It goes without saying that one of WILPF’s top priorities is ensuring women’s perspectives disrupt the gender stereotypes that entrench us in patriarchy.

But what cost does the affirmation of gender norms have on men and why is this consideration just as relevant in the struggle to ensuring women’s rights?

WILPF is organising a series of “Food for Thought” meetings for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and yesterday it was the issue of, ‘Challenging Masculinity: Men, Boys and Gender Equality’ – with our WILPF Secretary General Madeleine Rees acting as moderator.

Photo of 'Challenging Masculinity' UNHCR Panel Discussion

(From left to right) Gary Barker, Dean Peacock, Madeleine Rees, Abhijt Das, Christopher Lomax

The first panel speaker was Dean Peacock, the Director of the Sonke Gender Justice Network. He opened the discussion by asking what impact gendered roles are having on men today.

Certainly, the idea of a fixed feminine norm is limiting and confining to women. So it makes sense that men too would struggle with an entrenched notion of what it means to be a ‘man’.

Research collated by Peacock in South Africa, as well as the International Men and Gender Equality Survey across a range of nine countries, have found that men who buy into socially constructed norms of masculinity are more prone to committing domestic or sexual violence, suffering from alcoholism and an inability to form closer relationships.

On the other hand, the Survey concludes that the younger male generation, those who have received one or two years of higher education, or those who have witnessed father-figures in domestic settings are more likely to embrace gender equality.

Importantly, this embrace leads to a reduced rate of violence and alcoholism and allows these men to function more fully in both social and intimate relationships.

So there are concrete benefits for men who question the established gender norms!

Another of the panel speakers, Abhijt Das, paralleled the Survey’s findings with the work of Men’s Action for Stopping Violence Against Women (MASVAW) in India.

He argued compellingly that those men who remain silent about incidences of violence and discrimination indirectly endorse the ideas of those who are violent.

He urged men to stop reaffirming existing norms by remaining silent. MASVAW’s research found that those who challenged social gender conventions gained self-respect, self-esteem and established stronger relationships with their wives.

The struggle for gender equality comes down to power. The problem for men is not simply a reluctance to level the playing field and grant more rights to women; it is rather the threat that women’s rights pose on their own sense of power – a power that has been afforded to them by the mere fact of them being male.

So it is all the more refreshing and exciting to hear about research being conducted by men, that presents gender equality as a way of benefitting men just as much as it does women!

(Madeleine’s jokes about keeping the key male speakers locked in the room and mining them for their insightful evaluations were made perhaps rather wistfully…)

Christopher Lomax, UK diplomat at the mission in Geneva and representative on human rights raised one of the most pertinent points: that we currently strive for women’s human rights within a human rights framework that was made by men, for men. As a result, the notion of ‘equality’ can never be more than abstract.

The next step, therefore, is to create a different gender dimension, a dismantling of social norms, so that men, women and those who do not identify themselves as either gender can work together in a more free, flexible, and equal manner.

Having watched and listened to this session, it confirms that this really could be the way forward for gender equality. Remembering to consider the effects of gender norms not just on women but on men as well, and working away from those limiting norms and the power dynamic that they perpetuate, will free up policy making processes as whole. This transformative process will include women as genuine participants rather than simply placed in positions of leadership as a symbolic display of equality.