Men as change agents for gender justice = social justice

by Nadja Schuster

© Patrizia Gapp

Nadja Schuster, sociologist and feminist, works with the VIDC on the thematic areas of Gender with a special focus on Engaging Men and Boys, Human Trafficking, Sex Work, Migration and Development, Parliaments and Development Cooperation and Policy Coherence for Development (PCD). Her latest publications deal with diaspora engagement and the implementation of PCD in Austria. She participated at the Global Symposium of MenEngage in New Delhi, thereby reaffirming her commitment to strive for gender justice in alliance with feminist men and boys.

The VIDC enjoys historical ties with India: the institute was founded in 1962 by Bruno Kreisky, socialist Chancellor of Austria (1970 - 1983), on the initiative of the Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, together with other politicians from the Global South such as Tom Mboya from Kenya and Ahmed Ben Salah from Tunisia. In 1993, more than 30 years after the foundation of the institute, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action affirmed women's rights as full universal and indivisible human rights. According to Charlotte Bunch, a leading figure at the Vienna Tribunal, this Declaration initiated a “process of integration of women and gender-based abuses into human rights theory and practice that is still on-going” (VIDC Newsletter Nr. 25). The connection between VIDC and India continues to the present day.
VIDC participated in the Second MenEngage Global Symposium “Men and Boys for Gender Justice” held from 10 - 13 November 2014 in New Delhi. It marks nearly twenty years since the Beijing Platform for Action was adopted and which called on the engagement of men and boys for the achievement of gender equality. In that spirit, UN Women, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the Centre for Health and Social Justice, the MenEngage steering committee member organizations, Sonke Gender Justice and Promundo gathered 1,200 participants from 94 countries. Notably, one third of the participating organizations were women’s rights organizations.


New Delhi as the location for the symposium was chosen deliberately for two good reasons. First, India can look back on a long-lasting history of democratic empowerment and grass-roots struggle for freedom and social justice. Second, the brutal gang rape in December 2012, in a private bus in Delhi, and the consequential death of a 23-year old paramedical student, was a powerful wake-up call for the country resulting in thunderous community-led protests against rape and other forms of violence against women. This has not only led to a countrywide outcry but also to a worldwide debate on sexual violence and a plea to end the impunity of perpetrators. More generally, it has brought the issue of gender justice to the fore.
The feminist movement in India and elsewhere, which includes pro-feminist men and boys, as represented by the MenEngage Network, demands the recognition of violence against women as a severe human rights violation, and calls upon the state’s responsibility to amend laws, prosecute (including arresting and putting to trial), and develop and implement fully-funded national action plans to address gender based violence. As one example of civil society mobilization for a comprehensive national response to gender-based violence, just recently several thousand people in Cape Town and Johannesburg, many of which were men and youth, took their demands to the streets and submitted a petition to the South African Minister of Women in the Presidency and to the Parliament.
When we take stock in 2015 of the successes of the past 20 years since Beijing, the expansion of the MenEngage Network and its social, political, economic, legal and policy impact in the field of engaging men and boys will come to mind. The network, consisting of over 600 organizations across the world, including international organizations, UN partners and 40 country networks, six regional networks, has been growing rapidly since its formal establishment in 2006. It is important to emphasize that MenEngage fully recognizes the achievements of the women’s movement and acknowledges that feminist, women-led organizations have built the foundations for gender work. In the strong cooperative character and the shared vision of comprehensive gender justice work lie the greatest strengths of the network. The VIDC, which has been working in the field of gender and development, gender and conflict and men and boys for gender equality for several years, is proud to be a member of the MenEngage Europe Network since 2014.
Why is it crucial to work with men and boys? Men should be seen as part of the solution, not part of the problem because their active engagement is indispensable to abolish patriarchy and gender-based violence. Social and gender-transformative norms must be internalized by boys and men and should consequently result in behavioral changes. Early involvement of boys is crucial. According to Lori Heise from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, children understand the gender roles and norms at the age of six. Thus, comprehensive education on sexuality, including gender norms and roles is paramount to building an equal, non-violent and gender-just society. Besides, feminist men impact other men’s gender identities and behavior, specifically of those who abuse their power and benefit from institutionalized privileges and hegemonic masculinity. Equally important is men’s involvement in the fight for sexual and reproductive health and rights for women – taking into account their own rights, needs and vulnerabilities. However, there is strong resistance from conservative stakeholders such as the Vatican, many faith-based organizations and a considerable number of political leaders.

© Demelza Bush

Lessons learned from the field and research show that engaging men and boys undisputedly affects the wellbeing of the society as a whole – including LGBTIQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer/Questioning) – in a positive way. In addition, not only does it have a high societal impact, but it also contributes considerably to the economy. This is shown in a recently published report by the accounting firm KPMG which reveals that the economic impact of gender-based violence in South Africa costs roughly 1% of its GDP. Notwithstanding, it is important to highlight the fact that men are not a homogenous group; there are men who do not reap the benefits from being part of patriarchal structures and male-dominated hierarchies. On the contrary, quite a few of them have experienced violence, discrimination, racism and homophobia themselves. Thus, an increasing number of men are empathic towards women and understand ‘the otherness’ as they share their concerns and are keen to transform hegemonic masculinity concepts. Such factors as race, age, class, caste, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion and ability play an important role for gender inequality. In other words, gender identity is determined by multiple identities. As a result, MenEngage is committed to an intersectional approach that embraces diversity. Related to this, UNFPA Executive Director Kate Gilmore strongly affirmed: “We need more deviance, positive deviance. We need more disruptive discourse. We do not need to agree on everything but we need tolerance and acceptance”.
One of the commonly agreed and repeated notions at the symposium was that “gender justice is social justice” as it goes far beyond gender binaries. There was a request to respect diversity and to protect and promote human rights of all human beings irrespective of their gender and other identities. Gender justice, understood as social justice, impinges on the right to education, health, decent work, non-violence and equal opportunities for all. There is an increasing necessity to identify and unite allies in the name of international solidarity. The future challenge will be to explore ways how to unite the feminist movement – including MenEngage – with the youth movement,  and how to put a shared vision of gender equality and a just society into practice (15th December 2014).