Engaging boys and men towards gender justice: My 'aha' moment

Amel Fahmy gives a TEDX talk

During the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, which runs from 25 November, until 10 December, the IDS research team, along with its global partners, will be engaging in a series of dialogues on the engagement of men and boys in tackling sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). This one-off blog series offers an opportunity to openly talk about SGBV and the successes and challenges connected to addressing it. 

Engaging boys and men towards gender justice: My 'aha' moment

Amel Fahmy, managing director of Tadwein, a Gender Research Centre in Egypt, relays her ‘Aha’ moment. Following a TEDx Cairo talk that Amel gave on street sexual harassment in Egypt – a talk which women related to, but which excluded and shamed men – her blog post explores why it has taken so long to involve men and boys in addressing gender-based violence.
Date published: 
Amel Fahmy

Amel Fahmy

Amel is a gender specialist, founder of Tadwein, a gender research centre in Egypt, and co-founder of HarassMap. She worked for many years for the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) on women related issues. 

In 2014, I was asked by TEDx Cairo to give a talk on street sexual harassment in Egypt. I was excited about this opportunity as my message would reach thousands of people in Egypt and I might be able to convince some to join the fight against sexual harassment and become agents of change.

I started my talk by asking the audience to imagine/reflect on the way women walk in the streets and compare it to the way men walk in the street. Egyptian women present in the public streets are always alert in fear and anticipation of sexual harassment, where most of them (99.3 per cent) experience sexual harassment (UN Women 2013).

During my talk, female audience members were nodding and smiling, while the males were noticeably uncomfortable, (pressing hands, grim features etc. Later, after my talk I was approached by many women who congratulated me and expressed appreciation for highlighting this wide spread violation they experience on daily basis. On the other hand, no men approached me to comment or discuss the talk.

This was an 'aha' moment for me. I realised that my talk did not reach the male audience, it rather excluded them. I realised I had done something wrong, I did not reach out to these men, rather, I shamed and excluded them. In my talk, I presented men as the cause of the problem, perpetrators, and passive bystanders. I loudly accused and judged them, and this resulted in their withdrawal and animosity toward the case.

Gender-based violence (GBV) is a common form of human rights abuse worldwide where one in three women globally will be raped, beaten, abused or coerced into sex. Although men and young boys, internally displaced persons (IDP), refugees and LGTBI people are also targets of violence, still women are the primary targets of violence. The international parameters of GBV are more clearly defined for women and usually in terms of violence against women. GBV can take place at both the public and the domestic spheres and can be perpetuated by relatives, family members, intimate partners, friends or others known to the targets, or complete strangers. The vast majority of this violence is perpetrated by men, specifically against women and girls. While many men may never use or condone the use of violence, the simple fact is that men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of gender based violence.

Voices calling for involving men in efforts towards gender equality and justice date from more than 20 years ago: the 1994 International Conference for Population and Development (ICPD) highlighted the need to encourage men to take an active role with regard to housework and child-bearing. A year later, the Beijing Platform for Action reinforced concepts of shared power and responsibility; and identified priority areas for action such as sexual and reproductive health, and GBV. Yet efforts towards involving men were scattered and not organised. It was only in 2004 that MenEngage, a global alliance of NGOs and UN agencies aiming towards engaging boys and men in achieving gender justice, was formed and in 2009 the MenEngage Rio Declaration, a collective call to involve boys and men in promoting gender justice and fighting GBV was issued.

Why did it take so long for these realisations to be achieved and these alliances to be formed and established? Traditional women’s rights organisations who have long worked on women’s empowerment and preventing violence against women have been the main resisting force to the advancement and promotion of strategies to engage boys and men. The fear of these organisations which shaped their resistance can be summarised in three main points:

1) Fears about shifting concepts of GBV: Engaging men and boys on work on women’s empowerment and preventing violence may result in a shift in the concept of GBV, from a definition of violence against women situated within social and power relations where the man is mostly the perpetrator of violence, to a more inclusive concept where men and women are both affected by violence and social structures. Women’s organisations may fear that this new definition gives a false sense of equality between women’s and men’s social positions and compromises efforts towards women’s empowerment.

2) Competing over funds: During the sessions on financing women’s work and women’s rights issues at the 59th session on the Commission of the Status of Women (CSW) in March 2015, many women’s organisations flagged the issue of funding and stated that they are struggling to find the funds needed to run their standard operations and some of them are at the risk of shutting down. Therefore, the rise of groups/organisations working on boys and men may divert the limited resources that are available for the women’s organisations.

