20.06.2007 - Article
Women’s rights and masculinities: Calls for a new human and social pact
Some deep-rooted clichés probably did not survive the Conference organized on 8 June 2007 in Berne by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. And the apparently austere theme of "Women’s Rights and Masculinities, other Perspectives on Gender Mainstreaming" crumbled under the passionate onslaught of the Conference’s speakers – players with first-hand experience of the changes wrought by the "gender" approach in respect of policies, civil society and individuals in countries as diverse as India, Cuba, South Africa, Vietnam and Tajikistan.
The slight but energetic sari-clad woman on the rostrum declared: "We have to join in the political debate at all levels to make ourselves heard, without having to fear angry outbursts from our male colleagues whenever we disagree with them". Aleyamma Vijayan, a true militant who has been at the head of the Sakhi Women’s Resource Center, a Kerala women's association, for ten years, set the tone of this Conference revolving around the call, by women and men, for a change in outlook at all levels of society.
Kerala – from words to deeds
Kerala, regarded as one of the most socially advanced Indian States, is highly decentralized and has included progressing equal opportunities for men and women in its five-year plans for over twenty years. However, for words to become deeds requires total vigilance on the part of women like Aleyamma who are constantly pushing for action in a political world with profoundly macho traditions to ensure that these good resolutions slowly become reality, finally allowing women to participate in decision-making processes, starting with those of immediate concern to them.
The "gender-sensitive budget" – a tool for social change
In a resolutely bottom-up approach, the Sakhi Women's Resource Center aims to be closely involved with women’s concerns, in the context of their lives and in connection with the various local women's groups. However, the Center also takes an active part in national and international debates fuelled by the topics of development, feminism and health. The preferred areas of involvement of Aleyamma and those she refers to as "her sisters" include public finances, particularly the "gender-responsive budget" as a gender-sensitive lever that can bring about genuine progress towards equal opportunity. Behind their highly technical facade, these accounting tools actually represent powerful instruments for the social change which committed women must know how – and be able – to influence.
Cuba: smashing a masculinity model
The words "social change" are music to the ears of Julio Cesar Gonzàlez Pagès, assistant professor of philosophy at Havana University. For this researcher who is deeply involved in civil society and men’s affairs, there is an urgent need to redefine masculinities in societies where they are closely linked to the concept of "machismo". To achieve real progress towards mutual respect in social and human relations, the model of masculinity linked to dominance – and hence to violence, that canker of Latin-American societies – needs to be smashed.
Violence does not mean more power but less emotion
The stakes are therefore inevitably political. "It's a question of breaking this vicious circle of a violent force which is believed to be synonymous with more power", Julio Cesar Gonzàlez Pagès explained. "In reality, this expression of masculinity brings not more but less – an amputation of emotion that betrays a strong sense of insecurity and which stands in the way of love, solidarity and social interchange". He also stresses the importance of proper understanding of the feminist movement so as to redefine the meanings of masculinity – a feminism which is not (according to some of its detractors) female "machismo" but the enhancing of diversity.
South Africa: masculinity as a public-health crisis
In South Africa, another highly sensitive area, Dean Peacock is working on this very change of model in the Sonke Gender Justice Network. In this country, the real-life expression of masculinity amounts to a "public-health crisis". For instance, an average of one man in four resorts to rape or sexual violence in rural areas. Out-and-out risk taking is also a symbol of this failing masculinity which associate self-protection, or the protection of others, with fearful reactions. To change this vision which drastically disrupts social relations in general and relations between women and men in particular, simultaneous action has to be taken at all levels of society. Dean Peacock mentioned cooperation with the government, especially on national campaigns, mobilizing of the civil community and the media, targeted awareness-raising programmes, dialogue with women's organizations, as well as promoting human rights and social justice.
Towards a new self-definition of the male psyche
Alongside men and young people, the Sonke Gender Justice Network works with other partners on a tremendously broad front, but awareness is slowly dawning. Fifty percent of South African men now believe that the government should do more to put an end to violence against women. The heightened profile of non-violence as an expression of manliness, the image of a new strength which respects and protects, and of a happiness achieved by relations based on fairness and love are gradually encouraging the male psyche to redefine itself.
Vietnam: day-by-day mentoring
In her detailed description of the day-by-day anger-management coaching of groups of men, Nguyen Than Giang – a member of the SDC's staff in Vietnam – emphasized that this awareness-raising work within the framework of a cooperation project is a protracted process based on techniques such as listening, symbolic representation and role play and one which has to be tackled at individual level to achieve maximum impact.
Tajikistan: a drastic retrograde step
But as Shahrigul Amirjanova, the SDC's representative in Tajikistan, reminded the audience in her impassioned presentation, relations between men and women are always a reflection of a political situation. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the situation of women in Tajikistan deteriorated sharply, as this small country with its shortage of basic resources returned to its feudal structures, re-establishing polygamy and relegating women to subordinate roles. This example proved – if proof were still needed – that gender inequality is nothing more than a flouting of human rights and the trampling underfoot of social justice, to the detriment of society as a whole.
Gender – a priority, cross-cutting topic for the SDC
According to Annemarie Sancar, SDC expert in this field: "When the concept of gender is evoked, people often mistakenly believe that it only applies to women. That's why it was very important for us to link "women's rights" and "masculinities" and to hear men committed to helping other men talk about the fight for less inequality." For Beate Wilhelm, an SDC Assistant Director-General, giving both sexes equal access to the debate and to decision-making processes is an absolute priority, which is why the cross-cutting theme of "gender" is mainstreamed into all SDC actions and strategies.