By Savanna Henderson, Humanitas Global
“Not only do women make up half the population of the world - but we also brought the other half into it.” Her Excellency, Dr. Joyce Banda.
Despite this undeniable foothold in the world, girls and women face inequalities in all aspects of life. According to World Bank data, women and girls aged 15 to 44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, car accidents, malaria, and war. Roughly 5,000 honor killings are carried out against women around the world every year. Female genital mutilation (FGM), a procedure which offers no health benefits to girls and women, is a risk to more than three million girls a year. Globally, one in three women has experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence and up to 38 percent of murders of women are committed by an intimate partner. Every minute 28 girls under the age of 18 are married. In a year, 15 million girls under 18 will be married. When it comes to education, 62 million girls aged six to 15 are not in school and 16 million girls aged six to 11 will never enter school. Finally, 60 percent of the hungry are girls and women.
The driving force behind these inequalities is gender inequality. FGM is performed on women but its ‘benefits’ are strictly awarded to men. Though it varies by region, FGM is commonly practiced to ensure a social convention of acceptable sexual behavior, i.e., premarital virginity and marital fidelity. Girls are married off at young ages because they are undervalued and seen as a burden on the family. Child marriage is also a way to ensure a social convention of acceptable sexual behavior. Girls are kept out of school for a number of reasons including their lesser status with limited resources going towards the boys; social norms that keep girls at home to help with household chores and; child marriage; the threat of gender violence traveling to and from and in school; and inadequate sanitation facilities to support female safety, privacy and menstruation. Social norms may also put girls and women last in line to be fed, with women having little to no say over the family’s food expenditure.
Where do Boys and Men Come In?
While women are often the targets of development interventions, boys and men clearly have a critical role in achieving gender equality. Female empowerment can only go so far when men continue to act on and pass down traditional beliefs and practices rooted in gender inequality to boys. Fortunately, boys and men are being seen and utilized as partners in female empowerment and development around the world. In 2004, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women adopted conclusions on ‘The role of men and boys in achieving gender equality’. It recognizes the role of men and boys in achieving gender equality and urges governments, UN agencies, donors, the private sector, and civil society to encourage, support and promote male capacity to foster gender equality.
In line with this message, the Equal Community Foundation, a non-profit in India, works to provide boys and men the opportunity to learn and practice gender equitable behavior. The Action for Equality program works with boys aged 14 to 17 from low income communities. These boys are taught to better understand discrimination and gender inequalities, how to take personal action and later, collective action to influence other boys and men. One assignment includes taking on a household chore typically assigned to a sister.
After a successful program that improved the well-being of married adolescent girls, The Population Council introduced Addis Birhan in Ethiopia for husbands. Informational sessions on detrimental gender norms, relationships, violence and sexual and reproductive health have been taugh to over 130,000 boys and men. As a result, married girls were eight times more likely to report that their husbands helped with domestic duties.
Recently, an Egyptian lawmaker shared that men suffer from “sexual weakness” and to stop FGM, “we will need strong men and we don’t have men of that sort”. While he continues to perpetuate the undervaluing of women through the practice of FGM as “better for women” so they can “stand by their men”, he confirms the role that men have in combatting the abusive practice. Girls and women should not suffer the preemptive consequences of ‘weak men’ and boys and men should not be encouraged to indulge in ‘weaknesses’ at the expense of female health, well-being and rights. Instead, males should be taught to see females as peers with equal rights. Men Speak Out is a project focused on engaging and empowering men to end FGM and violence against women. The project trains male educators from FGM practicing communities to share information on FGM (many men are unfamiliar with the painful repercussions women experience) and men’s role in accelerating progress towards an end to FGM. When husbands and fathers can stand up to eliminating FGM, they have the power to break the cycle of normalcy and raise sons and daughters that deny inequitable practices.
In West Bengal, Landesa launched the Security for Girls Through Land Project (Girls Project) to improve the social and economic status of girls. In doing so, the Girls Project introduced a curriculum for boys to be implemented in schools, meetings with community members and parents. The curriculum teaches the legal rights of girls including legal age of marriage, laws on equal distribution of inheritance among siblings, and the illegal status of dowries. The Girls Project works towards connecting adolescent girls with land assets to reduce her perceived burden on the family and empower the entire community to see girls and women as equals. At the same time the project acknowledges the necessity to include boys to ensure sustainable behavior changes now and in the future.
As half of the global population with the responsibility of birthing and helping raise the other half, it’s obvious that improving the status of girls and women benefits everyone. Failing to acknowledge the practitioners of discriminatory behavior and future proprietors of inequitable knowledge and practices seriously impairs efforts to improve the status and opportunities for girls and women. Boys and men deserve a seat at the table; they should be targeted and empowered to disrupt gender inequalities and support the rights of girls and women.