Contesting and Concurring – Women’s Empowerment: What do Men have to do with it?

It’s not just A Question of Men. The way feminism and gender and development discourse has dealt with – or rather failed to deal with – Men is part of a broader problem of essentialised labelling. As AWID  has recently written, because the labelling we use no longer (if ever it did) reflects complex realities, the net can be cast too wide in identifying who is a fundamentalist and sometimes there’s a failure to spot closet fundamentalists.¹ In the process, precious opportunities for potential alliances are lost and some damaging partnerships are made. The trick, then, is to assess agendas rather than the person – in the case of men – look at their politics, and the outcomes of their behaviour for the people around them, and not their physical equipment.

Development programming is beset by pendulum-like swings of fashion, which arise out of the international development bureaucracy’s need for sanitised sound bites rather than depictions of messy reality. If people are seen as having intersecting identities that are mutually constitutive, then we start understanding the categories Men and Women in more useful ways, and in ways that, as Cornwall and Esplen note, place a power analysis centre stage. Also, what we need, and you’ll excuse the gritted-teeth irony here, is a bit more ‘mainstreaming’ of masculinities work, so the stop-go masculinity fashions are laid to rest and also “Gender and Development” no longer just translates as “don’t forget the women”. We need policy and programmes that take into account both the fact that refugees and the displaced are primarily women and children, and that men and boys are primarily the ones getting shot and maimed in conflicts.

And finally, development programming so far has failed to address personal attitudes and behaviour: the business about sharing the dishwashing. So much of the feminist, human rights and development focus has been on getting law and policy changed; getting service-delivery sorted; and getting ‘people out there’ to change. Many feminist men still don’t do the dishes at home because like the human rights activist women who maltreat their domestic servants or behave badly towards fellow women activists, they haven’t internalised the change. This bit goes beyond the pat statements about structural dimensions of power and may be more simply rendered as caring for others (a concept that can contain something for all genders). While religious fundamentalists certainly don’t care in the proper sense for others, at least their use of a non-jargonistic language of care, support, responsibility, community, and family is getting them support they don’t deserve.

Feminists – including the biologically male, female and transgender – need to find new ways of interpreting this language in their own lives and then move on to working out how it may work for others. The We Can campaign to end VAW in South Asia, claims to have 2.7 million signed up Changemakers,² achieved through a strategy of avoiding blame and encouraging whatever change a person feels able to make in their own lives. Even if just 1 per cent of the men and women who have signed up actually end up working towards a life without violence, that’s 27,000 people. That’s a serious change.

So, while I’d broadly agree with many of the contentions in Cornwall and Esplen’s contribution, I think they’ve failed to place it in the wider context of a general problem of development analysis.

And finally, one point perhaps of disagreement: segregation in development work isn’t always the norm. It was only when I started activist and development engagement in Britain that I came across the rigid gender segregation of rights work: marches and meetings where men and boys were explicitly not welcome. In Pakistan I’d seen a man as the Director of War Against Rape, Lahore; community men training as paralegals to advance women’s rights; village imams help women paralegal trainees scale hillsides to reach their training; male judges, lawyers, journalists defending women’s rights through the legal system and the media. They may have been a minority but they were always welcomed. In some ways a supposedly segregated society was less segregated in its approach to women’s rights work.

Cassandra Balchin

¹ In the conclusion to a report due out soon, For a Future without Fundamentalisms: Analysing Religious Fundamentalist Strategies and Feminist Responses, AWID

² We Can End All Violence Against Women

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