Valerie Percival is assistant professor, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University. Tammy Maclean is a PhD candidate, Department of Global Health and Development, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
On International Women's Day, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau faced intense criticism for calling on women to reach out to men and boys to advance women's equality.
It is understandable that feminists, like us, who research international conflict and development issues, might react with disdain and anger to such a request. For the vast majority of the world's population, social and cultural beliefs devalue and denigrate women and girls, and undermine and restrict their social status, security, livelihood opportunities, behaviours and freedoms.
The United Nations estimates that one in three women and girls face physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. Girls and women endure particular hardship in lower-income and fragile states. Systematic rape characterizes contemporary war. In parts of sub-Saharan Africa, adolescent girls are two to three times more likely to have HIV than boys. Many girls leave school due to pregnancy, often the result of sexual predation from teachers or older men in their communities.
This tsunami of patriarchy and misogyny silences women and girls, and prevents them from reaching their potential as leaders in their communities.
Why respond with an extended hand to men?
Feminists often think of men as the oppressor and women as the oppressed. It is not that simple. Around the world, men face social pressures that equate manhood with control and domination. In some cultures, such domination is asserted through brutal initiation rituals. Boys are taught to accept aggression as normal, utilize violence as a method of control, view women as their property rather than their partners, stifle their emotions and take risks with their health and safety. Girls are taught to be submissive, endure abuse and accept that their primary role and responsibility is to serve men and produce children.
The harm caused by patriarchy and misogyny goes beyond the individual. It has a profound social cost, undermining economic development and human security. The evidence is unequivocal: societies with higher rates of gender equality are more peaceful and prosperous. They have lower levels of corruption and higher levels of economic competitiveness. Both men and women are healthier and happier.
We know that gender-equal societies are better places for everyone to live. But we know very little about how to encourage gender equality in diverse cultures.
Like other countries, Canada promotes gender equality abroad by stealth: educate girls; support female politicians; and improve reproductive- and maternal-health services. Checking these boxes equals gender equality. In essence, it is a Trojan Horse approach – we provide girls with some education, women with basic services and training, and send them back into their communities without addressing pernicious and pervasive beliefs about gender. We wish them well, and then pat ourselves on the back. This approach does not always work. Despite years of development programs that target women and girls in lower-income contexts, their education, health, and poverty indicators often lag behind. Specific examples are plentiful. In Mozambique, the international community (including Canada) supports reproductive and maternal-health services, but family members prevent some women from accessing those services. In some communities in Northern Uganda, the UN reported that levels of domestic violence increased when women were informed of their rights in the absence of broader community level discussions.
While Canada's recent announcement of $650-million in funding for sexual and reproductive rights is welcome, it is not enough. Canada needs to help communities confront harmful beliefs and attitudes about women and girls. Research shows that development programs, including sexual- and reproductive-health projects, have greater success when the entire community, including men, is engaged.
Attitudes and beliefs about women and girls can change: community-led programs that promote dialogue on gender roles and behaviours can concretely improve the well-being of girls and women. In diverse settings from Ethiopia to Vietnam, such programs have reduced sexual and domestic violence, increased contraception use, and kept girls in school. Our own research shows that health systems can be an important vehicle to change gender norms, if they are used to address pernicious beliefs and practices that harm both men and women, as well as girls and boys.
So instead of reacting with anger, feminists should embrace the opportunity to extend a hand to men and boys. Include them in the conversation on the importance of safeguarding and promoting women's rights. Only then will we build the shared understanding that everyone, including men and boys, will benefit when women and girls' equal rights are protected.