Struggles for Gender Equality - Reflections on the place of men and men's organisations

The increasing focus on men and men’s organisations within development is seen by some as a new fad, the latest silver bullet to achieving gender equality, and a threat to women’s organisation and women’s movements. In this view, donor attention to men’s organisations seems to signify a shift of support away from women’s empowerment and women’s leadership, and a handing over of the reins in the struggle for gender equality to men.

Richard Lee's picture

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Strategic communications for WWF

November 23rd, 2011

The increasing focus on men and men’s organisations within development is seen by some as a new fad, the latest silver bullet to achieving gender equality, and a threat to women’s organisation and women’s movements. In this view, donor attention to men’s organisations seems to signify a shift of support away from women’s empowerment and women’s leadership, and a handing over of the reins in the struggle for gender equality to men. Men are once more in charge – only this time they’re in charge of women’s liberation struggles.As confusion sets in over the core issues (is it masculinity?) and the leading actors (is it men?) in struggles for gender equality, the hard-won focus on women’s position within development, and the role of women’s movements in redressing women’s subordination, and their strategic gender interests seem to be under threat. The confusion over core issues and leading actors takes place in a context of backlash against feminist gains. Feminist movements are in decline, and feminist demands have been depoliticised within development.Concepts developed in feminist movements, once they entered the fields of development organisations and the arenas of state, were stripped of all notions of power and politics and were given meanings more suited to the technical worlds of development and state institutions. Feminist gains in getting development and state institutions to take notice of their demands thus led to new struggles, and over the past decades an ongoing feminist concern has been how to repoliticise feminist concepts.Gender, stripped of ideas of male privilege and female subordination, came to mean that women and men suffered equally the costs of the existing gender order. Women’s organisations were increasingly asked ‘if you are working on gender, then where are the men?’ and they were increasingly pressurised (particularly by donors) to include men. On the heels of this pressure, a new development actor came into focus – men’s organisations. The existence of already-weakened women’s organisations was now further threatened, and feminist attempts at movement-building faced additional challenges.The relationship between men’s organisations for gender equality and feminist organisations is an uneasy one. Should feminists embrace this new ally? Or are feminists wise to maintain a suspicious and safe distance as they find ways to regroup, so as to re-politicise and continue their struggles to advance women’s rights and gender equality in the face of backlash?In order to understand the place of men’s organisations in the struggle for gender equality, I suggest we go back to basics, to remind ourselves of the core issues in the project of gender equality. We need to locate an understanding of men’s movements within a broader understanding of the rise of feminism as a response to women’s subordination, and within an understanding of how feminist demands have been depoliticised within development. It is only against this backdrop that we can begin to understand how men’s organisations have become a part of the development landscape, and we can then begin to frame informed and meaningful questions about the place of men’s organisations in struggles for gender equality.Following this logic, in chapter two of this paper, I look at the rise of feminism in the 1960s, and at the understandings and strategies that fired feminist ideas and the practice of women’s liberation.In chapter three I attempt to understand the shifts that took place and the trends that developed as ideas of women’s liberation travelled from the brave world of movements into the technical field of development. These included shifts from women in development, to gender and development, to gender mainstreaming, rights and development, and to work with men.In chapter four I look at men’s responses to gender relations, and at strategies for working with men. I look firstly at men’s responses to the rise of 1960s feminism in the USA. I then provide an overview of men’s organisations in South Africa, and look at the developing trend of women’s organisations working with men around violence against women.In chapter five I reassess the core issues, leading actors, and key strategies in struggles for gender equality, and attempt to unravel the confusion created by the de-politicisation of struggle concepts within development and the focus on men.In chapter six I look at two organisations in Southern Africa – Padare Men’s Forum (based in Zimbabwe), and Sonke Gender Justice (based in South Africa). I argue that these organisations could more meaningfully contribute to gender equality through consolidating their work in communities with both women and men through an approach which considers the intersections of race, class, gender and other social relations from a feminist perspective.Finally, in chapter seven, I offer some conclusions.Download and read the full paper here. And then join the debate - do you think men and men's organisations are helping or harming the struggle for gender equality? 

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