“Barbershop” conference with men on gender equality will include women

Photos Barbershop articleJoni van de Sand, Co-coordinator and Advocacy Manager of MenEngage, shares some reflections on the upcoming Barbershop conference, this week January 14 & 15.

The Barbershop Conference is an initiative by Iceland and Suriname “aimed at changing the way men talk about gender equality and engage themselves.” The event takes place at the United Nations headquarters in New York, in the lead-up to the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (Beijing+20). The conference also aligns with #HeForShe, UN Women’s campaign for engaging men and boys as advocates for gender equality and women’s and girls’ rights. It is the first time that such an High-Level event focusing on the roles of men and boys takes place. 

When the Ministers for Foreign Affairs of Iceland and Suriname launched the idea at the UN General Assembly in September 2014, it was controversial. It seemed a “men only” event where women would be excluded from. Feminists from all walks of life voiced their disapproval through (social) media. So did men active in the gender equality field, among which MenEngage members, largely behind the screens.

Looking at the program now, it becomes evident that Iceland and Suriname have made the right decision: women will not be excluded at any point from the event. Women will be welcome as participants, and the session “What makes a man”, organized by MenEngage Board member Todd Minerson from the White Ribbon Campaign, will include a “women’s voices” panel – in which I along with three other women participate. We congratulate Iceland and Suriname on their boldness to organize this possibly game-changing conference.

Why is it so important that women are part of this conversation “among men”?

A lot can be said in favor of creating spaces where a group of people who share similar issues can meet, feel at ease, and safely talk about the what affects them. This has long been an argument of women’s rights advocates too, and there continue to be many projects around the world which focus on creating safe spaces for women. The same can be said for creating spaces where men can talk among themselves about masculinities and power. About their experiences with violence, fatherhood, sexuality and health. The personal is political, so personal reflection, sharing experiences, learning from each other – are important for men to change in their personal lives, and be(come) activists at a more political level. What is key is that for real change, the work with women and girls and the work with men and boys have to come together. After all, gender equality is a matter of relations between people, as part of larger systems that perpetuates inequalities. You can not address those by working in isolation.

The “Barbershop” conference is a public space, in particular a political forum. It is still far from common that women are participating in such spaces, let alone women’s voices actually being heard. Iceland’s foreign minister wondered “where are the men?” but the fact is that when it comes to diplomacy, in most cases it is still men who do the majority of talking and negotiating. Even at the annual UN Commission on the Status of Women. So especially a High-Level political event such as the Barbershop has to engage women leaders, including activists, representatives of civil society, scholars, government or UN representatives.

Guiding principles

MenEngage members aim to work as allies with women and existing women’s rights organizations. This is one of the Alliance’s core-principles. We stand in solidarity with the on-going struggles for women’s empowerment and rights, and seek to positively engage men and boys because we believe this works to generate change. We work in collaboration with and strive to hold ourselves accountable to women’s rights advocates and existing efforts to promote the rights of women and girls. And, we do not support “men’s rights” organizations. We are fundamentally opposed to groups that perpetuate privilege and patriarchy.

Part of that approach is to recognize and acknowledge the groundbreaking work of feminist activists over 100 years. It has been these women who have generated the knowledge we have today, including about patriarchy. And let’s not forget, men have always been part of those movements and of the activities organized. However not in large numbers yet, and this needs to change. Unique about the “Barbershop” event is that “high-level” men will be challenged to not only think like politicians representing their “flags”, but as human beings with a gender identity.

Not a silver bullet

There is a risk though. Now that engaging men and boys in gender equality work is increasingly becoming popular and visible, it should not become an approach of “add men and stir”. We need a transformative approach. Working on gender equality essentially means addressing inequalities in power. A recent publication together with UN Women and UNFPA about 20 years since the groundbreaking Beijing Platform for Action challenges power dynamics. Engaging men and boys as a critical piece to challenge the structures, beliefs, practices, and institutions that sustain men’s privileges. This includes reflecting on and changing one’s own usage of power – in the household, in the family, at work. In particular by men as role-models for other men, and as decision makers in many of these spaces. Including in our very own civil society organizations that we are working in.

We need men as allies for women’s rights, gender equality, and social justice. And not as a chivalry to women, but because of a real-felt sense of urgency that gender inequality, including women’s rights violations, violations of LGBTQI rights, SRHR violations, child-rights violations, etc. are a grave injustice. And from a conviction that men and boys have a responsibility to stop these gender injustices. It is great to be able to say that men and boys can clearly benefit from this as well. One such aspect where we all need to work side-by-side, is to “enlarge the pie” of energy and resources that are directed to gender equality and women’s rights works.

“Post-2015” – Changing the game for sustainable development 

The conference is timely. One of its goals is to put men’s responsibilities in gender equality “firmly on the political agenda of the United Nations and its member states.” The coming months governments will negotiate a new global agenda for international cooperation and sustainable development. It is called the “Post-2015” process, after the new set of goals that will subside the Millennium Development Goals ending 2015. This is a unique momentum to set a transformative agenda that addresses the underlying causes of poverty and (gender) inequalities. The Post-2015 Development Agenda must embrace a human rights-based approach and transform unequal power relations between women and men. Here are some suggestions by MenEngage for how to do so.

Hopefully, the Barbershop conference will contribute beyond a change in how men look after a haircut, but in how men think and act as political actors committed to equality and justice for all.