The Women’s Movement Needs Men

By Joshua Reiman
Staff Writer
November 1, 2010

Addressing the impediments to empowering more women around the world requires understanding the scope of oppression directed toward them first. According to UNIFEM, women own only one percent of the world’s property. They earn only 10 percent of the world’s wages, despite working two-thirds of the world’s labor hours. And despite constituting half of the world’s population, women make up two-thirds of humanity’s illiterate people.

The women’s movement has made significant strides in recent years, slowly making dents into the pervasive international system of patriarchy. Inspiring advocacy and leadership has catalyzed worldwide attention toward the injustices women face in both industrialized and non-industrialized countries. The rise of prominent women leaders is also an important step, from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to three of the past four U.S. Secretaries of State – Madeline Albright, Condoleeza Rice and Hillary Clinton.

It is commonplace today for organizations to trumpet the development gains that can be achieved by simply educating women and providing them with economic opportunities. A great example is The Nike Foundation’s “The Girl Effect” campaign.

Further, an abundance of research shows that as girls and women are given an education, maternal and infant mortality decrease, children are more likely to be immunized, HIV infection rates are lowered and birth rates are reduced. This is quite relevant in countries like Niger where, according to the World Bank , women’s literacy is only 15 percent and on average women give birth to seven children in their lifetime.

Unfortunately, the women’s movement remains continuously unwilling to bring men into the fold; such concerted effort would transform their cause from one that is largely by and for women into an all-inclusive social movement.

According to Doris Bartel, Director of Gender for CARE USA, men are often excluded for a variety of conscious and unconscious reasons by women’s groups: the semantics of a “women’s movement” leads some women to think men should not be involved; many women’s programs intentionally focus on engaging only women due to years of marginalization and exclusion from empowerment activities; and limited resources convince women leaders that efforts should be concentrated solely in women’s circles.

Many women are also wary of relinquishing any ownership over the women’s movement because past experience has shown them that once men are allowed to participate they have the tendency to dominate the group and push a separate agenda. I know from personal experience that this often leads to men being painted with the same broad brush. Thus, it is difficult for men who want to make a difference to escape the arrogance and sexism of some of their predecessors and contemporaries.

If our goal is to empower women, it certainly makes sense to implement programs that unleash their inherent capabilities. However, men still retain a near absolute hold on power throughout society. Leadership is almost exclusively the domain of men, in government, the private sector, civil society or family. This leaves women as the single largest untapped pool of human potential in the world.

If those of us who want to see gender equality become a reality are serious, we must get serious ourselves and include everyone passionate about uplifting women. Making the women’s movement an exclusive endeavor only hinders its progress.

As Bartel explains, “Many men want to be involved, but haven’t been asked to join or don’t know how.” Creating a more inclusive space for men to support the women’s movement has three clear benefits: accelerate the pace of change by including more people in the movement; discard a dated paradigm where men and women’s issues are seen as separate; and catalyze more women to positions of leadership throughout society.

There are men around the world who understand that a commitment to providing women with equal human rights and economic opportunities is well over due. Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan famously said, “No tool for development is more effective than the empowerment of women.”

Further, grass-roots men’s groups, such as “Abatangamuco” (meaning, “bringing light”) in Burundi, Men For Gender Equality Now (MEGEN) in Kenya, the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape (PCAR) and Men Against Violence Against Women (MAVAW) in Florida are prime examples of men jumping wholeheartedly into the women’s movement. They are stepping forward as prominent supporters of women’s empowerment, while changing the attitudes and behaviors of men.

“It is both men and women that need to be involved in the emancipation of women,” remarks Haddis Mulugeta, a staunch advocate for women’s rights, who has coordinated leadership development and reproductive health trainings in Ethiopia for years. He asserts that including men in women’s programs is especially important in rural areas where traditional gender roles are much more common than in urban settings and “men still represent women in local meetings.” By including men in gender programs, we encourage them to recognize the women in their lives as people with their own aspirations and talents. It also minimizes the resentment or misunderstanding that can occur when they are completely excluded from activities being offered to women close to them.

