGO Alternative to Violence: Photo: Karin Attia  

In both official side events (i.e. sponsored by a UN Member State) and in civil society events, the main preoccupation seemed to be about how to create incentives to engage men and boys in this work. Ideally, men should see that gender equality is in their own interest. They too stand to benefit from liberation from gendered roles and the injustices they bring. But instead, this was dwarfed by an alternative framing that appeals to men to work for gender justice because it is your “mother, daughter, or wife.” This is a tired trope. It reduces a man’s engagement to being a ‘protector’, and then to only of those women who are family members. The invocation of women in family relationships is a conscious strategy, according to Ms. Mundale, a representative of the Gender Ministry of Zambia, speaking at a panel on “Evidence of what works in ending VAWG by engaging men and boys”.  She stated that “Appealing to the personal such as, mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters is a good entry point for men.” Ms. Mundale explained that appealing to personal relations is a strategy to get men hooked, but there is a bigger task at hand: changing hearts and minds by challenging traditional masculine roles.


She's a person. Photo: Stop Violence Against Women

Narrowing the range of male concern to immediate female family members may not however, help recruit men to a project of social change in which men will have to give up some of their power – including power within the family. Invoking male responsibilities to protect or defend not only repeats gendered role assignments but implies that men are stronger than women. This is a pretty surprising position coming from a ten-day meeting specifically dedicated to women’s empowerment.

Men and boys programming

The CSW final document seems stumped for ideas on men’s contribution to gender equality beyond programs to engage men in care work. It calls on countries to “design and implement national policies and programmes that address the role and responsibility of men and boys and aim to ensure equal sharing of responsibilities between women and men in caregiving and domestic work…”

Civil society discussions also often side-stepped the challenge of power-sharing. Programs like ‘Better Fatherhood initiatives’, that teach men and boys about family planning, and about taking an active role in their child’s life, were praised, but lacked discussion about women’s participation in their leadership or design. Discussions also failed to explain exactly how becoming a better father reshapes the types of masculine behaviors and social norms that fuel GBV.

At an event organized by the MenEngage Alliance titled “It takes two to tango”, masculinity and challenging notions of male privilege and violence were discussed. A representative of the civil society organization, ABAAD, stated that it is when “men can see patriarchal roles they’ve been given and when they can rid themselves of the beliefs then it works to benefit women of their community.” However, when I asked if it is important to involve women in in these efforts to work with men, responses were noncommittal:  “sometimes yes, sometimes no”, or “it’s the individual and what they are capable of rather than just the sex.” It is dangerous to talk about challenging masculinity and patriarchal roles without invoking a feminist lens or without having women playing a leadership role in organizing such programs – male leadership falls all too easily into patriarchal patterns.  Additionally, the suggestion that sex is less important than individual capacities of those working on changing masculinities repeats a disingenuous claim to ‘gender neutrality’ familiar from decades of development programming.  There is no such thing as gender neutrality when it comes to advancing gender equality; women must be the architects of this transformation.  In an interview with the international GBV specialist Heidi Lehmann, she argued that failure to address women’s leadership in these efforts can be destructive: “the space for women is so limited, ergo efficient and helpful programs have to be informed by and guided by women. Not by men or else you’re going to see a reinforcement of oppression and patriarchy…this is about offering programming that is potentially harming to women and at best doesn’t do very much for women.”

Feminsim and masculinity

Attention to masculinity – and to the project of engaging men and boys – has perhaps never received as much direct attention as it did at this year’s CSW.  And while this is needed, it bears remembering that feminism’s project of empowering women still has a long way to go – much more needs to be done to engage women and girls themselves in transformative change. But ironically, feminism itself was attacked in some panels as an obstacle to effective rethinking of masculinity.  In a panel on the “New Paradigm of Gender Equality Post- 2015: Girls and Boys Go Together”, a civil society presenter stated: “we need to stop saying feminist and start saying humanist. We don’t want to be against the world, we are all humans.” Surprisingly, this statement was met with a round of applause, suggesting that misperceptions about feminism are widely shared. The need to keep women and girls at the center of the feminist effort was noted in a 2007 ICRW report on engaging men and boys, “Organizations working to promote gender equitable attitudes among men and boys must remember the importance of creating partnerships with organizations that focus on women and girls. The field must move away from viewing gender relations as a zero-sum game.” And yet nine years later, civil society panelists are still struggling with this notion. There is mention of the need to collaborate but not necessarily under female leadership - at best this appears to be a missed opportunity but at worst indicative of an uncritical civil society lets be happy trend. 

Negotiating delegations at the CSW have made much of the urgent need to analyze masculinities, to undermine violent masculinities, and to engage men and boys in the project of gender equality. But support for better fathering that invokes traditional male protective responsibilities brings nothing new.  Programs to challenge violent and misogynistic masculinities that are not guided by women’s priorities, or that do not include women in their leadership will not have women’s empowerment as their ultimate objective.  And the tiptoeing around feminism is a major red flag. Sidelining feminism in efforts to revise masculinities might end at best in making patriarchy a little more humane, but not in ending patriarchy.

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