Thoughts on the Global Symposium on Engaging Men & Boys in Gender Equality

01 April 2009

The IANSA Women's Network made a joint presentation on 'Small arms and Masculinities' with Viva Rio (Brazil) and the Observatory on Gender and Armed Violence, University of Coimbra (Portugal). The session highlighted how the deadly problem of gun violence is fundamentally gendered, men, women, boys and girls being differently impacted, differently involved and having different responses to gun violence.

Review of the Global Symposium on Engaging Men & Boys in Gender Equality: Challenging Violent Masculinities

With an investment of half a million dollars and 3 years of planning, over 450 men and women from over 80 countries gathered in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for a Global Symposium on Engaging Men and Boys in Gender Equality, 30 March to 3 April 2009.

Speakers included the Director of UNIFEM, UNAIDS, representatives from the World Health Organization, and a video address by Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the United Nations. Funded by CIDA, Ford Foundation,
MacArthur Foundation, the Brazilian Health Ministry, Nike Foundation, Oxfam Novib, SIDA, and a host of UN agencies, the Symposium had the following goals:

  • To increase involvement of men and boys in the promotion of gender equality and the reduction of violence against women by scaling up existing work;
  • To build skills and capacity of NGOs committed to working with men and boys for gender equality;
  • To promote dialogue between existing NGO efforts, policy makers and private sector;
  • To highlight existing policies and best practices that can be reproduced to promote greater gender equality through the involvement of men and boys;
  • To build and strengthen a growing international network of programs, activists and policy makers dedicated to engaging men and boys in gender equality.

During the opening statements, Gary Barker of International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) and Co-Chair of the MenEngage Alliance explained how striving for gender equality has united a number of organisations for many years and resulted in the MenEngage Alliance. In his opening remarks he also made reference to the link between violent masculinities and 'men with guns'.

Paul Hunt, the Canadian Ambassador to Brazil talked about the 'Montreal Massacre' being a turning point for Canada. [On 6 December 1989 at École Polytechnique in Montreal, a young man armed with a legally obtained semi-automatic rifle and claiming that he was 'fighting feminism', shot twenty-eight people, and killed fourteen women. The incident led to more stringent gun control laws in Canada and changes in the tactical response of police to shootings.]

Inés Alberidi, Executive Director of UNIFEM stated that "there is no turning point; we must work together, men and women." UNIFEM announced their partnership with MenEngage and also their new 'corporate strategy’, which actively involves men and boys in violence prevention, and integrates the masculinities discipline.

Along with other UN entities such as UNAIDS, UNFPA and UNDP, UNIFEM has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with MenEngage. In his address, Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary General said "Men must teach each other that real men do not violate or oppress women."

Of most interest to the IANSA Women's Network were the organisations, activists and presentations that challenge rigid gender norms and engage men and boys in reducing violence against women and girls. Over two-thirds of participants at the meeting were men. This is in stark contrast to meetings dealing with the issues of gender based violence, violence against women, and violence prevention where women far outnumber men.

A recent example is the 53rd UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) where, with the exception of government delegates, men are few and far between. There are countless other examples. Most of the speakers and the organisers were very clear and open about the need to include women and feminists who have tirelessly campaigned, agitated and lobbied for decades, and have paved the way for the 'men's movement'. This was apparent in the plenary 'Dialogue with Women's Rights Movements' and particularly Michael Kimmel's comment "never forget we are here because of the work of women".

One of the most engaging sessions was 'Men, Masculinities and Gender-based Violence' and the presentation by Jackson Katz. He asked how many more women and girls have to die before decision makers acknowledge the extent and depth of sexism, violent masculinity and men's violence against women. He called for men to speak out, to start to make sexist attitudes or behaviour toward women socially unacceptable among men. He urged participants to encourage more men to work with women as partners and allies.

He described the subtle forces that stifle the voices of men who are uncomfortable with abuses perpetrated by other men including questioning the manhood and heterosexuality of men who would dare take the 'women's side' in the supposed 'battle between the sexes'. He also explained how the defensiveness that many men feel at the mere mention of the scope of the problem keeps them from becoming actively involved in the struggle against gender violence. He argues that, in this case, defensiveness is really a form of denial that allows men to avoid being personally implicated.

The IANSA Women's Network made a joint presentation on 'Small arms and Masculinities' with Viva Rio (Brazil) and the Observatory on Gender and Armed Violence, University of Coimbra (Portugal). The session highlighted how the deadly problem of gun violence is fundamentally gendered, men, women, boys and girls being differently impacted, differently involved and having different responses to gun violence.

The session showed how the association of men and masculinity with weapons, at all levels of society from the international to the domestic, is a threat to peace and security, a source of subordination for women, and what is more, damaging to men themselves. An example cited from Brazil's Instituto Promundo's 'Program H', illustrated an innovative approach to tackling the culture of violence. The Program encourages young men to question gender norms and allows them to formulate and perform alternative behaviour.

The programme combines educational workshops and peer group support with public campaigns, which use 'media, advertising and youth culture to promote gender equality among young men as being 'cool' or 'hip.'' For example the campaign has targeted attitudes where violence against women is excused in the 'heat of the moment' with slogans like 'In the heat of the moment, a real man cares, listens, accepts.' The campaign openly aims to promote an alternative model of masculinity among men living in deprived and violent communities.

Another point that was raised repeatedly during the Symposium is that 'gender' is usually considered to mean 'women' and therefore is invisible to many. If something is called 'women' or 'gender' men generally do not see it as an issue that involves them, even when it does. This was apparent in the session, 'Gender and Masculinities in Post-Conflict Settings' which included a presentation by Chris Dolan of the Refugee Law Project in Uganda. He argued that post conflict gender policies often have a one-sided view of gender which equates women as being vulnerable. These policies tend to overlook male sexual violence and, as a result, survivors are silenced and it remains hugely under reported. As a result, men disengage from the discourse.

In addition, he argued that there is little consideration of the impact on men of the rape of their female relatives, as men are usually the targets of this psychological dimension of rape. He showed examples from Refugeee Law Project's video advocacy programme in which male Congolese refugees and asylum seekers in Uganda, survivors of rape and sexual violence, talked about their experiences. When men perceive themselves as losing their masculinity, they may feel that the only way to re-achieve it is through dominance and violence. Guns and violence may also become intertwined with concepts of what it means to be sexually masculine.

The organisers acknowledged that it is essential to invite contributions from the many thousands of men and women who were unable to participate in the Symposium and who are working to end male violence against women in their own countries and communities. As a result, there is an opportunity to feedback on the Rio 'Call to Action' which calls on individuals, communities, NGOs, governments, the private sector, the media, donors and the UN to invest in men and boys in order to change their behaviour and attitudes towards gender equality. It has been posted online at:

IANSA is concerned that the current text of the 'Call to Action' perpetuates stereotypes by referring to either armed conflict or gangs, without considering other contexts in which gun violence exists. As outlined in the paper 'Men, masculinity and guns: Can we break the link?' the strong relationship between guns and masculinity is a result of multiple and intersecting social factors. Men must be able to recognise the costs of gun culture to their own safety, and to that of their community. A violent masculinity is not inevitable. By challenging gender norms with both men and women an alternative non-violent masculinity can emerge as a positive choice for men.

The message of the Symposium was clear - although we have a strong and active IANSA Women's Network which includes some men, we have to build upon our efforts and strategies and involve more men and boys in our work to end violence against women.