Setting an expiry date for gender inequality: women’s rights and MenEngage in Delhi

Nikki van der Gaag is the author of Feminism and Men, recently published by Zed Press.


Setting an expiry date for gender inequality: women’s rights and MenEngage in Delhi

I am sitting in an auditorium at the Habitat Centre in Delhi, India, listening to a panel of feminists talking about gender equality. But this gathering of 1100 people from 94 countries is not the kind of women’s rights or gender equality event that I often attend, which is mainly women and a handful of men.

This is the second global symposium organised by MenEngage, an alliance of 700 organisations working with men for gender equality and gender justice.

And what is most interesting to me is not just the variety of people from different countries which makes for a vibrant and colourful mix, but the fact that although the conference is mainly men, one-third of the participants are women with a women’s rights or feminist background. Not only this, but many of the programmes outlined in the sessions, whether they are working with men to prevent violence, or campaigning on gay and transgender issues, or looking at men’s roles in contraception and maternal and child health, have come about because women asked for them.

Organisations like ACEV, the Mother and Child Education Forum in Turkey, which began many years ago working with mothers, but in the last four has started father’s groups in many parts of the country. I interview Pinar Arslan and Serkan Kahyaoğlu, who tell me about their ‘You are my Father’ campaign, which is part of the global MenCare campaign. The women in their programme wanted the organisation to work with their husbands, explains Pinar, to prevent violence and to make them better fathers and partners – and better human beings.

Kate Gilmore, Deputy Executive Director of UNFPA, who is blunt about the need for gender equality to include men: ‘The evidence is very very clear – engaging men and boys works’. But to engage men, she says, it is important for feminists and men alike to move out of our comfort zones and to ‘embrace deviance, diversity and discussion’.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngucka, one of my heroes and currently the Executive Director of UN Women, tells us that she is often asked: ‘Why are you working with men? Surely you are UN Women, not UN Men!’ She says that in her response she often points out that latest estimates are that it will take another 81 years to achieve gender equality and that ’81 years is too long’. She believes that the next set of global goals, which will start from 2015 must also be: ‘An expiry date for gender equality.’

On the platform with Kate and Phumzile is Rahul Bose, Indian movie star, director, screenwriter, social activist- and rugby player. He tells his own story of how his father was the cook in the house – very unusual even now and certainly very unusual in the India in which he grew up. He says he was always surprised when he went to his friends’ homes and their mothers were cooking. Nor did his father want him to play rugby. Rahul told us that it is ‘too late to tell our boys how to behave. The time has come to show them. Boys want empathy, they need to be hugged. It is too late too for institutions to say they can’t change. It is time for change – now.’

His challenge was picked up later on in the week in a session about how the men in the gender justice movement and other social movements can and must work and dialogue with the women’s movement. It was chaired by longtime Indian feminist, activist and academic Srilatha Batliwala of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development.

She pointed out that working with men does not mean that the work with women has finished. It needs to continue because: ‘women also carry forward the patriarchy.’ She makes seven clear points to sum up the session.

First, that we need to talk about patriarchy in rooted specific contexts, because oppression, including gender oppression, manifests in so many different ways.

Second, that we need to have new visions of ungendered humanity so that we can eradicate gender inequality in the foreseeable future.

Third, there is an urgent need for resources so that women’s organisations and those working with men on gender equality do not have to compete.

Fourth, that we need to beware of the language we use: ‘Women and other oppressed minorities’ is not very helpful, she notes.

Fifth, that there is a need for self-interrogation within feminist and other social movements – we need to talk about the differences and difficulties as well as celebrating common goals.

Sixth, we need to do things together, building dialogue through action, and decide who we trust to build and convene these dialogues.

Seventh, we need to work together for a new framing of our vision of development. She cautioned: ‘Always remember that you have to march with others if you want them to march with you.’

These strong female voices complemented the many men who spoke at the conference – though to my knowledge there were no panels which were male-only, to the credit of the organisers – were for me a message of hope that also came across clearly in the strong but nuanced Delhi Call to Action, which begins by noting: ‘We live in a world of profound inequalities and unbalanced power relations, where rigid norms and values about how people should behave fuel and exacerbate injustices.’

What the conference did was to send a clear message: this has to change – by men and women working together. And the 2nd MenEngage conference was another step along the road to setting the expiry date on gender inequality.

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