Overcoming resistance: The role of men, power, and gender inclusion

Overcoming resistance: The role of men, power, and gender inclusion

Emily Beaudoin with Sarah Bever and Sheila Scott

Decades of activism and research on prevention of gender-based violence (GBV) have made clear the imperative to go beyond the symptoms of GBV to address its root cause: gender inequality. When we address the systematic subordination of women within patriarchal power structures, it is critical to acknowledge the role men can—and must—play in creating inclusive environments.

Each year, the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence highlights the magnitude of change required to attain gender equality and realize a world free from gender-based violence. However, in discussing gender equality, we must also address one of the most persistent challenges to achieving it: overcoming resistance. 

Backlash hinders gender equality efforts

Over the last 25 years, there has been indisputable progress towards gender equality. Globally, large gains in girls’ education have been documented. Between 2000 and 2015, deaths related to pregnancy and childbirth fell by more than 40%. The rates of girls between 15 and 19 who are subjected to female genital mutilation in the 30 countries where the practice is concentrated have dropped from 1 in 2 girls in 2000 to 1 in 3 girls by 2017, and, in South Asia, a girl’s risk of marrying in childhood dropped by over 40%.  In the 2018 midterm elections, the United States elected a historic number of women to Congress. 

At the same time, investments in equity gains for women and girls have led to marked backlash that hampers efforts to close remaining gaps and effectively address persistent problems like GBV. Resistance takes many forms, from rejection of a deficiency-focused narrative of women’s experience to a concern that women’s empowerment is a zero-sum game played to the detriment of men and boys.

How gender inequality harms people of all genders

The zero-sum perception of power is particularly troubling. It not only contradicts feminist conceptual frameworks of gender equality that fully embrace liberation for all genders, it also refuses to acknowledge the myriad ways that patriarchal systems take a toll on men and boys themselves—and therefore avoids analysis of how they too would benefit from gender equality.

There is ample evidence that gender inequality and rigid masculinities harm men and boys. Globally, boys are at a greater risk of repeating grades or dropping out of school entirely and are more often subject to corporal punishment in school and at home than girls. Syrian refugee boys suffer sexual violence at the hands of older boys and men from their community, as well as host communities. And, in the United States, men and boys perpetrate the overwhelming majority of school shootings, men die by suicide over three times more often than women, and boys receive 70% of D’s and F’s in school.

What role can the international development community play in reversing these ­trends? How can we maintain momentum to close gaps affecting women and girls while more effectively engaging men and boys – not just as allies of women’s empowerment, but as champions of gender justice, equal opportunities and non-violence for all?

Obstacles to gender equality as a global problem

At IREX, we have seen many obstacles to gender equality in our own work, from indifference to passive resistance to active challenging of equity objectives and activities. Oftentimes, the resistance to change has a boomerang effect, in which those who oppose expanded opportunities for others succeed in narrowing opportunities for themselves.

In Indonesia, we have heard from educators in Jakarta that fewer young men are enrolling in traditional secondary school, opting instead for vocational based schools, as more women have gained access to education and “feminized” the traditional classroom. In the West Bank, young men opted out of free employability skills courses at community youth centers because they perceived the high enrollment of young women in the courses as a sign of low quality.

One consequence of men and boys devaluing spaces and activities they associate with feminine gender roles and expectations is a loss of economic and educational opportunities. Another consequence is interpersonal conflict and GBV when males elect to defend what they perceive as threatening the status quo in which they enjoy predominance.  In one Senegalese school, girls routinely find themselves teased, bullied, and harassed by boys when they succeed in traditionally male dominated subjects such as math or science. As one teacher put it, the boys are pushing back to keep girls out of that space and relieve their own embarrassment or frustration at being surpassed by a female classmate.

Working through resistance for a more equitable future

There are also rays of hope, like the adolescent boys in Moldova whose reaction to the new girls’ health club at the library to learn about sexual and reproductive rights was to insist that boys needed to learn about those issues, too. There are more and more men and boys who understand their stake in gender equity efforts as one impacting not just women, but themselves. Around the world, organizations such as Sonke Gender Justice in South Africa, Promundo, and MenEngage Alliance are effectively engaging men and boys as champions of gender equality in their own best interests as well as allies for women’s empowerment.

Each year, as thousands of organizations and individuals contribute to the discussion surrounding the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, we are reminded of the importance of conversation in addressing challenges to achieving gender equality. At IREX, we ask ourselves: How can we acknowledge and address resistance and the systematic subordination of women through patriarchal power structures while also dedicating adequate resources in support of empowerment for all? How do we work with boys and men to understand that equality is not about their power being taken away, but about liberation for all genders?