A girl and a boy in Drass, India. Photo by: Chetan Karkhanis / CC BY-NC-ND

There’s one critical group of people who at times seems to be missing from the conversation about women's empowerment — men and boys.

But including men is important for those working on issues of economic, social and political equality for women who embrace women's rights as human rights.

"How are we going to get from where we are now to something that really looks a lot more like parity?" Anne-Marie Slaughter, president and CEO of the New America Foundation, recently asked attendees of an event about women's economic empowerment. "We're not going to get there by focusing on women. We're going to get there by focusing on men and women."

The point she was driving home was that much of the fight to this point has been about women breaking into a man's world and gaining access to greater options. Slaughter’s take: The dialogue now needs to shift and, as part of that, it would be useful to reevaluate work that has been traditionally associated with women, like care-taking and household chores.

Slaughter is just one of many voices calling for more collaboration with men to truly move the needle on women and development.

Substantive and lasting change is only possible if there is change at the structural and policy level, at the relational level and at the personal level, said David Ray, head of policy and advocacy at CARE USA.

"You cannot make that sort of change if men and boys are not engaged … and come to see the ways in which they're also limited, held back, and the cost to them and to society at large," he said.

How engaging

There are several organizations engaging men and boys in a variety of ways, often by trying to shift underlying cultural norms and perceptions to work toward equality and reduce violence.

In India, Women and Girls Lead Global, a public-private partnership between the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Ford Foundation and Independent Television Service, launched the Hero Project after a highly publicized gang rape of a teenage girl in December 2012 prompted an outpouring of anger.

Focusing on gender-based violence was a natural choice because despite multiple laws related to women at various levels of government, India remains a dangerous place for women, said Abhishek Srivastava, India country coordinator at ITVS, who conducted research to determine how to design and implement the program.

"Masculinity was identified as an important narrative to address," he said. "If we are part of the problem, we must be part of the solution as well."

The Hero Project uses documentaries and discussion to help men discuss gender roles and redefine masculinity, and what it means to be a hero. The program discusses small ways that men can change their behaviors and speak out against inappropriate actions against women in what are then described as acts of heroism. Through the program, male “heroes” become part of the movement to empower women.

This work isn’t without challenges, and changing the status quo takes time, Srivastava said.

MenEngage, an alliance of NGOs working together with men and boys to promote gender equality, runs a program called MenCare in 25 countries that uses mass communications, projects and storytelling to engage men through their role as fathers on issues of gender equality.

In patriarchal settings, for women to advance, receive an education and win formal employment, men must take on some of the household responsibilities, said Marc Peters, global communications and campaigns manager for MenEngage.

"Once you engage men on those issues and get them to open their eyes to what women are experiencing in the household and on a day-to-day basis, and why it’s important to be an engaged, caring parent, it's easier to make the leap to why it's important to be a caring nonviolent individual, and then from there, why you need to be working to change not just your household but your community as well," he said.

RTI International just finished a project in South Africa working with men on changing their perceptions of women. As part of the project, community meetings were called during which staff facilitators used cue cards and role modeling to both educate participants and build their skills. The project took about two years to get off of the ground and grew out of a need identified in working on issues related to HIV, drugs, sex and violence.

The program began by exploring expectations for young men and women and whether those norms are working, and continued to address gender roles and teach about equity and equality.

The project was rigorously studied, and the data is being analyzed now, but Wendy Wechsberg, the director of RTI International's new Global Gender Center, said she has already identified one thing she would change in the future: start with younger boys before they reach adolescence or young adulthood.

Barriers to engagement

There are several challenges that arise when engaging boys and men — from their fear of losing power to traditional definitions of feminism and identity politics.

One of the things Srivastava found in India, for instance, is that the women’s movement is often equated with feminism, which discourages some men from participating. Additionally, he found it important to work on changing women's views of masculinity so it is accepted that men can show emotion.

The idea of this work being the purview of women came up across several organizations, and is often evident at gatherings on the subject.

"It's a tension when you look at the fact that women have been working on gender equality for a lot longer than men and have been really successful in doing it," said Peters from MenEngage. "There is going to be a hesitation when men come into a new space that they're going to try to own it and occupy the position of authority and power and try to set the agenda."

There are men who are not hostile to the issues of women's empowerment and don’t understand what role they should play, he added; groups working on gender equality should work on changing those perceptions, too.

Peters is careful to point out that much of the money for MenEngage has come from sources other than traditional women's empowerment funds. Yet expanding programs focused on men and boys may raise funding concerns among women’s groups, something donors need to carefully calibrate.

Moving forward

As programs targeting men and boys continue to pop up, there is a need for greater collaboration and knowledge-sharing to build on successes.

Much of this work is being done on a pilot-project or experimental basis, and it is important to look at the different approaches and evaluate the best strategies and opportunities for collaboration, Peters said.

Meanwhile, the international community should continue to push for more women in leadership positions, Wechsberg said.

"Aren't there more men who are heads of these agencies who give out this money?” she asked. “There is still a tremendous amount of imbalance. What I'm always afraid of is: Are they just giving lip service or are they sincere?"

Networking and creating more linkages between organizations are going to be crucial as the work continues, Wechsberg said. Embracing men and boys, though, is equally important.

"I want to reframe where everybody is coming from in the sense of what's out there because I think we can actually make a difference if we just communicate more and create more of a safety net," she said.

Want to learn more? Check out She Builds and tweet us using #SheBuilds.

She Builds is a month-long conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, Creative Associates, JBS International as well as the Millennium Challenge Corp., United Nations Office for Project Services and U.K. Department for International Development.

About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.