How men’s engagement advances gender equality
Could involving men in women’s empowerment programmes increase their impact?
Could involving men in women’s empowerment programmes increase their impact? After all, if both men and women engage in change as allies fostering mutual transformation, then the changes achieved are likely to be smoother, faster, more extensive and more enduring. Moreover, once the benefits of a woman taking control of her reproduction, employment, savings and investments emerge, then both the man and woman become advocates of the increased quality of life they have achieved.
We’ve been working with Hand in Hand International in Tanzania and Women for Women International in Rwanda since 2019 to put this assumption to the test. The two organisations have been conducting a five-year field trial led by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), which analyses existing women empowerment programmes that have brought men into their efforts in a meaningful way to address gender imbalances and shift the perceptions, attitudes and behaviours both of men and women.
While progress will be monitored over the full five years, the preliminary results are already promising, with more women in paid employment, more land registered jointly as couples, better communication between couples, improved attitudes to gender equality and reduced acceptance of intimate partner violence.
REACHING HEARTS, CHANGING MINDS
The traditional culture of the Maasai people, passed down over the generations for thousands of years, is known the world over. Less well known is a huge gender divide, which sees women traditionally take on all the childcare and domestic duties, while men head up the family as breadwinners, primary decision-makers, financial controllers and sometimes the perpetrators of violence on women, including their own wives.
In Tanzania, the study is comparing two groups in Maasai communities. In the control group in Nduruma, a small town in north-east Tanzania, only the women are receiving gender equality and business skills training, whereas men and women are both involved in the nearby town of Mlangarini.
“There was greater acceptance of women working outside the home, men doing domestic work and equitable decision making, together with increased awareness of gender-based violence by the end of the preliminary study, especially in the Mlangarini group where men and women both received training,” says Isabel Creixell, Programme Development Manager at Hand in Hand International.
Moreover, the changes weren’t restricted to perceptions and attitudes but extended to behaviours as well.
“It was heartening to see a man walk by tending a herd of goats when I was sitting in a training session with 30 women,” she says. “Men don't usually tend goats, which is considered a woman’s job, but he’d agreed to do it while his wife attended training. Another woman told me that when she was sick her husband agreed to go and fetch water for her. Some couples are also talking about financial issues and making plans together, whereas previously women and men would hide their incomes from their partners. We’re seeing improvements both in income and savings in the families involved in the trial.”
THE NEED FOR COMMUNITY BUY-IN
Culturally-embedded perceptions and practices can’t be changed from outside. It’s essential for the local community to drive each change, seeing and desiring the benefits of the approach. So, all the trainers are locals, with male trainers working with men and female trainers working with women. It’s important to provide men and women with spaces where they can feel safe discussing and reflecting on their roles and attitudes independently.
A key driver of change was also to involve village leaders and cultural gatekeepers in relaying messages to the community.
“Our staff talked to village leaders beforehand and asked them what they wanted to address,” says Isabel. “We needed to explore their problems from their point of view to find out how we could address them.”
At first, men were resistant to discussions and potential change. Some even behaved aggressively to the trainers. But their attitudes changed when they could see the benefits for them and their families.
Allie McGonagle Glinski, Associate Director at the International Center for Research on Women, who conducted the study that led to the field trial, explains: “Some of the programmes that have been most successful in engaging men focus on fatherhood and caregiving roles. Men can immediately see the benefits both for them and their children by being more present in this way. Traditionally, caregiving roles have been seen as weak.”
“We should not forget that men are also harmed by pressure to fit the mould of what it means to be a ‘good man’ - the sole breadwinner for their family, the one who always has an answer and makes the decisions for the household,” says Allie.
Deconstructing the idea of masculinity – the notions of control, entitlement and “real men” that define young men and boys – is part of the challenge.
ONE SIZE DOESN'T FIT ALL
Following the same approach everywhere doesn’t work. “You can even find significant differences between one village and the next,” explains Isabel.
Recognising this, the training delivered by the Men Engage programme that Women for Women runs in Rwanda, has been tailored for the country. Although only just past the half-way mark, the initiative has seen some very positive changes.
Mellisa Mazingi, Women for Women International’s Great Lakes Director, says: “Most of the men that have gone through positive masculinity training have become change agents, helping their communities understand the importance of promoting women in society by supporting them to become socially and economically inclusive."
Change takes time, however, and is not always met favourably. Women’s economic empowerment can initially even lead to increases in violence by male partners who feel threatened by their spouses’ new independence.
“One of our women participants was elected as a health worker and representative of women,” says Mellisa. “One day, after attending a meeting, she bought some curtains using her allowance. Her husband burned all the curtains and stopped her attending again.”
But there have been many more positive cases of change by the men involved.
In one case, a husband was opposed to his wife becoming a community mediator. He disapproved of the bicycle she had been given to help her in her work and sometimes even prevented her going to meetings. During the training, he began seeing things very differently: “When we had a session on masculinities, being a man, power dynamics and the roles of women in economy and leadership, I realized how much I was harming my wife. Since then, I started cooling down and knowing that I must support my wife to perform her duties well.” Now he even helps by dropping her off at the meetings with her bicycle.
A couple whose marriage had broken down and had separated, in large part due to the husband’s alcohol problems and violence, completely turned their relationship around. He says: “Today, I am supportive of my wife. I know we have equal rights and need to support each other. I reduced the quantity and the frequency of my alcohol consumption. Now we discuss every project together and I am an involved father.” As a result, they have renovated their house, bought a cow, are renting two pieces of land for agricultural use, have bought a water tank as well as bedding material for their house, and are practicing modern family planning methods.
“There’s increased awareness of gender equity in general. We’re working in communities that have never previously heard of it or discussed whether men should be helping more at home, including wives in decision making or making financial plans together,” says Isabel. “It’s baby steps now but they’ll translate into significant future outcomes.”
SHARING WHAT WE LEARN
The five-year field trial aims to build the evidence base for working with men and boys to promote gender equality. The lessons learnt will then be built into a male engagement best practices toolkit developed by the ICRW which will be shared sector wide.
Photo credits : Header © Hand in Hand / Georgina Goodwin