Men and boys: allies or shareholders in the women’s rights movement?

Written by Catherine Nyambura, who self identifies as a feminist. She is a public health, gender and public policy expert with 9 years’ professional experience. She is currently the consultant, advocacy specialist (African region) for the Global Partnership for education, and Gender and Advocacy Lead at the SDGs Kenya forum.

Premising male involvement on accountability, dialogue and true partnerships

Accountability to women’s rights and to social justice movements is crucial for fostering collaboration and cross movement building. Accountability requires the development of a receptive capacity in cis-men and others who have been placed in positions of power and privilege, so that they can listen to the perspectives and needs of women’s rights movements in order to become true allies. Accountability and partnership building requires engagement in respectful dialogues, and a willingness for constant introspection and addressing issues and concerns raised by those we want to collaborate with. This is very well articulated in COFEM’s Tipsheet on Men as Allies and Activists; To be effective, male involvement programmes and male allies and activists must be accountable to women’s rights activists, women leaders and women-centered programmes. Because without doubt male involvement is critical for a gender equal society, to eliminate gender based violence and to shift patriarchal norms

Why I care and why I should have an opinion

As a feminist, international development practitioner and women’s rights advocate I am privileged to hold leadership in various capacities. This provides me with opportunities to be part of those working towards a gender equal society. Most importantly is the platform and opportunity to learn and share experiences with peers through cross movement partnerships. With that opportunity is a particularly rare and valuable chance to share my opinion and contribute to the discourse on feminist movement building. This comes with working in dynamic environments, often tackling complex issues and in diverse contexts.

Various groups, including women’s rights movements and social justice movements, have begun to challenge global patriarchal power structures in an important way. This over time has borne fruit and brought with it clarity about the multi-dimensional ways in which power structures manifest. Most critical to note are the intersectionalities and multiple layers of discrimination women and girls in their diversity have to contend with.

Central to women’s rights organizing is the never ending discussion and overly romanticized conversation of male involvement. The verdict of how men and boys can support the women’s rights movement, either as allies or distant supporters is yet to be concluded. Personally as a feminist, it is very exciting to constantly engage and contend with issues that define my journey. I also acknowledge that I may not fully understand all the issues at all times and note my personal and residual bias may. However discourses such as those of male involvement provide opportunities for  true reflection, movement building and cohesive collective action are presented in spaces that allow for healing and strategic thinking around framing and mobilization with other sisters.

What does this look like practically?

In the past, a fellow alumnus of the Women Deliver Young leaders from Brazil brought up the Facebook message below to our attention. This got us thinking and ignited a discourse around men and boys that brought forth very exciting revelations.

It is my position and opinion that men and boys who are well-intentioned and set out to support women’s movements may not fully understand how sacred feminist spaces and especially female only spaces are for those engaging with them,  so I will take a stab at explaining. The spaces provide safe havens for women — trans, migrant, women living with disability and those facing various forms of discrimination — to heal and reflect. The healing comes from critiquing the system that advances these forms of oppression and strategizing how to engage effectively to bring about change. They/ we should be able to do this unapologetically. My understanding of male involvement is not for men to join sister circles, rather take the spaces they have access to and make them feminist. That would be the better way of being an ally if at all there were any prescriptions being handed

To effectively support women and girls’ rights organizing, men and boys have to be fully aware of the power dynamics that are brought forth by their engagement. Their advantage in terms of power and privilege is something they should be acutely aware of. Men and boys have been part of socialization that normalizes violence against women in various forms and advances misogynistic culture. Without acute awareness and self-reflection, reproducing these values even in the most subtle ways may jeopardize gains made by and for women and girls. Unquestioned aggression also means that men and boys may take up spaces — either sub consciously or not — and stand in the way of women and girls taking leadership on issues that have been at the forefront of multi-layered discrimination.

The framing of issues is best understood by those who have been violated by the system, so to be part of the movement would also mean a deliberate effort to enable women and girls to define issues as they are affected by them, as well as whatever strategies and interventions that challenge the status quo. We have seen and know too well male champions whose sole commitment to women’s rights is because they have wives, sisters, daughters and so forth. This reduces the need for challenging harmful social norms due to the notion of women as proxy to men. In addition, this reinforces the idea of men saving the women in their lives from ‘other’ men. I could go on and on. The other notions that are borderline instrumentalist in themselves continue to justify male’s involvement from the better society we all get when we have gender equality, which reduces women to tools of economic growth for men again.

So then, is there a right way to go about it?

The question of engaging men and boys is complex and should be treated as such. The question on how to engage men and boys has practically proven to be the million dollar question it is, especially given the financial resources that have gone in to it. At a time when only one percent of funding for gender equality and women’s empowerment goes to women’s rights organizations. While it offers a real and meaningful opportunity to get more allies to support the struggle for women and girls’ rights, it is as well a platform to confront patriarchal norms in a deep and structural manner that they manifest. Reactionary and oversimplified campaign slogans will not cut it.

While wrapping up, it is important to remember that it is feminists who actually highlighted the need to engage men and boys. This remains true and important to tackle toxic masculinity; however doing it should not undo years and decades of feminist organizing.

To all the men and boys who work towards gender equality, we appreciate your support as allies. The movement can only get stronger when all hands are on deck.