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Does masculinity fit in with women's rights?

Albrecht Dürer's Adam and Eve - the gender debate continues


At first glance the title of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC)'s conference on gender - "Women's Rights and Masculinities" - may seem puzzling.

But as participants heard, understanding male behaviour and thinking – until recently a neglected area in the development and gender debate – is crucial, especially in decision-making and domestic violence issues.

Gender equality has been termed a transversal issue for the SDC, which means both women and men should be involved in all aspects of its projects. This applies across the board, from its partner countries to the SDC itself.

"Our aim is not to make men and women the same, but for them to have equal access, power and influence and to have a balance of values," Beate Wilhelm, an SDC vice president, told swissinfo at last week's conference.

But, as the meeting highlighted, this is not always easy in practice as many developing countries have very male-dominated societies.

Many women, often at the front-line of poverty, do not have access to the decision-making process. And male legislators do not always take into consideration issues that affect women.

In Kerala, at the southern tip of India, women's groups have been fighting to have a say in how public finances are distributed.

For example, they believe that pre-school education should not be lumped under "women's funding" but, given its importance, be separate.

Alyamma Vijayan, from the Sakhi Women's Resource Center in Kerala, said that some male politicians had not appreciated this intervention. Women had reported being shouted down at meetings or that men banged their fists on tables when women were speaking.

The centre's solution was to offer assertiveness training, so that women could put their views forward calmly but firmly. The group has also been lobbying the authorities for a more gender responsive budget.

Closer to home

But sometimes power issues lie closer to home – and for some women this takes the form of domestic violence.

The UN estimates that at least one in three women globally has been beaten, coerced into sex, or abused, most often by someone she knows such as her husband or another male family member.

The SDC has been working in several countries on anti-domestic violence projects, such as in Vietnam, where men are being taught anger management.

In Tajikistan, civil war, economic collapse and the resurgence of some traditional values following the country's separation from the Soviet Union have led to the lowering of women's status in society and increased tensions in the household.

The SDC has therefore been working with the male establishment – governments, communities and other organisations - to help change attitudes.

Male psyche

Julio Cesár González Pagés, an expert on masculinity from Havana University in Cuba, told the conference that masculinity and violence were deeply intertwined in the male psyche.

"Masculinity is a concept based on a huge amount of insecurity and therefore it can also become a very violent issue," he told swissinfo. "That's why violence has to be treated as soon as possible."

González Pagés said it was not just a question of therapy, but of changing the relationships between men and women.

All of society had to become involved and consider why men were conditioned into violence. "It's a political issue," he said.

This is a point of view about relationships is shared by Annemarie Sancar, gender advisor at SDC, who said it was important to not to forget men's role in the equality debate – hence the conference's title.

"When talking about gender people's first reaction is automatically – aha! They are talking about women," Sancar told swissinfo.

"In our gender equality policy we explain very explicitly that gender has to do with relations between men and women, so if we see that men are very much a part of the inequality issue we have to somehow target them as well," she said.

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson

Key facts

Women's Rights and Masculinities – Perspectives on Gender Mainstreaming, was held on June 8, 2007, in the Swiss capital, Bern.
It was organised by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC).
Speakers came from India, UNRISD (UN Research Institute for Social Development), South Africa, Cuba, Vietnam and Tajikistan.

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SDC gender key words

Gender equality
This does not necessarily mean equal numbers of women and men in development activities, nor does it mean treating women and men exactly the same. Opportunities in life should become and remain equal.

Mainstreaming gender
This means recognising that women and men often have different needs and priorities, have different aspirations and contribute to development in different ways.

Gender as a transversal theme
At a project and sector level, this implies that before decisions are taken an analysis is made of the effects on women and men. It requires the participation of women and men in the planning cycle and the integration of their priorities and needs.

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