An uncomfortable truth: the gender turf war at UN CSW

Lyric Thompson takes issue with those who argue that men are inherently unqualified to speak as advocates for women's rights, and sees a paradoxical mirror image of the thinking that kept us out of classrooms, voting booths, political offices and boardrooms globally
Lyric Thompson
7 March 2010
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It’s the paradox of the global women’s movement: we disapprovingly wonder aloud where all the men are when we convene to discuss so-called “women’s” issues (this year’s session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women has seen the female population of First Avenue and East 45th Street balloon by about 8,000 and the male population remain relatively constant), but then we bristle when the boys show up and want a turn at the microphone. This uncomfortable truth has been brought a little too clearly into the spotlight this week, where the agenda has been somewhat surprisingly full of sessions exploring the concept of engaging men on women’s issues—I’ve counted at least four. 

At least within the international development community, this is an increasingly familiar—and popular—idea. In the work we do at Women for Women International, for instance, we are primarily concerned with the delivery of services to women survivors of war to help them rebuild their lives after conflict. But we have also piloted a men’s program in four of our chapters—Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo—to engage male leaders as allies and advocates for women’s rights and value to the economy and society. These leaders then spread the good word to other men in their networks, which tend to be the networks that control the majority of the power and resources in the community. Then we have men and women learning about women’s rights and value, in an environment where women are increasingly able to access those rights and everybody understands it’s a good thing. We’ve had tremendous successes—from the male militia leader in DRC who abolished rape in his unit, to the mullah in Iraq who wrote a fatwa, or religious edict, proclaiming that education and economic participation of women is not only not prohibited by the Qur'an, it is encouraged.

So where did we get this novel idea? Directly from the women on the ground who specifically requested we educate the men in their families and communities about their rights (as it’s usually men who violate or withhold them) and their value to society (as it’s better for men, women and whole societies when women are able to contribute to the economy and the public sphere, and the men knowing this makes it considerably easier on the women in question). Women know this, but it can be a moot point at best and dangerous at worst to discuss the concept of women’s rights if the men who control access and influence are of a different mindset.

However, for our colleagues who work outside of this small arena, the concept of promoting an active and audible role for men in what we’ve always deemed to be “women’s” issues is neither familiar nor compelling. For many of our honoured sisters and mothers who came before us, this is a new idea indeed. And for many women activists, who have fought for years to secure a space for women in a global dialogue controlled by men who have customarily - either by ignorance or intent - marginalized their perspectives, the idea presents a real threat that could possibly spell the beginning of the end of what they worked so hard to achieve.

From hence, the tension-packed room at one such discussion at the Grand Hyatt Hotel yesterday. An all-male expert panel on the subject had presented case studies from South Africa, Brazil, India, Zambia and Norway detailing instances where men had organized on women’s rights, from tackling dangerous gender norms and behaviour patterns to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS, to preventing violence against women and deconstructing damaging gender stereotypes, to instituting quotas and other affirmative measures to mainstream women into the economy and political leadership. Panellists explored how men do have access to male networks in ways that women don’t—and often those networks control policy, finance and other valuable tools that can be used to advance the status of women.

Logical arguments all, empirical evidence presented, panellist consensus proffered that this is the way to go if we’re ever to have a hope at true gender equality in perception, policy and practice. But for many in the room the message was lost from the beginning, from the moment an almost entirely female audience took seats before an entirely male panel, which was elevated on a stage above them, speaking into microphones and before spotlights and - spatially at least - overpowering them.

The frustration came to a head when a female minister from South Africa was invited to approach the microphone and offer closing remarks. “Men should not come in the small space we’ve created for ourselves,” she proclaimed to a burst of audience applause (the first of the day). “In South Africa, we did not sit around and wait for the government to liberate us. We fought… this is a good campaign of men but it should not derail us.” She stalked off the stage and was promptly stormed by a whirlwind of appreciative activists offering business cards and congratulations for her strength, courage and loyalty to the global women's movement.

There it is: a perfect manifestation of the self-imposed fragmentation that threatens our chances for true gender equality. As an American who has watched progressive politicians appropriate—and drop—“women’s” issues to curry favour in elections, I understand the suspicion is based in very real experience. But as a woman having the incredibly good fortune to be both a daughter and a partner to men who daily affirm women’s rights and take active steps to help me and other women achieve goals and dismantle obstacles to progress in networks where I still do not have a voice, I find the philosophy that holds men as inherently unqualified to speak as advocates in our community not only nonsensical but discriminatory and a paradoxical mirror image of the thinking that kept us out of classrooms, voting booths, political offices and boardrooms globally.

As then-First Lady Hillary Clinton reminded us fifteen years ago in Beijing, “Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights.” It is therefore disempowering to limit a movement to realize those right—human rights—to a community of only half the population, to limit an issue set to the narrow label “women’s” issues, when we should be advocating as an inclusive community of human rights proponents that all humans have equal rights to dignity and full social, economic and political participation.

I will close with this final thought: the panel’s opening remarks were delivered by the Norwegian Minister for Children, Equality and Social Inclusion – Norway’s equivalent of a gender minister—Audun Lysbakken. He’s a man. In the inkblot trick-of-the-mind scenario here, what do we see first? A man? Or a minister whose entire job description revolves around evening out the peaks and valleys between men and women: increasing the number of female politicians and male care-givers and mainstreaming women into the economy and men into paternity leave. I say, I’d vote for a male minister for gender and a female minister for finance any day.

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