Joni van de Sand and Laxman Belbase

COVID-19 changed every aspect of the MenEngage global symposium (which begins in November), except one: the urgent need to have it. The coronavirus pandemic brought into sharp focus the social, gender and racial inequalities and health disparities facing people around the world. With the world looking ahead to a post-COVID future, Joni van de Sand and Laxman Belbase, codirectors of the global MenEngage Alliance, discuss why now is the time for those looking through a “men and masculinities” lens to convene a global symposium in support of gender justice, women’s rights, LGBTQI+ rights, racial justice, climate justice, and social justice more broadly. What was originally planned as an in-person gathering in Kigali, Rwanda, was reenvisioned as an online symposium.


The global healthcare crisis of 2020 has further exposed the fault lines in systems of injustice around the world. Amidst the uncertainty, hardship, and loss, feminist voices have begun sharing visions of a post-COVID world. That is why we believe it is vital that those working to transform masculinities and engage men and boys must come together. With the future uncertain, it is vital that we create spaces for authentic dialogue, where we can all listen, share, learn and create new strategies for how to work to transform masculinities to support a future based on gender justice, women’s rights, LGBTIQA+ rights, sexual and reproductive health and rights for all, climate justice, economic justice, and social justice more broadly.

The overwhelming disparity in cases of and deaths by COVID-19 among marginalized communities illustrates the inhumane and tragic social order in which we live. At a time when the world needs systemic changes that address essential healthcare for all globally, many leaders are choosing authoritarian and punitive responses that fuel narratives of fear and division. At the same time, recent protests around the world demonstrate a public outcry for change, encouraging a thorough transformation of masculinities, particularly the role of violence and oppression in leadership. In short, the third MenEngage Global Symposium—previous gatherings were in Rio de Janeiro (2009) and New Delhi (2014)—is coming at a time of significant global reckoning and change.

“COVID-19 is compounding inequalities and injustices in all kinds of ways,” Bafana Khumalo, cochair of MenEngage Alliance said, “We must ask how rigid norms and attitudes around ‘being a man’ continue to fuel and exacerbate these issues. As feminist movements, racial justice movements, climate justice voices, and other social justice movements around the world grow,” Khumalo continued, “how can those working to transform masculinities and engage men and boys add meaningful value to the transformative changes that this moment is calling for? That is a key question that the symposium aims to address.”


In February, before the majority of countries implemented lockdown measures, a group of MenEngage members from around the world met in Rwanda to plan for the symposium. The concept of “Ubuntu” came up early in the discussions. Often translated as “humanity towards others” or “I am because you are,” Ubuntu speaks to the heart of MenEngage’s vision and mission.

Fidele Rutayisire, executive director of the Rwanda Men’s Resource Centre, recalls: “There was excitement about ‘Ubuntu’ as the symposium name. It is a concept born out of African thinking and identity with an important message for the whole world. We felt that the idea of ‘Ubuntu’ offers a strong message for those working to transform masculinities and engage men and boys to explore this concept in different ways, and around the issues they work on; an inspiring message for MenEngage Alliance and its membership.”

Mobilizing to Explore the Past, Present and Future of Feminist-Informed Work with Men and Boys

At the start of 2020, we were looking forward to hosting a vibrant, inclusive, global in-person event in Kigali, Rwanda, in November, but the ongoing uncertainty, risks, and reality of COVID-19 meant we had to adapt.  The situation has meant stepping back to rethink the format for the event. It meant we were able to explore new paths and visions for how we connect and convene as a global network—across contexts, regions, and time zones. “Our goal,” Rutayisire said, “is to have an engaging and inclusive format that will break with common barriers to participation such as high costs, long distance travel, visa requirements, and family and work obligations. Instead of hosting a privileged few at one face-to-face event, the new approach means we can open up the event to even more people than we had originally planned.”

Humberto Carolo, MenEngage cochair (along with Khumalo), said, “The change in approach will require us to think innovatively, make use of different technologies, and support those unfamiliar with online spaces, or who lack easy access to them. We intend to include as many voices from as many backgrounds as possible to help shape the political agenda of MenEngage Alliance.”

The result will be a largely online event from November 10 to 12, which will only be the beginning of a series of MenEngage Ubuntu symposium events and activities running over a number of months during 2021. Instead of a single event, the symposium will also include activities, discussions, and opportunities to connect—online and face-to-face. It will bring together members from across global MenEngage networks, along with partners, researchers, and activists from around the world.


Feminisms, Intersectionality, Accountability, Transformation, Power-with

The symposium aspires to create spaces for authentic dialogue where we challenge ourselves and each other to step up to be accountable to women and girls and feminist movements and step back to give space for the voices that are too often silenced or ignored. Importantly, it will be a time for inspiring and seeking consensus on collective action. To help us in this vision, a political framework has been developed featuring five crosscutting themes: Feminisms, Intersectionality, Accountability, Transformation, and Power-with. The themes are intended as a starting point to guide MenEngage in how we reflect, share, learn, explore, critically examine, and advance together through the symposium. It is expected keynote addresses will address each one, exploring their interconnections, and politicizing their relevance for work to transform masculinities and engage with men and boys for gender justice, women’s rights, LGBTIQA+ rights, racial justice, climate justice, and other social justice issues.

Finally, the symposium aspires to be a platform for collective sharing, questioning, learning, knowledge-strengthening, and—ultimately—accountable action for gender justice. It aspires to help strengthen a global community that acts responsibly, purposefully, inclusively, and in solidarity with our partners, friends, and each other across social justice movements. We hope the Ubuntu symposium will inspire, develop, and renew a common political agenda and strategy to meet the urgency of today’s existing and emerging challenges. By aligning ourselves with and adding value to the work of women’s rights and social justice movements, we believe we will contribute to building a better world, one we share with all people in solidarity.


To find out how you can get involved with the MenEngage Ubuntu symposium from November 2020 onwards, go to

Joni van de Sand and Laxman Belbase are codirectors of the global MenEngage Alliance. They can be reached at and


Exploring the past, present and future of feminist-informed work with men and boys around the world

Key themes of the opening plenaries and subsequent program:

Feminisms, Intersectionality, Accountability, Transformation, Power-with

Key dates:

10–12 November: Opening plenaries, online with some in-person events for local attendees in Kigali, Rwanda. Other attendees will be able to join the three-day program of keynote speakers, plenaries, and creative performances online.

November 2020 onwards: Monthly program of online events and activities. Some in-person events are being organized by regional-level MenEngage networks. Mid-2020: The organizers aspire to hold a closing event; its form will depend on what is possible in light of COVID-19.