The Place of Men in Women’s Rights? Accountability Must Be on the Table

As a feminist and  international development practitioner and advocate, I am privileged to hold leadership and access to decision making spaces in various capacities. This provides me with opportunities to work towards a gender equal society. Most important this provides a place to learn and share experiences with peers across movements  inclduing the discourse on feminist movement building. 

Women’s rights movements and social justice movements have long challenged  globalised patriarchal power structures. Over time there’s been progress and clarity about the multi-dimensional ways in which power structures manifest and impact different social groups. Today, as it should be, it is unacceptable to claim to fight for rights without looking into intersectionalities and multiple layered discrimination women and girls in their diversities have to contend with. 

As more women have become visible and impacted different spaces, increasingly the conversation on women’s rights organizing came to focus on what I find as an overly romanticized  approach to ‘male involvement.’ The concentration of this discourse, on how men and boys can support the women’s rights movement, either as allies or distant supporters is less and less about men and boy holding themselves to account and dismantling the system that subjugates women. More focus is placed on tokenistic engagement from a representation angle.

I am invested in constant engagement in my feminist journey. With this, I acknowledge that I may not fully understand all the issues at all times and acknowledge my personal and residual bias. However discourses such as those of male involvement provide opportunities for  true reflection, movement building and cohesive collective action. To start with, they should be presented in spaces that allow for strategic thinking around framing and mobilization. 

What does this look like practically?

A while ago, a fellow alumnus of the Women Deliver Young leaders from Brazil brought up the Facebook message below to our attention. This got us thinking and ignited a conversation around men and boys that brought forth some revelations.

Often men and boys with- good intentions -set out to support women’s movements when they do not fully understand how sacred feminist spaces and especially female only spaces are for those engaging with them.  The spaces have been fought for, and designed to provide a safe haven for women – trans, migrant, women living with disability and those facing various forms of discrimination -to heal and reflect. The healing comes from critiquing the system that advances these forms of oppression and strategize on how to engage effectively to bring about change. Any marginalised group  should be able to do this unapologetically. 

My understanding of male involvement is not for men to join sister circles and feel entitled to these circles because the world already makes it harder for women to carve out more spaces outside traditional roles. Men therefore should utilize the spaces they have access to and make them feminist. That would be the better way of being an ally if at all there were any prescriptions being handed out. Such expectations of full access to women’s spaces fit into  patriarchal male entitlement.

To effectively support women and girls’ rights organizing, men and boys have to be fully aware of the power dynamics that are brought forth by their engagement. Their advantage in terms of power and privilege is something they should be acutely aware of and act on to work towards changing. Men and boys have been part of socialization that normalizes violence against women in various forms and advances misogynistic culture. Without acute awareness and self-reflection, reproducing these values even in the most subtle ways may jeopardize gains made by and for women and girls while still occupying their spaces. 

Unquestioned aggression also means that men and boys may take up spaces — either subconsciously or not – and stand in the way of women and girls taking leadership on issues that have been perpetuated by multi-layered discrimination. The framing of issues is best understood by those who have been violated by the system, so to be part of the movement would also mean a deliberate effort to enable women and girls to define issues as they are experienced by them. 

A patriarchal world doesn’t imagine a woman without the control and oversight of men and often women’s expertise is overlooked in the process.

We have seen and know too well “male champions” whose sole commitment to women’s rights is because “they have wives, sisters, daughters” and so forth. This reduces the need for challenging harmful social norms, systems of oppression due to the notion of women as proxies to men. This further reinforces the idea of men saving the women in their lives from ‘other’ men. 

The other notions that are borderline instrumentalist continue to justify male’s involvement solely on slogans like “we all get a better society when we have gender equality’ which reduces women to tools of economic growth and women and girls as the means to which we get to address social inequalities.

So then, is there a right way to go about it?

The question on how to engage men and boys should not be the new buzzword and neither should it be the newest front that takes in financial resources over investments in women’s rights organizing. At a time when only one percent of funding for gender equality and women’s empowerment goes to women’s rights organizations, we have to challenge the posturing and be bold enough to advance real meaningful engagements. This includes building a platform to confront patriarchal norms in a deep and structural manner that they manifest. Men and boys should be able to do this without the need to usurp women’s movements. Reactionary and oversimplified campaign slogans will not cut it.  

Besides, feminists have long highlighted the need to engage men and boys, shift their beliefs and norms that uphold patriarchy. So as you come into feminist spaces, be ready to face toxic masculinity head on, do not market male engagement to try to regress feminist organizing. 

COFEM’s tipsheet on Men as Allies and Activists outlines great ways to start if you think of yourself as an ally. Accountability is a crucial pillar in the struggle for  women´s rights both in solidarity with women’s movements and and as part of broader social justice movements. Accountability requires the development of a receptive capacity in cis-men and others who have been placed in positions of power and privilege. They must listen and support the perspectives and needs of women and the aim to liberate women from sexist oppression must never be lost at the expense of bringing in more men. Accountability and partnership building requires engagement in respectful dialogues, and a willingness for constant introspection to address issues and concerns raised by those we want to collaborate with. Male involvement is critical for a gender equal society, to eliminate gender based violence and to shift patriarchal norms but to be effective, these interventions must be accountable to women’s rights activists, women leaders and women-centered programmes. 

Catherine Nyambura

Catherine Nyambura is an African feminist passionate about amplifying African women and girls daily lives realities. She is an SRHR expert with vast experience in women’s rights, community mobilization, digital media engagement and young feminist organizing.