3) Undermining women’s agency: Hegemonic masculinity permeates through the majority of men, and there is a constant fear that their desire to maintain an advanced position will shape their behavior and actions in any foreseen collaboration and/or engagement. In one of Care’s project in Yemen, they found that working with men in projects designed for women’s advancement ended in men taking over leadership roles and responsibilities and undermining their agency.

Despite these fears, engaging men is crucial to the advancement of the work towards gender justice and reduction and elimination of GBV. Findings of many studies show that working with men and boys has a positive impact in challenging their perceptions of masculinity and their desire to speak up on the pressure they endure as a result of normative discourses and performances of masculinity as well as incidents of violence they might be subjected to. Integrated approaches in comparison to women-centered approaches, make men feel engaged rather than silenced, alienated or threatened. Furthermore, working with boys and men to challenge prevailing norms of masculinity and promote concepts of gender equality will contribute to the prevention of violence. A research review concluded that men who hold traditional gender role views are more likely to perpetrate violence.

In conclusion, we can say that working with boys and men is crucial to the realization of a more gender equal societies and the elimination of GBV. Yet, more attention should be paid to how can we work better work with boys and men to achieve this goal.


Nikki van der Gaag

Nikki van der Gaag

Nikki has been working on women’s rights and gender in many countries in the world for the past 20 years. She has been the principal author of six of Plan International’s State of the World’s Girls reports. She is the author of Feminism and men (Zed Press, 2014) and co-author of the first State of the World’s Fathers (MenCare campaign). She is a Senior Fellow at Instituto Promundo and a member of the International Advisory Board of Young Lives, a research study on child poverty based at Oxford University. She has recently done a TEDx talk entitled 'Why feminism need men – and why men need feminism’.

Amel Fahmy is absolutely right in her observation that 'working with boys and men is crucial to the realization of more gender equal societies and the elimination of GBV.' I wrote my book on Feminism and Men on just that premise.

But I disagree with her on some of her more specific points. I want to begin with a definition. She says that ‘Hegemonic masculinity permeates through the majority of men.’ Raewyn Connell, who has worked for many years on gender and masculinities points out that there are many ways of expressing masculinity, rather than just one, and men are more or less affected by them, according to class, race, sexuality, etc, although all are part and parcel of the much bigger edifice that is patriarchy. Patriarchy affects women negatively, but it also affects men. It drives GBV, whether mental or physical, imbalances of power, sexism, discrimination and abuse.

Second, while she is right that ICPD in 1994 was a milestone, and that the work is still a long way behind the women’s rights movement, more has been happening during the intervening years than she indicates. Much of it is still small-scale and grassroots, but organisations like the White Ribbon Campaign of men against violence against women were founded in 1986 and is now global. Instituto Promundo was founded in 1997 in Brazil to work with young men in favelas, and Sonke Gender Justice was founded in South Africa in 2006. Both now have extensive work programmes well beyond the initial country. And then there are hundreds of small organisations all around the world that make up the MenEngage network. The movement is growing fast. At the second MenEngage Global Symposium last November in Delhi, there were 1,200 people, men and women, from 92 countries.

Third, I want to challenge Amel’s assertion that 'women have been the main resisting force to the advancement and promotion of strategies to engage boys and men.' Many of the organisations or projects working with men on gender equality are doing so because women – often grassroots women – in women’s organisations recognised that working with women alone would not bring about the radical change in gender relations that they were looking for. Acev in Turkey or Mosaic in South Africa are both examples that come to mind.

As for GBV, unlike violence against women (VAW), it is already about both men and women, and while I would agree with Amel that men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of both, they are also the victims of other men’s violence and homicide. Most men do not condone either. Recognising that men too suffer from violence does not negate women’s experiences, provided the power imbalance between the sexes is still the primary lens through which it is viewed.

Amel also makes the point about women’s rights organisations being concerned that in an era of shrinking resources for their work that it might be diverted to work with men. They do need to be vigilant. But there is as yet little evidence of this. There is a much bigger battle that both must face, and that is the huge reduction in support for all grassroots organisations – a recent article in the Guardian flagged with alarm that 'Less than 2% of humanitarian funds 'go directly to local NGOs'.

