In conversation with MenEngage regional leaders: re-examining the personal and political

Interviews compiled by Oswaldo Montoya and Derek Siegel

Written by Derek Siegel, Communications Intern, MenEngage Global Secretariat  

Sitting down with most of the leaders of our regional MenEngage networks, it becomes clear that our movement is intertwined with a series of individual journeys. Our personal experiences are varied: some men have always been interested in gender equality work, while others joined at different points in their careers. We represent activism, education, our families and communities. And as our regional leaders convey in their stories, there is no single pathway to involvement.

 

This segment is based on a series of interviews with:

Peter Weller of the Caribbean Male Action Network (CariMAN)

Remmy Shawa of MenEngage Africa

Tomas Agnemo of MenEngage Europe Network

Douglas Mendoza of MenEngage Latinoamerica

Chuck Derry of North American MenEngage Network (NAMEN)

 

Searching for organizational gaps. Active in our respective fields, we observe the work being neglected. Most MenEngage leaders, therefore, can identify a particular moment when they realized that men are rarely engaged as gender rights activists. Remmy Shawa, who coordinates MenEngage Africa, recalls attending a workshop as an intern in Namibia, surprised to learn that gender could relate to work with men and boys. When he returned to Zambia, Remmy co-founded a project called Men and Gender, “training educators and combining HIV and gender so they could provide outreach to male students.” Similarly, Peter Weller started a project that developed into the Caribbean Male Action Network (CariMAN) when realizing that “while there were academic groups working on masculinity and gender, nobody was trying to translate that into intervention toward social change.”

Other MenEngage leaders reflect on the structural challenges that discourage men from participating in gender equality work, or in other words, why these organizational gaps exist. Douglas Mendoza, one of the coordinators from MenEngage Latinoamérica, describes the backdrop of conservatism that denounces feminism in his region. Social pressures invoke “resistance, embarrassment, and the belief that men will never change.” Men are reluctant to organize because they lack the skills and experiences to do so. According to Chuck Derry, focal person for the North American MenEngage Network, men are also reluctant to give up their male privilege and the “goodies they are promised” as long as they adhere to traditional gender norms.

Pursuing your interests and skills. These profeminist men joined the gender equality movement from a variety of fields and backgrounds. Peter taught psychology and was a practicing therapist, with an interest in health-promotion and risk-taking. Remmy identifies primarily as a HIV and AIDS activist. For Tomas Agnemo, coordinator of MenEngage Europe, gender-based advocacy can and must intersect with other social issues. He shares his experiences as an activist with the environmental and peace movements, elaborating on our stake in one another’s security: “after all, anti-feminists are usually the same people as anti-racists.”

Douglas, on the other hand, has always focused on gender equality work. Before partnering with MenEngage Latinoamérica, he helped young men develop dialogue skills with women and their peers: “through games and school activities, we want to raise boys with an understanding of gender equality. We don’t want them to pass 12-13 years where boys touch girls without their consent and teachers dismiss this as ‘boys simply being boys.’” By cultivating his individual passion, Douglas—like the other regional coordinators—has been able to negotiate and address the many facets of gender inequalities.

Reflecting on your own experiences. It can be difficult to explore our role as activists without personally identifying with gender oppression. For many of our regional coordinators, these moments of reflection ignite political advocacy. Douglas acknowledges the role of fatherhood in elevating his own work: “As a father, I felt motivated to improve my relationship with my children by challenging my beliefs about masculinity.” Tomas recalls his experience as a student, joining an informal group of men, most of them with feminist degrees. They would discuss private and personal issues, rather than political ones, but this exploration of his own masculinity provided Tomas a gateway into the work he has been doing for the past 15 years.

Connecting with other activists. We’re not engaging in this work alone. By reaching out to other passionate individuals and organizations, we broaden the impact of our work; our regional coordinators stand out for this ability to network and share resources. From MenEngage Africa, Remmy connected with us through Sonke Inc at the African Regional Support Center in Johannesburg. “I met with other passionate young people and we agreed to start an in-country network for Zambia.” After participating on the regional steering committee, Remmy was selected as its regional coordinator. Not all of the coordinators share this same experience. Recognizing the potential of a collective European voice, Tomas describes using his position at Men For Gender Equality (MFJ) in Sweden to communicate with other leaders on the continent. After a successful attempt at forming, the new European MenEngage steering committee will determine its short- and long-term goals.

An important part of networking includes using structure to your advantage. From North America, Chuck explains that although the regional network has no intentions to break into country networks, there is much to consider. “What are the needs of each country?” he asks, “Are there Canadian vs. US differences?” For that matter, what defines a European or an African interest? There are no simple answers to these questions. At the end of the day, however, we must acknowledge that activism is both personal and collective. Even as we cultivate a global vision for gender equality, progress requires passionate individuals pursuing their own interests and creating change in their own communities.

 

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