Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Monday, October 23, 2006

Gender roles reversed: Addressing men in development

On October 23rd, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars hosted a discussion on the book, “The Other Half of Gender: Men’s Issues in Development”. The book’s editors, Maria C. Correia and Ian Bannon of the World Bank, were on hand to speak. Contributors Mary Amuyunzu-Nyamongo and Gary Barker also spoke, as did Michal Avni of USAID.

The discussion centered on the oft-overlooked impact of masculine norms and behaviors. According to Correia, a unified masculine social construct, “hegemonic masculinity”, is evident cross-culturally and governs how men are perceived by others. Because of the predominance of this construct, there is tremendous pressure on males worldwide to live up to a gender role that privileges economic independence, achievement, sexual activity, and authority. For socially and economically marginalized males in developing nations, though, it is often extremely difficult to fulfill these expectations. Consequently, alternative fulfillment strategies involving violence are often enacted. Indeed, Amuyunzu-Nyamongo argued that heightened levels of crime and domestic violence in rural Kenya in recent years can be linked to male disempowerment, as the male livelihood, so closely tied to the land, has been severely impacted by the agricultural downfall in the nation. While Kenyan women have benefited from female-focused development initiatives, men have become increasingly dependent on their wives economically and less able to fulfill traditional male rites of passage such as bride wealth payments. As a result, isolation, depression, and alcoholism among males are all on the rise.

Despite the well-established nature of gender roles, Barker stressed that detrimental norms and behaviors associated with masculinity can be altered. He noted that “voices of resistance” are apparent and can be furthered through education, critical personal reflection, recognition of female empowerment, and the influence of female role models. Concerted development initiatives in the form of “Gender Transformative Programs” have been successful in this vein, and an expanded focus on these types of interventions is necessary.

In order to better tend to the needs of men in development projects, the discussants agreed that a shift needs to occur within the development industry away from a female-centered gender perspective and toward a “relational” gender perspective where the needs of males and females are seen as interconnected. This shift need not come at the expense of marginalized women, though. According to Avni, male-focused interventions can be incorporated into existing projects, rather than used as the impetus for the creation of new, parallel projects. Avni argued that to support these efforts, development professionals need to examine their own biases and stereotypes in order to facilitate a fruitful dialogue on the issue so that programmatic models for male-focused initiatives can be established and the goal of expanded male norms can be realized.


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