15.05.2024 Tuulia Perttula

Beneath the surface – The Role of Men in Gender Equality Work is Changing

Reading time: 8 min

Photo: Browline Omondi

Chief, village elder, priest, boss, teacher, doctor, businessman, father, grandfather, cousin, husband, son, friend, brother… A man in the Gusii community in International Solidarity Foundation’s working area in Kisii, Kenya, has many roles, each embedded with power dynamics. At the same time, women’s roles remain significantly narrower, with much fewer career options. Gender norms and patriarchal attitudes reinforce inequality.

ISF’s work aims to achieve gender equality and justice for all, end gender-based violence, and reduce poverty. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is one extreme form of violence. Men’s commitment to combating gender-based violence and participating in the struggle for equality is essential for achieving these goals.

Kenyan gender and development expert and ISF’s worker Bella Masanya highlights the diverse roles of men and their potential. The time is ripe for change; men have shown a willingness to be involved in gender equality work.

“We want men to join us on this journey.”

– Bella Masanya

Living in a patriarchal society can mean, for example, that women stay at home with potential children while men go to work and other activities. According to Masanya, in Kisii households within the Gusii community, women handle housework: childcare, cooking, cleaning, fetching water, ironing their own and their husband’s clothes, and so on. Men go to work and manage the family finances: they have economic power. “We know that women are oppressed in society,” says Masanya. However, it is essential to understand that men’s roles are also based on traditions, and narrow gender roles define everyone’s lives, regardless of gender.

According to Masanya, there are situations where a woman must ask her husband for permission to enter the labor market or even visit her relatives. A man can control a woman’s sphere of life. “This results in difficulty obtaining information on current issues, violence against women, or contraception, for example, when one cannot leave home,” Masanya explains. This control maintains women’s subordinate status and hinders their economic and social self-development.

Patriarchal Society Perpetuates Violence

In the past, marriage might have been a woman’s only chance for economic security. FGM has traditionally been seen as a guarantee of marriage, and thus the weak position of women has allowed the violent practice to continue.

The root causes of FGM take us back to harmful gender norms aimed at controlling women’s bodily autonomy. Another form of gender-based violence, intimate partner violence, is common everywhere. According to the human rights organization Amnesty, 77 percent of victims of intimate partner violence are women, and 78 percent of perpetrators are men. Since most perpetrators of violence are men, many men feel that men are generally seen as guilty of violence. Therefore, Solidarity tries to involve them in anti-violence work and shift the conversation from perpetrators to allies. Among Kenyan women aged 18-49, 45 percent have experienced sexual or physical violence in their lifetime. The vast majority of perpetrators are close to the victims – husbands, close relatives, or other familiar individuals.

“Men Do Hold a Critical Role as Decision-Makers”

Bella Masanya believes that the obstacle to change is the lack of information and education. Due to unequal gender roles and economic status, men also concentrate political and cultural dominance in communities. According to Masanya, men have a critical role as decision-makers. Both globally and in Kisii, men are believed to be naturally better leaders than women. The biggest obstacle, Masanya sees, is the insufficient knowledge of chiefs and other responsible parties, such as the judiciary. She also believes that elected leaders, most of whom are men, should take a clear stance against gender-based violence.

Spreading Knowledge Through Cooperation

What can we do to strengthen men’s active role as opponents of violence and inequality? One significant problem has become the medicalization of FGM, with which FGM has been tried to justify. Medicalization means that FGM is performed by a healthcare professional.

Masanya provides an example where Solidarity invited a male doctor who had long practiced FGM to a discussion group. The doctor was not blamed but given the opportunity to speak. After learning about the health hazards of FGM, he changed his attitude and stopped practicing it altogether. Since then, the same doctor has toured panel discussions, speaking to numerous health professionals against FGM. Thus, a respected male doctor became a significant role model and a fighter against FGM.

Women as Equals

“We must actively say no to FGM,” Masanya emphasizes. “Practices and rules exist, but what the Gusii community in Kisii really needs is adherence to them.”

Men must become allies and be seen as such. From this position, men can act as active agents and protectors of girls and women. By maintaining a culture of open discussion, we can get closer to the reasons why some have abused their power. Masanya states: “Ultimately, we want to uplift women. We want men to join us on this journey. That’s why we try to bring men closer and change the narrative from the accused to the ally.” Brothers, who are on everyone’s side.

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