For a moment, it seemed as if the war on patriarchy had been won. Since the 1990s, the push for gender equality had gained momentum. The Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing, China, in 1995, was a watershed moment.
At the conference, governments agreed to the fact that the advancement of women and the achievement of equality between women and men are a matter of human rights and a condition for social justice and should not be seen in isolation as a women’s issue.
After Beijing, in Uganda, many spaces were opened to women. They could demand for and have an education, could own businesses and many of them joined politics at local and national level.
The end of the patriarchal system – a system that establishes and perpetuates men’s dominion and hegemony, and leads to injustice, denial of opportunities and various forms of violence that women and girls suffer – seemed to be in sight.
However, 25 years after the Beijing Conference, there is still a different reality in the rural areas. The patriarchy continues to rear its ugly head, disadvantaging women and girls as they grapple with child marriages, teenage pregnancy, gender-based violence, and lack of land rights.
Glaring toxic masculinity
So, it came as no surprise when last month (May), an International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES) in central Uganda, found a direct link between patriarchy and gender equality. The study, carried out by PROMUNDO and the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW), was aimed at getting men’s perspective on gender equality.
The results show that there is limited support for, and perhaps some backlash against ideas around gender equality in central Uganda. Many men subscribe to a zero-sum view of equality, with more than half of the male survey respondents saying more rights for women mean that men lose out, and one in three agreed that when women work, they are taking jobs away from men. Men also held negative perceptions of existing domestic violence laws, with three quarters of men surveyed agreeing that women were using these laws to dominate men.
These results have highlighted a long-held (albeit secret) belief that the fight for gender equality has stagnated. In the years since Beijing, laws and policies were enacted and many gender rights awareness campaigns are ongoing. However, a crucial element in the fight against patriarchy has been ignored – men.
Over the recent years, the term toxic masculinity has become a catchall explanation for male violence and sexism. Toxic masculinity reinforces men’s dominance over women and restricts the emotions that men are allowed to express (mainly anger)
If a patriarchal system reinforces toxic masculinity, it goes without saying that men have to be brought on board to dismantle it. At a recent regional workshop organised by UN Women Regional Office for East and Southern Africa, under the theme “Fostering positive masculinity for gender equality,” gender-rights activists realised that for gender equality ideal to be realised, positive masculinity must be nurtured – with the help of men. Positive masculinity is expressed through care, love, respect and empathy for everyone.
The IMAGES study found that 78 per cent of men think a man should have the final word about decisions in the home. This reinforces the fact that men and boys are the gatekeepers in the gender order of society. Shifting the perceptions and practices is critical in achieving gender equality.
Rita Aciro, the executive director of Uganda Women’s Network, says more than ever before, she is now convinced that men have to be part of the solution.
“We have reached a point where the conscience of women has been built, we have the basic laws, policies and systems in place, and we have a number of women in decision-making leadership. But, we have hit a dead end. The challenges we are dealing with are not only systematic, but have been deeply inculcated in people’s minds.”
This means even with the laws in place, if activists do not engage the ‘personal space’ of men – their masculinity – change will remain elusive.
She adds that activists need to deal with the personal fears of men – individually, collectively, institutionally, and structurally. Dealing with these fears is impossible unless men are a part of the process.
“We need to allay their fears and tell them that gender equality is not about taking away their privileges, power, and masculinity,” Aciro says.
She adds: “We are just saying that it is important for them to have their masculinity, but can it be positive? We are realising that we cannot allay the fears of men by only speaking to and empowering women.”
Aciro is not alone in her realisation that the strategy must be changed. Stella Sabiiti, the UN Women advisor to the African Union Peace and Security Department, says: “The Women’s Movement is realising that sidelining men in the fight for gender equality is like stabbing oneself in the foot. Power still lies in the hands of men. We need some of that power; not to take it away from men, but to share it because many spaces are still closed to women. We call it power with, not power over.”
Florence Butegwa, an independent consultant on women’s rights, leadership, gender, and governance, says no one can blame women activists for their earlier approach of excluding men because patriarchy, in all its forms – cultural, religious, economic, and educational – favoured men.
“Once women got to know their rights and began demanding and exercising them, men realised that this was a challenge to their privileges,” Butegwa says. She adds: “So, there is resistance. Many men don’t know how to react to the challenge, so they lash out at women or involve themselves in self-destructive behaviours.”
Toxic masculinity is oppressive, not only to women, but to men as well. Men fear to change because they fear their fellow men will discriminate against them.
The IMAGES survey found that 90 per cent of men and 80 per cent of women feel their community expects men to dominate household decisions.
Engaging men for change
Men need to be encouraged to take an active role in working towards gender equality.
Yisito Kayinga Muddu, the chief executive officer of Community Transformation Network, which is a member of Men Engage, a network of community -based organisations in Uganda working to engage men and boys in reducing gender inequalities, says women alone cannot promote gender equality.
“Through our intervention areas in the community, such as in HIV and prevention of domestic violence, we are engaging men and telling them that masculinity is not the issue; the issue is how do we move equally as man and woman? How do we share roles in the home? We believe we need to keep this information flowing so that it can come to the ears of every man.”
To deconstruct toxic masculinity, men need to be gotten in spaces where they can talk about their masculinity. It is in these spaces that they can be encouraged to reinforce masculinities that view women as equal partners. The key here is to engage young men to take on positive masculinity because it is believed that they will be leaders in the next 20 years. As leaders, they can influence change among their peers.
Aciro is glad that some men have come to recognise the role they have to play in gender equality.
“This is a human dignity issue. We are willing to share with them the knowledge, strategies and feminist analysis we have to help them understand these injustices better. This will ensure that the messages they pass on to their fellow men are positive messages that do not make them feel that their masculinity is being watered down.”
However, the question is, will men be receptive to this olive branch extended by activists and feminists after years of being vilified? Sabiiti believes it will be a long journey.
“If we are smart, we should recognise this because men have been in power for such a long time. The men saw that they were being squeezed out of their spaces because of that militant (feminist) way of doing things. Yes, sometimes you need to be militant, but not all women feel they have to go that way. We are just saying to them, ‘Look, we want to share this space with you. It is enough for both of us.’”
As a country, we cannot achieve Agenda 2030 or 2060 if we do not address gender equality because both men and women are important to achieving those goals. However, while involving men in the fight for gender equality is a laudable and long overdue effort, it should not remove the focus from women.
Activists believe that care should be taken not to reinforce the image that men are saviours and that without them, the struggle for gender equality cannot be achieved.
What some men say. Rape has been defined as a demonstration of a man’s power over his victim. As a matter of self-reflection, during the UN Women workshop, Dr Izeduwa Derex-Briggs, UN Women regional director, asked a question, “Why do men rape?” Some of the answers men gave were revealing.
• Because there is a conspiracy of silence; men rape because other men allow them to rape.
• Men feel they are entitled to because there are hardly any consequences after a rape.
• Rape is a sign of victory
• In some cultures, rape is permitted.
• Men think their sexual urges cannot be controlled, so if a woman is wearing a short skirt she is a target.
• Women are second-class citizens and anything can be done to them.