By Maria Correia
Donald Trump’s unabashed degradation of women, as well as the risks to women posed by the new American Health Care Act, are a dismal reminder that the struggle of women for dignity, fair treatment and equal rights is far from over. Empowering women thus remains a human rights priority—including in the U.S..
But if we are striving for a gender-equitable society, a sole focus on women is not enough; we must also empower men. Of course, not in the conventional sense by giving men more power over women and over other men. Rather, by empowering men to challenge the prevailing social norms that lead to gender imbalances and by giving them the space to adopt new roles and behaviors as men.
The need to work with both women and men on gender issues seems obvious. Gender is a complex human system and women and men are integral parts of this social structure. Both contribute to and are affected by the system. Meaningful change and disruption of the system requires both women and men. Empowering women and expecting men to follow is unrealistic.
But challenging rigid gender norms, which have taken centuries to evolve, is not easy—particularly for men. Across societies, men are critically judged and assessed based on the dominant ideals of manhood, which generally means being tough, strong, resilient, exercising control over women and others, and being economically independent. The expression “man up” encapsulates the pressure felt by men to do the things they are traditionally expected to do. Men (and boys) who fail to achieve this ideal pay a price by being belittled or ridiculed on the playground, in sports, in the military—and by both men and women.
As we have invested in women’s empowerment, we must now do the same for men’s empowerment. One of the most extensive resources available is MenEngage, the global alliance of 66 country networks operating in the five regions of the world, and comprising some 700 nongovernmental organizations and UN partners. MenEngage provides a collective voice for men and boys to work and speak out on gender issues. Smaller, more localized interventions on men focus on themes such HIV/AIDS, reproductive health and family planning, parenting, and domestic violence.
The last decade has also seen the emergence of men’s programs and support groups to help men reflect and question masculinity and the norms governing men’s behavior. In some cases these are government funded, a sign that there is broader recognition that men face gender issues and are part of the solution. But much more is needed. The tendency is still for men’s activities to work in the shadows of women’s programs and outside the gender mainstream. And there is still a reluctance to acknowledge that men are integral to gender programming.
The uptick in some quarters of retrograde masculine behavior—sometimes at the highest levels of governance—as well as the persistent threat of (male-dominated) terrorism, will hopefully bring increased attention to the oft overlooked male side of gender, and new ways of empowering men for positive change.