MenEngage’s Global Coordinator Shares His Vision at the Nordic Forum: New Actions on Women’s Rights

12-15 June, 2014

Oswaldo Montoya, global coordinator of MenEngage, was invited to share his vision for engaging men and boys at the Nordic Forum: “New Actions on Women’s Rights”. The prepared text of his remarks is included below:

One of the reasons I was drawn to feminism was because its concern is not only with gender equality, but also with changes in all social structures that discriminate people based on race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, age, nationality, ability and others. In the end, we are dealing with the same mindset of “power over” in which some think they are superior and therefore entitled to privileges, which are negated to “the others”, many of whom have internalized these beliefs, which are constantly reproduced by social institutions.

It is not a coincidence that the feminist women in Nicaragua, who in the early nineties engaged me and other men in this feminist struggle, were former activists of the Sandinista revolution during the eighties, committed with social justice and with the human rights of the poor in my country: of the peasants, the indigenous, the urban workers in informal and unsafe jobs, and opposing external imperialistic powers. They understand that gender equality only can develop as part of an entire new social order and that for that to happen men needed to be a part of it.  Oppression on the basis of gender is more obviously damaging to the majority of women, but the majority of men are also oppressed, if not by gender, by the other unequal systems of power. It is in all of our best interests to join together with women and with people from other genders to transform the status quo.

But we have a challenge here. Even when we join together (as we already are to some extent in MenEngage and other spaces), there are power issues within our movements and coalitions that come to the surface that we must name and confront. The exercise of positive and constructive power is still a rare thing in comparison to the historical and pervasive use of negative power as a means to control others, exclude and obtain advantages. Most of us grew up influenced by negative models of leaderships. That is why one essential component of our work as pro-feminist male leaders is to reflect constantly on our personal practices. How are we exerting power within our organizations and with the communities we work with?  How about in our families?  Are we promoting gender equality only in speeches and documents, but retaining our male privileges in our offices and homes? 

I started reflecting on this during my participation as youth in the Sandinista movement by the late 80s and early 90’s when I became disenchanted with the way that many leaders were using their power within the movement. They were reproducing the same model of domination that they were seemingly trying to change. Many were too busy trying to change the big social structures and fighting the “big battles” that they neglected to remain vigilant of their own day-to-day pattern of domination in how they relate to others and use public resources.

One of the reason why the MenEngage Alliance was created, as a coalition of organizations working to engage men and boys in gender equality, was precisely to support each other to increase our capacities to live our values in our practices, setting high standards of feminist work which effectively contributes to transformations of men and boys toward gender equality and moves the women’s rights agenda forward as we stand with them side-by-side.

Our alliance is made of more than 400 organizations grouped in six regional networks across the globe which exchange experiences working with men and boys, their lessons learned, their educational materials and coordinate joint advocacy campaigns on specific issues such as men’s support for sexual and reproductive health and rights, prevention of violence against women and children and engaging men as involved, non-violent fathers and caregivers.

To give some examples of our work, in Africa our MenEngage partners carried out last year capacity building activities in Kenya, Sierra Leone and Rwanda with parliamentarians, government representatives and uniformed personnel to strengthen their commitment in ending violence against women. All of them signed a pledge to find an end to this violence. It is especially strategic that we reach out and educate men serving in political bodies. Given sexism, unfortunately many of these men disregard women’s voices. Thus we men who consider ourselves as women’s allies have to support women’s leadership and speak up directly to these men so that they start listening what women have been pointing out for a long time.

In Latin America, the MenEngage regional network recently organized online discussions (google hangouts), which counted with the participation of leaders and people from more than 15 countries, and discussed how men can support women’s access to sexual and reproductive health services, including advocating for women’s right to safe and legal abortion, and why is important that men assume a greater share of the contraceptive burden. These are low cost initiatives, taking advantage of the new technologies in communication, which can be powerful (I still remember the testimony of the Mexican man who support his partner going through a difficult pregnancy and then an abortion).

In South Asia, our partners, in coordination with the International Association of Women in Radio and Television, are organizing a travelling film festival with a collection of 50 films selected to promote discussions and dialogue on issues of men, masculinities and gender equality. These films and a facilitator guide will be sent to all the regional MenEngage networks across the world as part of the preparatory processes for our II Global Symposium on Men and Gender Justice which will take place in Delhi in November this year.

In conclusion, we have to promote changes in men and boys at different levels, from the very intimate, digging in men’s hearts and minds, the interpersonal relations men engage with others in families, workplaces, communities, to the most collective level of social norms, laws and institutional practices that shape men’s lives. Working at different levels requires also a diversity of strategies. Power operates everywhere and men’s patriarchal power needs to be challenged, as well as the institutional practices reproducing patriarchy, while men’s positive and constructive power needs to be supported. Each of us has a role to play in supporting men’s transformations toward equality. Thank you.