I looked around the meeting hall, full of energy, full of some courageous women and men working in dangerous and challenging circumstances, and others, just like myself, who simply believed we could make a difference in the world. We had gathered from eighty countries, 450 men and women, together with one objective: to improve the capacity of NGOs, governments, UN bodies, and others to engage men and boys in achieving gender equality. As many people more had to be turned away because of lack of space.
Discussions focused on innovative approaches for engaging men to be more involved as fathers; as caregivers and nurturers; in work to end violence against women; in promoting men’s health and the impact of men’s ill-health on women, including through reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS; in the rights of men of different sexual orientations and the celebration of differences among men; to promote workplace safety and reduce dangerous behaviour among men and boys; and simply, to engage men and boys to support, in their own families, their own lives, their own communities and their own nations, full gender equality and equity.
What struck me most? I think, for example, of images from the Asia/Pacific region. Of the men and women, several in their twenties, from seven different South Pacific island-states, including Fiji and Papua New Guinea.
I think of my colleagues from India. some of whom spoke of their organization which, in one state of India alone, has over 3000 members from university professors to men working in brickyards, one of the most wretched of Indian industries where people are sometimes kept in near-slavery and women aren’t even addressed by their name. (In that case, the laborer started organizing and forced the brickworks to give women, for the first time, a latrine and to address them by name. Small victories, but ones that would make a difference in these women’s lives.) Or, my old friend, filmmaker Rahul Roy, who has teamed up with other artists to create a travelling seminar on men and masculinity that has visited university campuses across South Asia.
I think of my colleagues from Pakistan who told of their courageous work training police officers, providing services to women, and developing the White Ribbon Campaign amidst the rise of religious fundamentalism. (The White Ribbon Campaign is an effort to engage men and boys in ending violence against women.)
Or was it the man who helped organize the concert in Afghanistan that brought back to the country a famous male singer now living in exile? Under threat, he performed a women’s-only concert and, in another event, spoke to young men about how they must share domestic work.
Or perhaps it was my colleague from Cambodia who lived though the Killing Fields and went on to start a White Ribbon Campaign that has trained dozens of students to take this educational work into their villages and communities?
Or the photographs shown to me by a Nepalese woman picturing government leaders in Bhutan, one of the most isolated countries in the world, wearing White Ribbons and speaking about men’s violence against women.
Or those from Sri Lanka, Indonesia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, all doing amazing work in often-challenging and sometimes-dangerous circumstances.
But this was a worldwide event, so their stories were magnified by words from friends and colleagues across Africa, Latin America, Europe, and North America. Work by colleagues in the United Nations, in international NGOs, in various levels of government, in many, many local organizations.
It was people doing big, dramatic things. And it was the two men from the Netherlands who set up a kitchen table. What was this? Well, it seems the minister of equality in Holland has said that the problem of gender inequality is now solved in Holland and that all that needs to be done is for husbands and wives to work out the details around the kitchen table. So these two decided the best response to this absurd assertion was to take it at face value. Now, they go to events, set up their mock kitchen table (complete with cookies and coffee) and invite people to come and sit with them and speak about gender quality and violence against women in Holland.
What really struck me the most, though, was the simple fact that the very idea of engaging men and boys to promote gender equality was an idea dismissed for many years but, now, is being embraced and defined in thousands of different ways all over the world.
The First Global Symposium on Engaging Men and Boys on Achieving Gender Equality was held in Rio de Janeiro from March 30 to April 3, 2009. The final declaration of the conference, The Rio Statement, can be found at: www.engagingmen2009.org/24