Finally, we know as women that men may dominate our spaces and places because they have the confidence to do so. But we are not passive recipients of power dynamics. We can be vigilant, we can speak up. And men who work on gender equality are, in my experience, very aware of these dangers, at least in theory. They need to take responsibility for this. They may need a little reminding. But it is a positive thing that they want to be involved. I hope that one day it help to will lead to a more equal world. 

Joni van de Sand

Joni van de Sand

Joni van de Sand is Global Coordinator of the MenEngage Alliance. She is a cultural anthropologist / gender expert / social justice activist. She has worked in international cooperation for over 10 years, in networks of women’s rights, LGBTQI and gender equality, around the world. She previously worked at WO=MEN Dutch Gender Platform (in her home-country The Netherlands) from which she brings critical experience as an advocate at the national level and United Nations. She has been engaged in various academic and consultancy research projects and publications, including on network building and feminist organizing; and conceptualizing men and masculinities in a transformative agenda towards gender justice.

In her blog, Amel candidly shares what she considers was a mistake in her TED talk. However it is important for men to hear women’s experiences. It is a critical step toward self-awareness. And there is nothing wrong with a little discomfort. As Gloria Steinem said, 'the truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.' Understanding one’s own privilege is an important step to start seeing what the problem is: a self-permeating system that is larger than the sum of its individual parts – patriarchy.

Talking about this blog with male colleagues, they shared experiences from their many years of working with men on gender equality. They pointed out that men may also feel uncomfortable learning about women’s experiences because it means they have to change. And change is hard, for anyone. Even more when the current status quo bends generally in your favour. Yes, in the long-run, gender equality is beneficial for men too: it improves their health, their relationships, and breaks the cycle of violence that many men experience. However in the short-term, it may mean giving up some privilege – individually, and as a group.

So, like Nikki, I disagree with Amel that women’s rights organisations have been the main resisting force to engaging men and boys. On the one hand men, and indeed the wider system, may be resistant to change. On the other hand many women’s organisations have been working with men and boys since the early days. They laid the foundations of understanding patriarchy, masculinities and the roles of men and boys.

'Fun fact': about a quarter of MenEngage’s member organisations are led by women and/or self-identify as women’s organisations.i This is not to say that all women’s organisations should work with men and boys. The reality is just that some of them have done so even before 'engaging men and boys' emerged as a visible field.

What we want and need to do is mobilise large numbers of men, together with women, for gender equality, human rights and social justice. That requires providing those men whose 'eyes have been opened' with an action perspective. We need to address men’s capacity to effect change by building positive messages and offer solutions that appeal to men’s agency in helping to change the problems (which should not be confused with empowering men to assert dominance over the process).

MenEngage aims to do just that, through putting men’s accountability to women and the women’s movement more firmly on the agenda, and at the same time linking those who are working with men and boys with a network of organisations doing the same – on issues ranging from GBV, to SRHR, to care-giving, to peace and security, etc.

We developed accountability mechanisms and support members to implement them. Recently we created a virtual space for members and partners to share their experiences, to dialogue, to reflect and learn from each other. Amel mentions several valid points we attempt to address through this vehicle, including concerns around men taking over leadership in the movement.

Regarding GBV, the term is relevant because it can widen understanding that it is in essence an abuse of power. Rather than equalizing men’s social position with women, it should open up questions around what are the root causes of men’s violence against women, and how can we change that? I strongly agree with Amel and Nikki that engaging men and boys is crucial to eliminate GBV and to realise gender equality.

Lastly, efforts to work with men should not come at the expense of supporting survivors and empowering women and girls broadly. This links to Amel’s point on concerns around diverting the limited resources away from women’s organisations. MenEgage has and will continue to speak up on these risks in the public spaces that we are privileged to have access to. This includes the message that support for gender justice work in all its forms needs to be significantly increased!ii

[i] The information on MenEngage members and partners stems from self-identification by regional and country-level network coordinators. The average of organisations identified as either women’s organisation or women’s rights organizations was over 20 per cent in the membership base, and over 30 per cent in the Steering Committees. 'Women’s rights organisations' were defined as 'organizations that advocate for the rights of women and girls and are led by women.' Source: 'First Report of MenEngage’s Members and Women's Rights Organizations within MenEngage Networks.' August 2014, MenEngage Alliance. In addition, about a third of participants in the 2nd MenEngage Global Symposium in New Delhi, India (November 2014) self-identified as primarily representing a 'women’s rights' constituency.