THE BLOG

Men as Allies

05/25/2011 12:15 pm ET

I will never forget the day that two turbaned, bearded strangers approached me as I stood in the midst of a camp for internally displaced people on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan. My mind instantly flooded with stereotypes of the Taliban -- whose misogynist interpretations of Islam resulted in the brutal oppression of Afghan women -- and I braced myself for the ways they could express their disapproval for the women that were gathering to enroll in Women for Women International's program. But, to my absolute surprise, the men had come to thank me for the opportunities that our organization had brought to the women, their families, and their community.

As evidenced by our name, Women for Women International is a women-led organization that serves to empower socially-excluded women in conflict-affected parts of the world. Thus, perhaps like so many other women-oriented organizations, we are constantly discussing the issue of reaching or not reaching out to men, involving or not involving men, and discussing or not discussing with men the work we do for women. During the last 14 years of working in conflict and post-conflict areas, I have come to realize that just as the images of women in war that are shown in the mainstream media overwhelmingly show downtrodden victims, the images of men in war are equally confined to that of the violent aggressors, rapists and warmongers. Neither stereotype is fair.

While women do bare the brunt of the aggression during war -- from mass rape to deportation to other acts of violence -- what is not discussed is women's incredible strength and resilience to continue despite all odds. In many ways, women are the glue that holds society together during war. Women are the ones who keep life going by sending their kids to school and keeping the meals on the table in the midst of soul-shattering violence and inhumanity.

But, what happens to men is complex as well. While it is true that men lead violent actions in war, including the majority of the killing, raping and pillaging that occurs, not all men are part of that reality. In truth, many men are drawn into the stereotypes of the male aggressor regardless of their own beliefs, values and actions. For example, when rape and other forms of gender-based violence are used as weapons during war, afterwards many men are left struggling with the very essence of their manhood and masculinity after they witness the rape of their wife and daughters.

As we work on building peace and stability in different war torn regions, it is important that we understand the complexities of gender and recognize the struggles not only faced by women but by men as well. This complexity and struggle can be seen all over the world. An Afghan woman once told me how her father-in-law, an older man with weak hearing who worked as a hospital guard during the Taliban control of Afghanistan was slapped by a member of the Taliban when he didn't open the door immediately to the knocks he couldn't hear. When her father-in-law returned home, he complained of being sick and remained in bed for three days. On the fourth day, he left his bed, knelt in front of the women in his family, and apologized for the times he had slapped them in the past, saying that, until his encounter with the Taliban, he had never thought of the humiliation it caused. From then on in that household, women were safe from physical abuse.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, where rape and other forms of sexual violence have shredded the country's social fabric I had the opportunity to speak with Congolese men who had abandoned their wives after witnessing their rapes. As the men spoke, I was struck by their inner turmoil. Many of the men's stories focused on their own feelings of failure and inadequacy for having been unable to protect their wives from being raped and not knowing how to deal with themselves or their wives after the atrocities they faced.

What these stories teach us is not about heroic acts during war, but about the struggle that men go through in the midst of war and in living in peace. As I listen to the women we serve at Women for Women International and how they want us to reach out to their husbands, their fathers and brothers, I realized how little we know about the complex social pressures and circumstances that men face, and how their attitudes and behaviors affect our ability to empower the women in their societies.

To help women become active citizens, we must engage the men in their lives. This is the exact reason why Women for Women International launched the Men's Leadership Program, where we reach out to male leaders in Congolese, Nigerian and Iraqi communities to use their influence within their communities to change the thinking and behaviors of other men.

In 2006, we conducted a study of men who have graduated from the Men's Leadership Program (MLP) in DR Congo. Before the men went through our program, 56.2 percent of the respondents strongly agreed/agreed with the statement "There is little that women have to contribute to community reconstruction and development"; and 86.3 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that "Men are the heads of households and the wives must obey and submit to them." Just as disturbingly, the men knew almost nothing about the impact of rape and how it affects communities and causes the spread of HIV and AIDS.

I was in DR Congo shortly after the first group of men completed the MLP. I met an army officer who had graduated from the program and was moved by his speech of transformation. "I never thought twice when I entered a man's house and if he didn't have a gun in his hand I raped his wife... I had a gun, he didn't, I never thought whether or not I have a right to rape his wife... I always raped her." Not until he went through the training program did realize that he was destroying himself, his family, his victims, and their families. Today he teaches his soldiers not to rape women and about the devastating affect of rape on the entire community.

For many of the men who went through the program the moment of truth or the "aha" moment for them was when they acknowledged women's economic power, both through the value of the work they do in the home and in their potential to earn an income outside of the home. Men's attitudes transformed when they realized that their wives' economic empowerment can benefit them and the family as a whole. During that same trip, I met one man who never spoke with his wife about money before participating in the MLP. One day, after attending his class he returned home and told his wife how much money he earned and asked her how much she earned. Once he understood the real value of her economic participation, he engaged her more in household decision-making. By improving basic communication, the couple realized that they could afford to build a better house and improve their daily lives.

It may be unfortunate that the way to engage men in supporting women's equality is to address their own economic needs, but this is the reality for many people as they struggle to rebuild their lives after war. Equality starts in the economy and it must be understood that women should not be counted for women's sake, but for the sake of the family, community and nation.