We must improve the lives of girls and women around the world if we want to make a dent in our most pressing problems. This was the resounding message offered at the Clinton Global Initiative this year.
As the spotlight has finally begun to swing towards girls and women, international agencies have at the same time begun to examine the role men can play as allies for positive change. Men are the main perpetrators of violence against girls and women, so it is only logical that we be engaged as critical partners in efforts to end violence.
While I wholeheartedly support initiatives that involve boys and men in supporting a safer world for girls and women, I must sound a note of caution.
Many initiatives call upon men to use our power for the good of girls and women. These are well-meaning initiatives. Yet often they do nothing to confront the power structures that put girls and women at a disadvantage in the first place. Men must be called upon not to act "on behalf of" women, but to support women to have more power to act on behalf of themselves.
At the NoVo Foundation, which I co-chair with my wife Jennifer, we consciously put girls and women at the center of all our work to promote gender equality. We see men as critical to achieving that goal, and in particular to ending violence against girls and women. But we are careful to ensure that it is women's voices to which we listen and their identified needs to which we respond. Girls and women themselves, properly supported by their communities, can forge more powerful solutions to their problems than anyone else.
Unfortunately not everyone acting on this issue shares our commitment to building the skills, health, and other assets of girls and women as a way to address the many grave challenges they face. There is a desire for a simple recipe for working with men that I often refer to as "add men and stir." In this conception, men cognizant of their role in ending violence against girls and women would become role models for other men, and thereby end the problem. But this simple calculus is not sufficient. Creating a group of well-meaning men is only one step in a long journey.
As my friend and colleague Ted Bunch, co-founder of A Call to Men, says, "Well meaning men must take a critical look at how we define manhood and begin the process of challenging and dismantling the social, cultural, and political norms that support the oppression and discrimination of girls and women. The time has come to create a masculinity that embraces equality and seeks the eradication of sexism. When this is normalized within the culture of men, we can all build a world where women and girls are valued, honored, respected, and free."
When I think about what is needed to truly transform society and overturn entrenched power inequalities, the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. come to mind: "Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed." Dr. King understood the paradox of trying to build a more equal society through those who already held power, no matter how well intentioned those individuals may be. I do not mean to discount the good that men can do. However, until men learn to work in partnership, and girls and women are able to rightfully claim their place in the world, we will not have achieved the change that we seek.
Working with men as power holders can also further entrench men's control over girls and women. Men are empowered to capitalize on their decision-making position, sometimes without even realizing that they are putting the burden back onto girls and women. In one example, when community leaders led an effort to educate girls on sexuality, they prioritized virginity checks. This had the consequence of robbing girls of power over their own bodies, when instead the community should have been listening to girls about what they most need and desire.
These occurrences remind us to carefully plan and review men's engagement programs before implementing them at a community level. Rather than seeing work with men as the end goal, we must always consider and understand how male interventions will help empower and uplift girls and women -- and ultimately how they will eliminate violence. Moreover, we cannot allow male-engagement initiatives to ignore valuable lessons that grassroots women's groups have learned over decades of working with men as allies, bystanders, and perpetrators.
We male allies of girl and woman-centered work around the world have a responsibility to point out that men's engagement must be about securing better futures for sisters, wives, daughters, and in the end, communities. Programs that educate men about issues that impact women should encourage men not to take leadership roles in women's causes but to take responsibility for their own choices and attitudes with consideration for the women who suffer because of them.
As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said at CGI in announcing a new campaign to end child marriage, "this practice continues because we men want it to. And we men can change it. We can be the ones who say, 'we don't want to marry children.'"
At NoVo, we place girls and women and their unique needs at the center of our thinking on how to make the world a better place. I call on all men and on all of those who work for girl's and women's rights and gender equality to do the same.