International Men’s Day: Challenging Perceptions of Masculinity

Saturday (19 November) was International Men’s Day, and Friday (25 November) is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. As such, it is an ideal time to discuss the important role men play in the global fight to end violence against women and girls.

When I first read the name ‘International Men’s Day’ in an article last week, I laughed to myself. Is it really necessary to have a day dedicated to recognising men? This isn’t an uncommon thought, and the day does have its critics. Gary Barker, for example, the president and CEO of Promundo, says he doesn’t believe in the day because ‘it puts the focus on individual men and not on the roots of the problem. It asks us to pat our backs, while identifying our victimhood’. Looking at the website for International Men’s Day, however, promoting gender equality and improving gender relations are identified as two of the main objectives of the day, along with increasing the focus given to men’s and boy’s health. These sound like good goals and don’t immediately bring forth an image of celebrating men while simultaneously recognising victimhood. The key is finding a balance between these ideal objectives and the image painted by Gary Barker, as I’m sure there are individuals on both sides of the line in how they view this day, just as there are multiple views on what it actually means to be a man.

This brings me to masculinity and how I think International Men’s Day could actually complement the upcoming International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Violence against women is a severe human rights violation affecting one in three women globally, with even higher rates of violence found in some countries. While progress has been made in recent years, there is still significant room for improvement. One such area lies in recognising the role men themselves play, not only as perpetrators of violence, but also as victims and, critically, as advocates to ending such violence. Understanding masculinity and the role of that term in different contexts is a step towards recognising the importance of engaging men, not just in efforts to end violence against women, but also in the overall societal struggle for gender equality.

Masculinity is, simply put, the social system of gendered expectations which makes men. It sounds like a simple enough concept, but, as a 2004 Save the Children report states, ‘there is no universal pattern of masculinity’. Most cultures have their own understanding of what it means to be ‘masculine’ or to ‘be a man’. Issues arise when society has certain expectations of masculinity, such as being strong, defending one’s honour, protecting and providing for the family, and so on. When boys are surrounded by these ideas from birth, they often have no other concept of what it could mean to ‘be a man’. As a result, boys are taught to be tough and in control. Unfortunately, all too often, this leads to situations of violence both at home and in society. Men are not inherently violent people, but when society teaches them they must present a particular image of strength and power to be considered a man, violence is sadly a common result. By understanding this aspect of masculinity and the role society plays in creating this image, efforts can be made to better counteract the effects of such socialisation. Educating boys early on that masculinity does not necessarily mean being abusive or violent or strong at all times could greatly reduce the incidence of violence against women and girls across the globe. If boys are given other ‘options’ for being considered a man, or if they understand there is no set ideal and concepts of masculinity are constantly changing, they will have more freedom to express themselves as they want, not as they think they must. Such efforts won’t instantly end all violence against women, but it is a critical first step to reducing rates of violence and to engaging men in the overall effort to end violence.

Another key aspect for eliminating violence against women is fully engaging men in prevention and intervention programs, as well as recognising that men can be victims themselves. This relates directly to concepts of masculinity as well, but rather than just focusing on boys and educating them to be more aware of diverse gender roles and choices, men themselves and society as a whole need to challenge preconceived notions of masculinity. In certain situations, laws and state actions can reinforce and legitimise male power and dominance, such as in times of war or where a dowry is still presented. In some cultures and mindsets, men see themselves as having full control over the household, including over any financial contributions made by women. There is also often a stigma attached to being a victim, so men are unlikely to admit it if they have suffered from gender based violence. In all of these cases, men must be fully incorporated in violence prevention programs to see that having a law in place doesn’t justify domestic violence, that women should have some control in how household resources are used, and that being a victim of violence does not take away one’s masculinity. Programs cannot focus on improving women’s situations by excluding men, because men are inherently part of the solution as members of society and roughly half of the global population.

Going back to International Men’s Day – increasing the focus on men’s and boy’s health is a good thing, promoting gender equality and improving gender relations are good things. They all tie into having a better understanding of masculinity and what it means to be a man, and they are necessary to ending violence against women and gender based violence. It’s all about finding balance because, yes we live in a patriarchal society where men are typically more privileged, but just as society shapes the (often unequal) expectations for women, it also shapes the (often unequal, just in different ways) expectations for men.

Kelli McGuire is the Lead Associate at the Centre for Gender Rights at LCILP Global. She has an MSc in Emerging Economies and Interational Development from King’s College London and a BA in Political Science-International Studies from Kansas State University. Her research focuses on gender, youth, and social policies, with particular interest on intersectional analyses of such policies.

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