Gender equality forum urges men to take responsibility on contraception

Men must take more responsibility for using contraception to reduce the risk of more women dying from botched sterilisations like those seen in India, a global symposium on gender equality concluded last week.

The MenEngage conference, held in New Delhi, ended with a declaration stating that — unless governments adopt a “She+He” perspective — women’s ability to galvanise efforts in the fight for gender equality will be limited.

“Throughout the world, sexual and reproductive health (SRH) are considered to be the sole responsibility of women,” said Andrew Levack, deputy director of US programmes for Promundo, an organisation that engages men to promote gender equality.

“If men were prepared to take on greater responsibility for SRH, then the likelihood of tragedies such as the one which has unfolded in Chhattisgarh this week might be reduced. This includes men in leadership positions, including in government and the healthcare sector, who should critically reflect on their uses of power and the decisions they make. Being a silent bystander to an unjust act means being complicit in the act.”

The declaration said that gender equality is a human right that must be reflected in the development agenda after 2015, when the millennium development goals expire, but will not be achieved without the full inclusion of men and boys in the struggle.

The tone of the conference was set on the opening day, when actor-turned-activist Rahul Bose said that, if the status quo were to change, men would need to relinquish control . He said gender equality was “about understanding that women will take their own decisions … [and] do as they wish”. “For that,” said Bose, “men have to do something which is right now not in their DNA, which is to cede control, just let it go.”

The Delhi declaration, which involved numerous drafts, pledged to take an inclusive approach to realising gender justice, highlighting the most effective ways for men and boys to contribute to gender equality, without being used as mere instruments. The declaration added that activists must engage men and boys in preventing gender-based violence because they are also harmed by it, and called on men to take equal responsibility for unpaid care work.

MenEngage began in 2004 as an informal network of leaders who worked with men and boys to achieve gender justice, and who would meet at conferences organised by women’s organisations. It held its first global symposium in Rio de Janeiro in March 2009.

This year’s event was attended by 1 100 participants from 95 countries, almost double the number that met in Rio, reflecting the growing emphasis on involving men and boys in the gender equality debate.

Their importance to that process has already been highlighted in the 1994 international conference on population and development, held in Cairo, and the 1995 fourth world conference on women in Beijing, which led to the Beijing platform for action.

“The discussions in Delhi encompass a holistic approach to understanding masculinities in different domains in a globalising world. If we want to create a world which allows everyone equal opportunity and space, it is time to come together and decide how,” said Abhijit Das, the convenor of the symposium.

Activities and discussions were arranged around seven key themes, including male violence in public and private spaces, health and wellbeing strategies and work issues. Several sessions were held on how to communicate the gender equality message to young people through social media.

“These conferences are not only for concrete results but also for getting a sense of how much work is going on across the world on this issue. We shared experiences, informing each other, getting to know each other, connecting with each other,” said Kamla Bhasin, a prominent feminist activist in south Asia.

“It was heartening to see the energy, hear the discussions and network with co-travellers and learn from them,” said Durba Ghose, co-founder of Mittika, a development resource organisation.

While Scandinavian governments have worked systematically with men to bring about gender equality — for instance by giving them paternity leave, encouraging them to participate in childbirth, and inviting them for parent-teacher meetings — most Asian countries, including India, have failed to do so. Are these meetings a way of fixing that imbalance?

“We think the reason for this neglect is that our government has not yet thought about this issue and that level of sensitivity and understanding does not seem to be there,” said Ghose.

The increased emphasis on men and boys has led to fear among many women’s organisations that funding earmarked for female-oriented projects could be diverted.

“There is a growing thrust on having a gender-neutral approach towards policies and programmes, and this could have an impact on funding,” said Suneeta Dhar of Jagori, a New Delhi-based NGO that works on women’s rights.

A report by the South Asia Women’s Fund says many organisations working on women’s issues report that raising funds now for long-term work is becoming a major challenge.

“I have heard about many men’s organisations being well-funded, but it is difficult to verify that they have got the money at the expense of women’s organisations. However, the recession did hit small women’s organisations a lot,” said Sonali Khan of Breakthrough, a body that works with men, boys and women.

Concerns about losing money were not evident at the conference, however.

“It is a valid concern for women’s organisations” said Oswaldo Montoya, MenEngage’s global co-coordinator. “But as far as I can understand, 90% of the funds still go to women’s organisations, and that’s how it should be. What we are asking for is increasing the funding and allocating some resources for NGOs working for young men and boys.”

He added: “Investing in men is also a way of ensuring women’s empowerment, because a gender-sensitive father, brother or spouse will positively impact women’s lives. After all, we live in the same family, same community and we are interrelated and inter-interdependent.”

Bhasin agreed. “We have heard about such concerns, but we have no evidence that this has happened … so we don’t fear this, although we know funding for NGOs … for any activity is on the decline.”

Nkonzo J Khanyile, of the Johannesburg-based Sonke Gender Justice , said: “I think what is happening is striking a balance but not shifting. Some women’s organisations may feel that, in the long run, they could be out of a job. But I think this is an exaggerated fear.” – By KumKum Dasguptain

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