Engaging Men: Good or Bad for Women’s Rights?

March 13, 2015| by Lindsay Hawthorne, UNA Women

Quite a few attendees of the 59th United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in New York this week are questioning the number of panels revolving around Men and Boys. Each day of the commission so far has had several official side events about how to engage men and boys in the fight for gender equality, and explanations are varied. Responses to them have been quite controversial.

The argument for engaging men and boys is simple and valid. As put by the Minister of Vietnam for Labor, Environments and Social Affairs: “Since men are mainly the cause, they should be part of the solution.”

The Men Engage Alliance, a huge international collaboration of women’s rights organizations allied to engage and educate men and boys and bring them into the fight for gender e         quality, agrees with the Minister of Vietnam. Their representative said since 95% of the violence committed around the world, no matter who it is directed at, is committed by men, men must be educated and given the resources not to engage in violence, and to help women.

As the male UN Goodwill Ambassador for Women of Southeast Asia put it,

“There is no wrong in the minds of those who have not been taught what is right. By educating [men], we will evolve into the people we want ourselves to be.”

He spoke of how a colleague of his in the film industry was murdered in her home for fighting off a security guard who tried to rape her. He also described how the bus gang rape in Delhi had a profound impact on the mindset towards violence against women in India, spurring hundreds of thousands of women and many men to protest. He explained how it was not just the one incident, but that this storm in India had been coming for years, and how it needed to catch on in other places of the world, including men with it.

During a panel on ending violence against women attended by over 570 representatives of member-states and NGOs, UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said, “I am looking at this room and I am asking, where are the men?… It is the men who must say I will not marry a child. I will not beat a woman. My daughter will not be mutilated. I will not accept a pay check that is higher than my female counterpart.”

These remarks were accompanied by applause, and then laughter as the around 30 men in the room waved or stood up. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka remarked on how effective UN Women’s He for She campaign and similar programs have been.

However, Roshida Manjoo, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, pointed out some problems with He for She’s philosophy, and the “engaging men” movement in general. She said that of course men need to be educated to become allies in ending violence against women. Mindsets and cultural practices cannot be changed without educating men. But, said Majoo, organizations focused on bringing men into the discussion are taking away funding and attention from the issue. The means is forgetting the end. She described how a women’s rights organization founded by men in South Africa already had more funding than any other NGO there.

“That is privilege,” said Manjoo. She also described how the He for She philosophy relies on men protecting “their” women: sisters, wives, and mothers. Manjoo said that a woman should not be protected because she is a man’s woman, but because she is a human being with human rights.

Manjoo also explained how this ideology of men needing to step up and protect women is taking away women’s agency.

“We’ve moved away from women as victims. We want women to be active agents of change in their own lives, we need to give them the tools to do that. The way the dialogue of men and boys is going, is placing women in a space that they need to be rescued from,” said Manjoo.

Both sides of this argument have valid points. On the first day of CSW59, I remember hearing a man speak about how it is understandable that feminists are wary of including men, because they don’t want to be relegated to the back again, and have men take over the movement. He said that that was perfectly understandable, and that the male feminist movements always needed to work with the women’s movement, and be accountable to it, keeping the end goal in mind.

I find all these arguments compelling, and I would like to end with a key piece of evidence about why we need to educate men before any sustainable change can occur. According to a petition from the Tahirih Justice Center, at least 3,000 women in the US are forced into unwanted and often abusive relationships (this is the USA, let me repeat).

Also, when my sister and I were leaving NGO Forum Consultation Day on International Women’s Day at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, a man looked at all the women streaming from the theater and yelled to us,

“Feminists man. Y’all are lesbians.”

 If all feminists were only doing it because they were in love with women, then wouldn’t that mean that all straight men are also feminists? If only.