Monday, September 14, 2009

Remember the men

by Thomas Dollar

I must confess I was a bit nervous about writing for a new season of Equal Writes. As a newly repatriated U.S.American coming off a year in Sierra Leone, I wondered how I could be relevant to a campus discourse on feminism. When I was a freshman, Republicans in control of Congress were attempting to force Big Government to overrule a family’s end-of-life decision, while Princeton liberals were protesting to save the Senate filibuster. (Whoops.)

But I have learned some important lessons from the world of international development, and there’s one I find particularly important for the world of collegiate feminism: it’s about the men too. I worked on a number of women’s empowerment projects in Sierra Leone—from expanding economic opportunities for small businesswomen, to ending sexual and domestic violence—and, without a doubt, the worst possible thing we could do was ignore the men. Aid organizations have learned this the hard way: women come home “empowered” from training sessions, only to face increased gender-based violence out of men’s resentment. (Liberia has experienced an increase in violence against women since the election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. This is no doubt due in part to increased reporting, but may also be a case of a woman in power leading to more violent men.) More recent (and more successful) programs have sought to build a new gender paradigm by changing the long-term attitudes and behaviors of both men and women. Both sexes receive training, and teachers demonstrate why gender equality benefits everyone. This is a much more radical shift—and requires more work—but it’s impossible to build a better society without it.

Sierra Leone is at a very different stage in gender-equality from Princeton or the United States as a whole, but the need to remember the men is just as great here. All of the major “women’s issues” of our time are issues that impact men profoundly, require men’s involvement and engagement, and, in my experience, are issues about which young men feel a great deal of confusion and uncertainty. In fact, I think it’s a shame that we refer to them as “women’s issues” at all; not only is the term inaccurate, but it causes men to withdraw from talking and caring about them. Let’s call them “people’s issues.”

Although 3.2 million American men suffer relationship violence, the vast majority of instances of sexual assault and partner violence are committed by men against women. And our discourse on the subject largely reflects this. Unfortunately, this reality often leads us into the trap of viewing men as perpetrators and The Problem when it comes to sexual assault, rather than as a necessary part of the solution. I went through a (sex-segregated) training session by a SHARE advisor my junior year. Most of the men in the room were initially uncomfortable, anticipating being badgered, accused, or made to feel guilty about their sexuality. Once the advisor showed us that this would not be the case, we had a very productive and insightful dialogue. (For all you new Princetonians, SHARE is an excellent campus resource. My junior year, it had only one straight, male undergrad advisor, which was a damned shame since this was the demographic group that should have been most involved.) Ending sexual assault is a complex business, but it will certainly require openness and honesty in communicating feelings and desires, a more responsible attitude towards alcohol use, a respect for everyone’s personal and bodily autonomy, people’s ability to say “no” when they mean it, and people’s ability to say “yes” when they mean it. Moreover, our mission shouldn’t just be to prevent something bad (sexual assault), but to promote something good—respectful, honest and equal sexual relationships. This is something that benefits men and women, and will require active participation by men and women.

Issues of family and career are also people’s issues. Most of us reading this blog know that women still make less money on average than men do—even though by the end of this year women will constitute the majority of the American work force. While I’m sure that there are many complex reasons for this, one that’s often cited is women’s greater likelihood to take time off for their families, and this family leave adversely affecting future earnings. Three-fifths of women work outside the home, yet our career-track system remains stuck in the Mad Men-era. In Norway, by contrast, parents are guaranteed a year’s paid leave after the birth of a child—six weeks of which must be taken by the father. This has led to some of the most gender-equal parenting in the world—even among immigrant families that come from traditional societies. For a country that supposedly holds family values paramount, the United States does approximately nothing to make balancing career and family easier. (Though many employers—Princeton University among them—grant some paid parental leave.) Encouraging active fatherhood through paid incentives is something that benefits everyone.

Issues ranging from reproductive rights (we’re still waiting for male birth control) to sex discrimination (in this case, for not being a “manly man”) are not just women’s issues either. Feminism is a subset of a greater belief in human right—and those rights can’t be obtained without the participation of all of humanity.


At September 15, 2009 at 6:42 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Thomas, I originally read this over at Feministe and the roasting that I pretty much agreed with.

But, I am really interested in your work in Sierra Leone. How exactly do these programmes work with men to change the established patterns of abuse?

At September 16, 2009 at 12:22 PM , Blogger TommyD said...

Glad you're interested in Sierra Leone, earwicga. I worked for Africare, a US-based NGO, and our women's work focused both on economic empowerment and on ending sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV).

Sierra Leone has been a very male-dominated, traditional, patriarchal society, with some abysmal rates of SGBV. Parliament passed several Gender Acts in 2007 to protect and empower women socially. Among other things, these acts set the age of consent at 18 (big problem with child marriages to older men), register customary marriages, make rape and sexual abuse punishable, and secure women's right to hold and inherit property. (One of the biggest obstacles to women's economic empowerment is the traditional practice of male-only inheritance. Land is a great source of wealth and social status, and women have been cut out from that.)

What Africare and other organizations have done is pushed to implement the '07 laws. Laws are very pretty pieces of paper, but are meaningless if no one knows or cares what they say. This means working with the (largely male) police force to take allegations of rape and sexual abuse seriously. This means providing paralegal services for women in inheritance disputes. It means pushing for women to serve on local councils and as traditional leaders. (The Mende people of southern SL allow women chiefs, where the Temne of the north do not.) It means changing men's attitudes about violence against women by engaging them within their traditional social structures. (Most men still think it's acceptable for men to beat their wives if dinner is not prepared on time; so do most women.) Sierra Leonean society is very centered on marriage, family and children. When we empower women to stand up for their rights, we also work with men to change attitudes on marriage roles. This also means changing fathers' attitudes to view daughters as being equal in status to sons. Sierra Leone has a very old tradition of secret societies (men's and women's), and many education initiatives are conducted within these societies.

I stand by my assertion that the worst thing we can do for women's empowerment in Sierra Leone is to leave out the men. If men see women's empowerment as a threat, they will do what every threatened, dominant group does: retrench and lash out. If promotion of women's empowerment leads to more violence against women (as has happened in some cases), our good intentions have actually made things worse. (One billboard in Freetown says "A man of quality is not afraid of a woman in search of equality.")

This may be, as Cara said, because men are "sexist asshats." But this won't change by ignoring them, and it certainly won't change by making them feel that gender-relations are a zero-sum game. I think many of the Feministe posters lose sight of the fact that their ideas and assumptions about feminism and women's rights are at a very different level from much of the world's. Securing basic rights for women that we take for granted involves making some small steps, and engaging existing social structures--including men. This is incremental change, not radical change, and it can be frustrating (to me too). But the alternative at this point is no change.

If you want more information, you might check out Unifem's website:

They've got a link at the top right about projects that engage men.

At September 17, 2009 at 9:56 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for responding Tommy.

I take it you mean the MenEngage part of the Unifem website? I have looked at Unifem before but not noticed this before so will have a good look at it.

Obviously the law is nothing when faced with entrenched sexism etc. As we see very clearly in the West. Education of women is clearly a basic starting point in this conversation, as most commentators point out, but it is clearly not enough as it hasn't worked in the West. Despite many many years of education and law-making, women are massively disadvantated in the labour market and their bodies are still seen as available to any rapist or molester with seemingly impunity!

I am particulary interested in how this work is being carried out globally as it seems to me that we have completely lost our way here and have a lot to learn from countries who are starting to actually deal with gender issues effectively.

btw, have you read Mukhtar Mai's book - it is essentially about education - about learning that women are human beings and working on changing the balance of male power.


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