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RIGHTS: Engaging Men in Gender Equality Efforts

Fabiana Frayssinet

RIO DE JANEIRO, Apr 2 2009 (IPS) - How many men work in day care centres, looking after children? How much paternity leave are men entitled to? How many government programmes to combat domestic violence include violent men themselves as part of the treatment?

The ball is in the court of national governments, and it is up to them to answer these questions, according to participants at an international congress on gender equity.

The first global symposium on Engaging Men and Boys to Achieve Gender Equity, being held from Monday, Mar. 30 to Friday, Apr. 3 arose, in fact, out of the deafening official silence on the matter, according to Marcos Nascimento, co-director of the non-governmental Promundo Institute.

Over a decade after agreeing that men's participation is essential for "overcoming gender inequalities," governments do not appear to have fully taken this commitment on board, Nascimento said in an interview with IPS.

Nascimento belongs to a network of NGOs that address masculinity from a feminist viewpoint, incorporating a gender perspective.

Any such initiative is bound to "have greater scope" if it is backed by public policies, he said.

The symposium was organised by the Promundo Institute and Instituto Papai (Daddy) of Brazil; the White Ribbon Campaign, based in Canada; Save the Children, an international organisation; MenEngage Global Alliance, a coalition of NGOs and United Nations agencies; and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

Promundo is working for parliamentary approval of a draft law to expand paternity leave for workers from the five days they are entitled to at present, to at least a month. Brazilian women workers already have the right to six months' maternity leave.

Paternity leave is essential for men to become involved in the care of their children, a role traditionally allocated to women, activists say.

"If there are positive role models in a family for caregiving by fathers, in future men may turn out to be more gender-equitable," Nascimento said.

The symposium, which has drawn more than 450 representatives from 80 countries, aims to establish dialogue between different actors, in order to define lines of action and foment knowledge and learning from initiatives that have already been implemented.

"We are talking about co-responsibility, which is a key word nowadays," said Minister Nilcea Freire of the Brazilian government's Special Secretariat of Policies for Women (SPM).

"Engaging men in the debate on equal opportunities for men and women means redistributing responsibilities, so that care-giving and household work no longer fall exclusively on women's shoulders," the minister told IPS.

On the first day of the symposium, Freire launched a new pilot project on education and responsibility for men who have committed violence against women. Developed as part of public policies to combat gender violence, it is the first of its kind in this South American country of 189 million people.

The project is working initially with a group of 46 men who have assaulted women. Without doing away with the penalties under Brazilian law for crimes of violence, the new centre incorporates activities like group dynamics, workshops, and opportunities to reflect on the ideas and values that can lead to violence against women.

Based in Nova Iguaçu, a poor district in Rio de Janeiro with high indices of violence against women, the programme is to be extended into other regions in the future.

"The intention is to promote the men's commitment to the development of new kinds of interpersonal relationships, and to avoid and prevent violent behaviour within the family," Fernando Acosta, the creator of the initiative, told the symposium.

"If men are part of the problem of violence against women, they must be part of the solution," Nascimento remarked.

A report presented by the Special Secretariat of Policies for Women indicates that in 2007, 5,760 women were victims of violence in this country, mainly at the hands of men.

Debates are also taking place at the symposium along other lines regarded as having strategic importance for promoting gender equity, like men's engagement in matters of sexual and reproductive health and the prevention and treatment of AIDS.

Studies presented by UNFPA show that the social construction of masculinity is closely associated with risk-taking behaviour, creating "an environment where risk is acceptable and even encouraged for 'real' men."

A qualitative research project carried out in nine Latin American countries revealed that young men and boys aged 10 to 24 are "far more concerned with achieving and preserving their masculinity than their health."

This study, according to UNFPA, confirms that the dominant ideology underlying masculine attitudes can result in "earlier sexual initiation and more sexual partners," less intimacy in sexual relationships and a reluctance to use condoms.

The deputy director of UNFPA, Purnima Mane, said that views on masculinity need rethinking, not only because the behaviour of boys and men affects women and girls, but also because men and boys need to free themselves from oppressive and stereotyped expectations about their behaviour that are harmful to their own health and life, as well as the health and life of their male or female partners.

These behaviours begin in the home, where parents assign girls "feminine" tasks – washing the dishes, cooking, cleaning, looking after the children – and give boys "masculine" ones – cutting the lawn, "using Daddy's tools," and going out on the streets at an earlier age.

According to Inés Alberdi, the executive director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), these social norms and attitudes should be included in reflections on masculinity, a concept traditionally framed "in relation to (assumptions about) women's inferiority."

Alberdi, who is on her first visit to Latin America, launched the UNIFEM report "Progress of the World's Women 2008/2009: Who Answers to Women?" in Rio. To encourage "positive" new concepts of masculinity in men and women, the thinking of boys and men about fatherhood needs to be focused on "caring, closeness and tenderness," she told IPS.

In Spain, Alberdi's home country, the law provides for biological or adoptive fathers to take paternity leave of up to 10 weeks, out of the total of 16 weeks of statutory paid parental leave, she said. The first six weeks are compulsory maternity leave for women after giving birth, but the rest of the parental leave period can be freely distributed between the couple.

The head of UNIFEM said another way that the state should be "accountable" to women is through "budgets with a gender perspective" that redirect public spending.

She cited examples of health, education, agriculture and sanitation policies and small credit funds that are particularly aimed at women.

Alberdi also emphasised the importance of having official data, statistics and indicators that are disaggregated by gender, as an information base for designing affirmative action in the future.

In the political, labour and business worlds, Alberdi said it is necessary to adopt "quota" policies for women's participation as a transitory measure designed to promote "a balance of power and responsibility" between men and women.

On average, barely 18.4 percent of parliamentary seats are occupied by women worldwide. If the present rate of progress is maintained, it could take 40 years to achieve the "ideal balance" of between 40 and 60 percent for either sex, she said.

"Spontaneous change is slow," so transitory measures like quotas are needed to accelerate the achievement of gender balance, Alberdi said.

Women in positions of power would reinforce the future implementation of public policies with a gender perspective to create a more egalitarian society, she said, thus generating a virtuous cycle for a less machista and sexist society.

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