Why include men and boys in the fight for gender equality?

The HeForShe booth receives signups at the Rendezvous Festival at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi in October 2014. Photo by: Sarabjeet Singh / UN Women / CC BY-NC-ND

At a time when women’s rights are under threat around the world — from moves to defund family planning services in the United States to Russia’s decision to decriminalize some forms of domestic violence — it may seem difficult to make the case for investing scarce gender program resources in projects which target men and boys.

But development groups are increasingly arguing that with patriarchal culture norms standing as the key barrier to women’s empowerment, projects must target changing attitudes among men and boys in order to create lasting improvements for women and girls.

“International development actors are now realizing that if you don’t change men’s attitudes towards women, then gender programs which focus on women first won’t be successful, and in many cases can bring about increased dangers to women,” said Christina Fink, director of international development studies at George Washington University. Women’s economic empowerment projects often lead to initial increases in violence from male partners who feel threatened, she said.

Fink’s message is echoed by Gary Barker, co-founder of Promundo, a leading organization working on engaging men and boys in gender equality since 1997.

“Women’s empowerment and the vulnerabilities of girls are the focus of so much development assistance but there are limitations to their effectiveness if those programs are not engaging men, as well as thinking of men’s own gendered realities which are affected by poverty,” he said.

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Barker is clear that his organization does not seek to turn attention or funding away from the existing gender equality effort, but instead seeks to bring men into those efforts in a meaningful way. “Approaches should be gender transformative [challenging deep gender norms and discrimination]; they shouldn’t just be inviting men in the door or setting quotas so that we have a few more women or a few less men,” he said.

Furthermore, with a recent survey from Promundo and the United Nations which looked at men’s views on male-female relations across Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and Palestine, showing a resurgence in anti-feminist views, work to engage men and boys on gender equality needs to accelerate, Barker argues.

The report suggests the struggle to find work and to take on the “traditionally-assumed responsibility to provide for the family’s physical safety and financial security” could be causing a backlash against gender equality. This could be exacerbated in the future by rising economic and social pressures, including rapid urbanization and migration, growing inequalities and increased instability due to climate-related shocks.

Interest and activity on working with men and boys has been growing in recent years, and is an approach that has become “trendy,” according to Jessica Huber, a gender specialist from the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, which runs programs directed at encouraging men to support women’s political participation.

In 2014, UN Women launched the high-profile HeForShe “solidarity campaign” to engage men and boys “to become change agents towards the achievement of gender equality,” with then U.S. President Barack Obama as a supporter.  

The MenEngage global alliance now has more than 600 NGO members, U.N. groups and others working with men and boys for gender equality.

Despite the growing interest and evidence to support engaging men and boys in gender programs, the concept can still prove controversial, especially at a time when budgets are shrinking.  

Devex spoke to gender experts and men’s groups to find out more.

The case for working with men and boys on gender equality

A two-year project ending in 2016 that aimed to build the evidence-base for working with men and boys to promote gender equality — Engendering Men: Evidence on Routes to Gender Equality, or EMERGE — concluded that such programs can support women’s economic empowerment by encouraging men to take on household roles traditionally considered female, or to lift restrictions which prevent women from working.  

Programs that challenge concepts of patriarchy and traditional masculinity can also have beneficial health and education outcomes for men, and they can reduce instances of violence between men.


EMERGE also found that programs that challenge concepts of patriarchy and traditional masculinity can also have beneficial health and education outcomes for men. As well as reducing violence against women, they can also reduce instances of violence between men, it said.

Barker said the understanding that including men and boys in gender programming creates better outcomes for both sexes is at the heart of his organization’s work. He was inspired to set up Promundo as a result of his work with young people in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro on HIV/AIDS prevention and sexual and reproductive health. Through this work, it became clear that development projects need to look beyond the “simplistic narrative of women are always the victim and men are always the perpetrators,” he said.

Promundo’s research in the Democratic Republic of Congo revealed that, while the number of women raped during the conflict was staggeringly high at 1 in 4, 1 in 10 men had also been raped or experienced sexual assault. This increases their likelihood of being violent themselves, according to Barker, and their experiences can often go unreported due to heightened stigma and prejudices linked to sexual violence against men.

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Women can also be complicit in enforcing traditional gender norms — a point made by both Fink and Barker — including mothers who teach their daughters to be submissive and raise their sons to exhibit dominance.

However, Barker is clear that his intention is not to detract from the longstanding abuse and suffering of women, but to develop a nuanced understanding of how gendered relations are formed, so as to better engage men and women in the fight to promote gender equality and justice.

“It is not about blaming women, but about acknowledging that the norms of patriarchy get taken up in women’s lives as well,” he said. “Typically more women question it, but there is no shortage of women who have internalized these norms as well.”

Including men and boys should not mean positioning them as “saviors” of women.

Barker doesn’t believe that working with men and boys should replace efforts already being carried out to empower women, but wants the approaches to be integrated. He also said that too much emphasis on men runs the risk of reinforcing patronizing views of men as “saviors.”

“It’s easy to become the trendy new way to do gender equality and assume engaging men will solve it all, and that any man showing up to work on this is coming on his white horse — that’s not what we want,” he said.

“Men don’t have a starring role here, it’s about what they can do as an ally to support women.”

— Jessica Huber, gender specialist at the IFES

It is important not to “lose sight” of the fact that programs like those IFES runs are ultimately designed to help women, who are disadvantaged compared to men, said Huber, especially when it comes to engaging in politics.

Talking about the IFES project — which trains men and boys in the community, in governments and in NGOs to be allies in women’s participation in public and political life — Huber said: “Men don’t have a starring role here, it’s about what they can do as an ally to support women.”

