Where should the UN's HeForShe campaign go from here?

The HeForShe logo. Photo by: Procter & Gamble Thailand / CC BY-NC-ND

LONDON — Now in its third year and as a spate of accusations of sexual assault have swept through the aid industry and beyond, the United Nations-led HeForShe movement, which calls on men to publicly pledge their support for gender equality, is at a crossroads.

Devex spoke to U.N. staff and gender experts to find out what the movement has achieved so far and how it can develop beyond its catchy hashtag to ask more of its male supporters, including calling on men to speak up against sexual abuse and harassment, and drive progress toward the Sustainable Development Agenda.

Launched by British actress Emma Watson and then U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2014, HeForShe represented the first global effort to actively include men and boys as change agents for gender equality at a time when most gender programs were only targeting women.

It was the beginning of a trend that only seems more relevant as stories emerge of sexual abuse and harassment suffered by women in the workplace.

The Sustainable Development Goals call for gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls, but campaigns such as last weekend’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women highlight that there is much work to be done. The U.N. recently reported that nearly 20 percent of women surveyed said they had experienced physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner in the previous year.

Originally conceived as a one-year media campaign to raise awareness about the role of men and boys in gender equality, the HeForShe website garnered more than 100,000 male supporters in its first three days. These males affirmed their commitment to the cause by declaring themselves “HeForShe” and saying that gender equality is not just a women’s issue. Early adopters included a clutch of celebrities and politicians, including former U.S. President Barack Obama, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and actor Matt Damon.

Since then, 1.6 million men have signed up online, including at least one man in every country of the world, and its “Impact Champions” include the presidents of Rwanda, Ghana, Malawi, and Indonesia, among several other heads of state. The issue has also been the subject of 2 billion conversations on social media.

But HeForShe is not without its critics. Many in the gender equality community say they would like to see the movement make more concrete demands of its male champions, and have called for civil society to play a greater role in developing and monitoring the movement.

“Now is a good moment for reflection and discussion about HeForShe, which has achieved high visibility, clear successes, and also drawbacks,” said Gary Barker, co-founder of Promundo, an NGO working to engage men and boys for gender equality, which has advised the HeForShe campaign since its launch three years ago.

“Having that amount of reach and star power on board means there’s huge potential, but we need to harness it before the movement loses momentum … [and] we need to push UN Women to go further and ask more of men,” he added.

Barker also said the tone of the movement needs to toughen up, especially in light of recent allegations of sexual abuse and harassment against high-profile men.

“These cases underscore how we need to do far more than simply talk in a nice tone to men.  We need men to speak up and speak out in uncomfortable ways to question men's power.  That to me is the bottom line of what HeForShe should be doing,” he said.

A campaign that caught fire

Buoyed by its early success, the HeForShe team — which is run out of UN Women — set to work to “quickly revamp from being a campaign to being a movement,” HeForShe Director Elizabeth Nyamayaro told Devex. It was “meant to be a one-year campaign to raise awareness about the issue; no one expected it would have the momentum it ended up having,” she said.

On the back of this international interest, the team launched IMPACT10x10x10 in 2015 as a five-year pilot working with 30 male leaders from governments, corporations, and universities, helping them to determine a range of gender equality commitments to be met by 2020. Interim results from the pilot were presented at a HeForShe anniversary event during September’s U.N. General Assembly meetings in New York.  

The event included presentations from the President of Malawi H.E. Arthur Peter Mutharika, who spoke about his government’s move to outlaw child marriage in 2015, which has enabled more than 1,500 girls to go back to school, he said. Bob Moritz, chairman of PricewaterhouseCoopers, said his company had increased the share of women in its global leadership team from 18 percent to 47 percent in a year; while Paul Boyle, the president of Leicester University in the U.K., said his students were working to end gender-based violence on campus.

“In 2015, I challenged the champions to ‘think big’ and commit to creative approaches that tackled the greatest barriers … As leaders in their fields, the champions hold the key to breaking norms and making game-changing progress for both women and men,” said Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women, in a press release published at the time of the event.

