My organizations posted an essay I wrote about gender integration in international development for International Women’s Day 2014. You are welcome to access it by clicking here. Or you can read it below:
Where do men and boys fit in the gender equality conversation?
By Jenn Williamson, PhD
Gender Technical Specialist at Counterpart International
When we think of communities around the world, we often think of them in groups—villages, farmers, students, entrepreneurs, legislators, citizens, the sick, the poor, the displaced.
But each of these groups are made up of individuals that impact each other, influencing what they do, where they go, what they have access to, how they speak to each other, who hears them and what they believe is possible.
At Counterpart International, we believe that it is important to work with communities and local leaders to develop a vision of their development goals and help them get there, whether it means building new schools, voting in the next election, or growing healthier crops.
To do this well, everyone in the community—including men, women, boys, girls, elderly men and women—must be part of that process.
Counterpart International’s development approach has always been to work in partnership with local communities and local institutions to drive and sustain their own development.
Our approach to gender is entirely in line with this mission, and it is different from the way other organizations work because it embodies a holistic method to community development, gender equality and female empowerment.
Gender doesn’t just mean “women.” It means looking at men, women, boys, and girls in relation to each other in order to help everyone in a community participate in, understand, and receive the benefits of their own development.
There has been an increasing understanding within the development landscape of the need for a gender integration approach, and momentum has been growing in the past few years with new policies and new campaigns.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), one of the largest U.S. funders for international development, has released multiple policies that require organizations to address gender and gender-based violence when implementing projects across development sectors, including governance and civil society, food security, maternal and child health, agriculture, climate change, and disaster and risk management.
Private foundations are also promoting many initiatives, ranging from female-focused campaigns, from the Nike Foundation’s The Girl Effect and Coca-Cola’s #5by20 to such gender-responsive programs as the Ford Foundation’s emphasis on including women and youth in initiatives to advance reforms in land, livelihoods, rights, media and civic participation in East Africa.
Many donors and implementing organizations are embracing the need to integrate gender in program design and implementation, although there is often still a primary focus on women and girls.
Women and girls around the world benefit from these needed and important initiatives because they bear the brunt of poverty, are the most vulnerable to financial shocks and natural disasters, and face many inequalities in access to healthcare, legal rights and material and financial resources.
In Cameroon, the Counterpart Food for Education (FFE) program has been working to reduce the school dropout rate for girls—many of whom leave school at a young age to get married or to provide domestic support at home—and has helped change traditional beliefs about girls’ inferiority to that of valuable household and community members. In Azerbaijan, Counterpart’s Women’s Political Participation (WPP) program has been empowering more women to engage in political processes and supporting organizations that raise the status of women and girls by advocating against gender-based violence and promoting women’s rights. In Tajikistan, girls who attend Counterpart’s Young Leaders Program (YLP) not only learn about volunteerism, civic participation and human rights, but they also build leadership skills, confidence, and the belief that they have an important place in improving their community’s and their country’s future.
However, it’s important to see gender issues not only as women’s issues, but also as a human rights issue that affects everyone. Gender issues are community issues and global issues.
At Counterpart, we seek to engage men and boys as agents of change who understand the benefits of supporting women and girls. Men and boys around the world have the power to bring about positive changes in attitudes, roles and relationships, benefitting not just the women and girls in their communities but the community as a whole.
Our approach to gender means that we work with men and boys, not just engaging them to help women and girls, but also working to understand and address their unique needs.
Men and boys face mounting pressure to support their families in the face of unemployment, drought, and climate change, and they are often on the frontlines of conflict, which has devastating impacts to themselves and to their communities and families. Male gender roles and beliefs about masculinity/manhood increase pressure on men and boys to make choices that place them at increased risk for HIV/AIDS, violence, and other negative health consequences.
In Haiti, Counterpart’s Nutrition Support Program (NSP) is organizing peer support groups for husbands of pregnant women and mothers of young children. These peer groups will educate men on the best nutrition practices for children and pregnant women, so that men can support women’s efforts to improve family health and promote women’s increased decision-making around family nutrition.
During Counterpart’s Ethiopia Sustainable Tourism Alliance (ESTA) program, information about HIV/AIDS testing and prevention was shared during men’s “coffee ceremonies,” regular meetings where men traditionally gather to talk and socialize. Within these groups, men were able to discuss sensitive topics among supportive peers, even bringing their wives to participate in the discussion on the importance of HIV testing and accessing services.
A number of studies have found that when development programs work to empower women, but neglect to engage men or communities in support of these efforts, the programs can result in unintended consequences, such as an increase in gender-based violence.
For example, the Women Refugee Commission published a report in 2009 called “Peril or Protection: The Link Between Livelihoods and Gender-Based Violence in Displacement Settings” which shows that many women face continued or even increased domestic violence as spouses begin suspecting them of sexual infidelity as they began to earn money and move freely outside the home.
Programs that neglect to engage men and communities in identifying female-specific needs and empowering women and girls can also simply be less effective because women and girls face continued barriers to implementing newly acquired skills or accessing new opportunities.
A woman or girl could receive an education or be trained to run for political office, but if her spouse refuses to allow her to participate in public events or if members of a community refuse to elect female candidates to office because of beliefs about women’s roles, then efforts to empower women to participate in community and public life will achieve low results.
To promote women’s and girls’ empowerment—and to support healthy, engaged communities—we need to help women and girls overcome gender inequalities with the understanding that while empowerment is achieved individually, external forces—such as families, spouses, communities, societies, and institutions—create conditions that facilitate or undermine it. We need to understand that men and boys face pressure to live up to gender roles that impact their behaviors and their choices, and that these are all connected.
We have come a long way, but there is still so much further to go.