©VSO/Suraj Shakya

Without engaging men, gender equality may be beyond our reach. Here’s why...

Men and women both need to be brought on board to create a #BalanceforBetter. Our experience shows that when men are engaged, they become active allies in the struggle for gender equality, writes VSO Gender Adviser Geeta Pradhan.

What about men?

Achieving gender parity means more than just empowering women - room needs to be made for them in the spaces they are excluded from, and that can only happen with the willingness of those currently at the top. These people tend to be men.

Even in our collective struggle for equality as women, we need to work with and engage men. Without their awareness and willingness, the task becomes so much harder. It's not a comfortable thought, but there's a grain of truth to it.

As with so many of the world's historical battles, the solution to gender inequality is dialogue, respect and acknowledgment. It's necessary to get us to a place where it's not "men vs women" but men and women coming together in the realisation that inequality hurts us all.

Allies, not adversaries

Husbands are respecting their wives more after being engaged by male peer educators in Sierra Leone ©VSO/Peter Caton

Our experience at VSO is that when men are given the full facts, and information on simple changes they can make that will benefit their wives, mothers, sisters and daughters, they jump on board feet first.

Take for example Sierra Leone, which in February 2019 declared rape a national crisis. Decades of civil war and abject poverty have led to cultural commodification of women and normalisation of gender-based violence.

This is the same country though, where a male member of the clergy, Rev George Songaye, set up the Fambul Initiative Network for Equality (FINE).

With support from VSO, its schemes, including 'husband schools' and volunteer male advocate peer educators (MAPEs) directly engage men on the most difficult questions around equality. Questions like "can a man rape his wife"? Before engaging in the scheme it's common for 60%+ of male husband school participants to answer in the negative. After training from their male peers, most husbands come to understand a different perspective that champions empathy, respect and protection for women's rights.

One wife told our local team, “Before we were always quarrelling but since the start of the husbands’ school he has been much more responsible, and he has accompanied me to the clinic”.

Building a foundation of mutual respect

Communication, mutual respect and acknowledgement are the necessary precursors to gender equality ©VSO/Ben Langdon

Would women trainers have the same effect? Perhaps, but making men leaders of the change, in this instance, seems to be more effective. Some of the volunteers and graduates have gone on to make use of their privileged status in society to push for more changes, such as Peter (name changed), who set up an education scheme for teenage mothers excluded from school.  

We all need to ask ourselves, especially men and boys, ‘What can I do? How can I be an ally in the struggle to achieve gender equality?’

Now is the time for all of us to work together, taking collective action and responsibility, along with our shared accountability to drive forward an inclusive and equal society that’s better for everyone

Gloria Steinem, world-renowned feminist, journalist and activist once said, "The story of women's struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organisation but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights."

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