The movement has evolved from its beginnings, and its leadership say they have more developments in the pipeline. But some NGOs have questioned how much impact it is really creating.

Measuring success

Dean Peacock, co-founder of Sonke Gender Justice, a South Africa-based NGO working for gender equality, said that while HeForShe has brought “valuable mainstream visibility to the issue of engaging men for gender equality,” and has also engaged “men in positions of power,” it is unclear “what traction this has produced.”

Part of the problem is that NGOs have not been “sufficiently” involved in the setting, monitoring, and oversight of the commitments that have been made, he said.

“I’d like to see UN Women engage civil society more actively in holding HeForShe ambassadors to their commitments,” Peacock said, and also in monitoring and publicizing the impact of those commitments.

There are also questions about whether some of the commitments made under the HeForShe banner would have happened anyway, in which case HeForShe appears as a high-profile platform to showcase gender positive change, without necessarily initiating it.

Barker touched on this point when he described the “Impact Champions” as “precisely the kind of things we think are needed to truly change norms about manhood,” which “is engaging large institutions and their leadership,” but went on to say that “the question, of course, is making the changes stick and making them real.”

Nyamayaro disagreed, however, pointing to instances — such as its work with consultancy firm McKinsey & Company — where HeForShe has catalyzed concrete action by inspiring the company to release data about gender parity within its own ranks for the first time.

Higher ambitions

Barker’s fears form part of a wider concern that HeForShe is little more than a “mass media” campaign, which makes relatively easy asks of men such as signing up online or posting on social media. The movement’s name is also seen as problematic by some. Barker said it was “too easy” by giving the impression that men need to do women a favor by supporting equality. However, he acknowledged that the tagline has been a highly effective “hook to get people on board.”

“It’s fantastic we have this point of entry which feels easy for lots of men … but what the movement then asks of men has to get more difficult,” he said. “Some of this has to hurt,” Barker added, explaining that engaging men requires asking questions about “what power, privilege, and patriarchy mean in the lives of men and women.” That requires a “deep and at times threatening and challenging conversation,” he said.

More recently, the HeForShe team has been working to deepen its engagement with grassroots activists, alongside its high-level work with champions, Nyamayaro said. For example, it has partnered with Promundo and other NGOs to develop a free online toolbox that can be used by communities to host “Barbershop events” — workshops and other activities to help men and boys understand how gender inequality impacts society and how they can become better change agents and allies to women.

The team is also getting ready to launch a new website to serve as an “engagement platform” for supporters, and to help crowdsource gender solutions, Nyamayaro said.

Greater consultation needed

Peacock also agreed that the movement’s name has been a sore spot with some activists, who see it as “paternalistic.” UN Women should have consulted more widely with gender groups before launching it, he said. This could have avoided many of the current criticisms about the “paternalistic framing and insufficient ambition of the campaign.”

“HeWithShe” would have been a better choice, he suggested, in order to “convey that it’s not about men making decisions and taking action on behalf of women but rather motivated by accountable partnership and commitment to women’s agency and leadership.”

Others point out that the U.N. itself has a poor track record when it comes to gender equality within its own ranks — only 27.3 percent of top-level jobs were held by women in 2015, with some pointing to inadequate provisions for child care and parental leave as contributing factors. There have also been widespread reports of sexual discrimination and harassment against female aid workers, as well as highly reported instances of sexual exploitation of civilians by U.N. peacekeepers. This has led some to ask whether the U.N. itself embodies the values of HeForShe.

Secretary-General António Guterres has made the issue a priority for his tenure and recently announced a new strategy that seeks to achieve gender parity at the senior leadership level of the U.N. by 2021, and at all levels by 2030. Devex also recently reported on a new U.N. pilot program to tackle sexual harassment in its workplaces.

But Peacock added he would like to see the HeForShe campaign include “concrete action the U.N. should take to advance gender equality and gender transformation within the U.N.”

Read more Devex coverage on gender equality.

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.