Aster Zaoude, who has worked for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) for more than 25 years including many years at the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), explains that one reason African men are so supportive of women’s programs is because these initiatives have not used a “feminist” approach, but rather framed the need to improve women’s livelihoods as a social issue. This tactic has allowed men who share the same goals of greater equity and justice as women to participate without feeling they are being targeted as the perpetrators of injustice.

A movement by its nature gains more traction the deeper and broader its base grows. Including men as partners in the fight for equal rights for women will only expedite the movement. Programs that help young people reflect on their own conceptions of gender, such as CARE’s work with young high school men in the Balkans, provide hope. “These courageous young people are rethinking the ways that men and women are expected to behave, including expectations of aggression or violence in interpersonal relationships,” says Bartel. “They are taking charge of changing their own communities' norms to make that change a lasting one.”

This is a radical concept that could be a game-changer: empower more men to become advocates for the empowerment of women.

This image is being used under Creative Commons licensing. The original source can be found here.


This is music to my ears. I have long been advocating engaging men in achieving gender-balanced leadership. In fact, I'm about to embark on a series of interviews with "men who get it" to understand more about how we can engage men more. Thanks for the article - it gives me much encouragement.
Lynn Harris
Author:unwritten rules: what women need to know about leading in today's organizations

I began my career in Corporate America during the "June & Ward Cleaver" version of gender equality: "Honey, you get dinner, and I'll read my newspaper." So I continue to have to work on updating my reality regarding how men can actually be a positive force for gender equality.

After 36 years, and achieving a Senior Vice-President position, I still encountered male colleagues who politely (most of the time) at least tolerated my presence. Your article has shed light on some very interesting new realities that have created a desire to have more dialogue on this issue. Thanks for this thought-provoking article!

P. Wood, retired

I agree with the article. Man play a key role in such campaigns. I myself was part of the South Asia Campaign to End Violence Against Women, driven by Oxfam GB and implemented by national civil society organizations in the respective South Asian Countries. My experience with the campaign was an eye opener and the impact assessment showed that men were certainly interested in movements to empower women. The number of young men willing to volunteer was unbelievable. Postmen played a key role in the campaign in Sri Lanka, as they delivered handbills and campaign material to households on a voluntary basis, along with the post.

I think it needs to be said, however unpopular, that given the lifelong impediments to equal education, experience, and opportunity, there must surely be a dearth of women in the developing world that have, on average, recieved the same education and experience as men.

In certain regions, before we simply advocate the destruction of gender walls in upper-echelon positions, we must begin at the beginning, from birth, from primary school, until education and experential equality is achieved, when there is a supply of women whom have had and possess a skill set that makes them, those terms, equal to their male counterparts.

If, in certain regions, our efforts begin at the top, then we are doing those societies an injustice by elevating an unprepared demographic into a position of power they are unable to handle.

What I am saying is, this needs to be a bottom-up movement and not top-down. In this sense, I agree that men are crucial.

Reading this, I can't help but think of EngenderHealth's gender equality programs called "Men As Partners" -- exactly the words written in the second to last paragraph. To quote from the Men As Partners page on EngenderHealth's web site:

"Around the world, women carry disproportionate responsibility for reproductive health and family size. And while women receive the bulk of reproductive health education, including family planning information, gender dynamics can render women powerless to make decisions. Men often hold decision-making power over matters as basic as sexual relations and when and whether to have a child or even seek health care. But most reproductive health programs focus exclusively on women. EngenderHealth recognizes the importance of partnership between women and men, as well as the crucial need to reach out to men with services and education that enable them to share in the responsibility for reproductive health.

"To address this, EngenderHealth established its Men As Partners® (MAP) program in 1996. Through its groundbreaking work, this program works with men to play constructive roles in promoting gender equity and health in their families and communities."

Exactly what is needed, it seems. MAP programs exist in more than a dozen countries.

You should also look into the international MenEngage -- "a global alliance of NGOs and UN agencies that seeks to engage boys and men to achieve gender equality."

Five out every ten women in Kenya experience varied forms of violence mostly perpetuated by men and boys. We are a network of men and boys organizations working with men and boys for purposes of eliminating all forms of violence against women and girls.
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