The evolution of gender thinking could create space for men and boys.

New thinking within the discipline of gender studies has also potentially opened up more space for men and boys to be included, according to Anna Collins Falk, a senior policy specialist on gender equality at the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. 

For example, there was a shift from women-specific programs to a more integrated gender mainstreaming agenda after the 1995 Beijing World Conference on Women. More recently, the field has evolved to embrace intersectionality as a conceptual tool, where development actors are encouraged to think beyond binary gender relations to include “intersecting social inequalities of gender, age, caste, social class” and other identities, according to a 2016 paper by the Institute for Development Studies.

“Intersectionality involves moving beyond the binary understanding of gender and looks at the need to understand how to address groups which are not homogenous but are non-gendered and range across different sexual behaviors, for example,” Falk explained.

This has led to a greater focus on the LGBT community, for example. Fink predicts it is part of a general trend in development and gender programs of moving “away from these siloes of looking at women, men, and boys, to more of a focus on human dignity and social justice,” thinking more “holistically,” she said.

Men and boys programs can face resistance, especially over funding

Barker said Promundo has experienced “pushback” from some women’s rights groups, especially on the issue of resources. However, he said he is not advocating for a separate chunk of funding for programs focused on men — instead, he views the work as a cross-cutting issue which should be built into existing programs.

“Engaging men and boys is not an end in itself; it’s a means to an end, so we’re not looking for individual funds but instead looking at building into existing programming,” he said.

In some cases this could require additional funds, but in many cases it will be a case of “retooling” what is already there, Barker explained.

“It is still contentious when we have limited resources devoted to gender equality and women’s empowerment … Whenever you announce targeting men and boys, there is suspicion about why are we prioritizing [them].”

— Diego Antoni, gender policy specialist at UNDP

Making the case for focusing on men and boys can also be controversial within the U.N., according to Diego Antoni, a gender policy specialist at the U.N. Development Programme. He described efforts to engage men around gender equality and women’s empowerment as a “promising area of work” which UNDP is starting to look at more closely — driven partly by donors such as Sweden — but still faces resistance, he said.

“It is still contentious when we have limited resources devoted to gender equality and women’s empowerment … Whenever you announce targeting men and boys, there is suspicion about why are we prioritizing [them],” he said.

Falk said that problems can also arise because some men’s organizations are “not geared towards women’s rights,” and may have a conservative agenda, damaging perceptions. Barker agreed, saying that some groups may appear supportive of women’s equality but actually promote an anti-feminist tone, emphasizing men as victims without talking about the power and privilege they have historically enjoyed.

The MenEngage alliance, which Barker co-founded in 2004 and includes representatives from UN Women, the U.N Population Fund and UNDP on its advisory committee, is keen to distinguish itself from such groups, he said.

“We’ve spent a lot of time being thoughtful about our core principles and how do we as a group … make sure to call out groups where we think they are not taking a pro-feminist, privilege-questioning approach,” he said.

Falk added that an additional challenge in supporting men’s groups from a donor’s perspective is that many are small and community-based. But she added that SIDA has a long history of supporting gender equality, including working with men and boys. “In Sweden, we have experience of men organizing in support of equality. They want to claim equal rights and to connect more with their children, have more equal relationships with their wives and share responsibilities in the home,” she said.

Challenging gender norms takes long-term programming

Ravi Verma, director of the International Center for Research on Women’s work in Asia, said his organization has worked on a series of programs and studies to engage young men, boys and also girls in different settings — including schools, sports clubs and in the community — to “begin deconstructing and challenging the idea of masculinity and the concept of real men defined by young men and boys.”

Verma described “entrenched notions of control and entitlement” among men which start early in life, and can be seen playing out even in schools. “It is so seamlessly gendered that boys don’t see there is anything wrong with the girls cleaning and cooking while the boys play,” he said.

There is also a clear link between son-preference among the older adult population, fueling gender inequality, and a glamorized view of violence and aggression which can make it difficult to change norms, he said.

“They don’t see violence as something to be condemned; they see it as a privilege and so it becomes so difficult to create an alternative model of attitudes and behaviors to suggest manhood doesn’t have to be synonymous with violence and aggression,” he said.

“Discussions can become very [uncomfortable]. Boys feel threatened; these are deeply entrenched patriarchal systems — this is not a one-off kind of program,

— Ravi Verma, director of the International Center for Research on Women

Considering the complexity and deep-seated nature of these norms — as well as the discomfort in talking about them — programs which seek to modify them require a long-term, consistent engagement working with the same group of boys over a number of years, as well as with the school, peers and family members, he said.  

“Discussions can become very [uncomfortable]. Boys feel threatened; these are deeply entrenched patriarchal systems — this is not a one-off kind of program,” he said.

Interventions need to address society as a whole, not just individuals

Programs which seek to change patriarchal attitudes among individuals through training and discussion often only succeed in the short-term, according to Fink.

“Training aimed at changing individual men’s knowledge and attitudes about gender norms is not enough, as often men will either not actually change their behavior or only do so in the short term. For long-term change, there has to be a broader social acceptance and adoption of new norms,” she said.

Social movements with backing from influential figures, such as celebrities and religious leaders, and modelling new social norms through social media and “edutainment” programs — such as television soap operas that criticise gender-based violence, for example — have a role in bringing about broader change.

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While changing cultural and social norms is difficult work, it is not impossible, according to deputy executive director of UN Women, Yannick Glemarec.

“Social norms are not fixed but reflect your socio-economic situation at a given moment in time,” he explained. He pointed out that with technological development, demographic changes, globalization and the shift towards a more information-based society, that situation can change rapidly.  

The key, he said, is to make sure that when norms do change, “they change in the right direction.”

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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.