What Can Men Do as Feminists?

obama-feministI’d like to start by taking us back to the beginning – the definition of gender. Gender is the social relations between men and women, patterns of behavior that are cultural, not biological. If unequal treatment for women is learned behavior, it can also change. This gender concept can work to men’s advantage as well. Some women are coming around to the idea that men are not, by nature, destined to be obstacles in advancing women’s rights.

There are signs the next generation is changing and that more young men are sympathetic to feminists. Those who become involved with the women’s movement are markedly more courageous than men of the older generation. Some are enjoying the new experience. One young Arab man volunteered to photocopy documents for me during a meeting of women’s organizations in Amman, Jordan. I asked him how he came to help at a women’s meeting. Laughing, he said, “Look, when I told my friends I was going to help at a meeting with hundreds of women, they all asked where they could sign up.”

During the NGO Forum ’95 held during the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, several hundred men registered for the conference. At the top of their agenda: the role of men in achieving gender equality. At the UN General Assembly this week and during consultations on the post-2015 human development agenda, men are speaking up to defend women’s rights to sexual and reproductive health. All this raises the intriguing issue of what role men have, if any, in opening up spaces for ensuring women’s voices are heard in the post-2015 agenda.

Male heads of states, ministers, governors and mayors can begin by putting their own house in order. In government as in business, women senior managers bring diversity in leadership and talent. According to the World Bank and Global Compact reports, corporations that have more women in upper management are likely to have greater competitive power in the global market because gender diversity brings different perspectives in problem solving and innovative management styles. The same is true in governance. Promoting women’s management skills will be critical in achieving the post-2015 development goals in food security, climate change, social protection, as well as securing peace.

In short, building women’s capacity to contribute to the social good should be everyone’s responsibility because it benefits the entire society. That is why governments should pay attention to Beijing Plus 20 in 2015. This commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women will be an extraordinary opportunity to galvanize the world’s women behind the UN post-2015 development agenda, in part, through the full implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action and CEDAW. Madame president, Excellencies and Colleagues, please do not forget this political stopping point.

What are the special challenges in sexual and reproductive health? From harmful traditional and cultural practices such as FGM to restrictive legal and social barriers to safe abortion services, it is clear that there is still much to be done to ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health. When women identify what is holding back progress on reducing maternal mortality what do we see? One obstacle—persistent patriarchy. We see that societies do not value of the lives of women who give us the precious gift of life. How can we allow this to continue? Although maternal mortality rates worldwide have been reduced by nearly 47% since 1990, today, maternal mortality in developing countries is nearly 15 times higher than in the industrialized world.1 Scarce resources are a challenge, but low-income countries like Malawi, Equatorial Guinea, Turkey and Sri Lanka have shown that maternal mortality rates can be drastically improved if policy-makers put their minds to getting the job done.

Science and technology that contribute to improving sexual and reproductive health are essential to improving women’s health. But women have to be given equal say in which reproductive health technologies and health services they need. It seems unthinkable, for example, that an affordable woman-controlled birth control method that can prevent sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies and HIV/AIDS is still not within the reach of the majority of the world’s women. We need more women to steer the direction of science and technology. Mentoring girls to pursue science and technology fields like biochemistry and engineering would be a good start.

At the household level, men can contribute to gender equality as family members. In the personal history of many outstanding women leaders is a supportive father, grandfather or teacher. Take, for example, a family’s decision to keep a daughter in school as opposed to having her married off when she is still a child or teenager. This decision will change a girls’ life forever. If she is forced in an early marriage, her chances of a high risk pregnancy and low birth weight baby, as well as developing fistula rises. When it comes to a decision on inheritance, marriage or comprehensive sexuality education, a father’s strong stand in favor of girls in the family can turn the tide of a family quarrel. It can also affirm an adolescent girls’ positive self-image and strengthen her confidence as she becomes an adult.

Women are at a higher risk of contracting HIV/AIDs due to date rape and violence from an intimate partner. Indeed, according to UNAIDS, women who are beaten by their partners are 48% more likely to be infected with HIV/AIDS. Men and boys should loudly condemn sexual violence and abuse—one of the most insidious violations of women’s human rights. They should also be encouraged to join in the battle against sexual violence and abuse through awareness training and human rights education for boys.

As we continue consultations on the post-2015 agenda, it’s clear that men have a critical role to play in advancing women’s rights and ensuring gender equality in our next development agenda. You see, men can be good feminists, too. Now, isn’t that a good idea to take away from today’s meeting?