Who’s responsible for challenging gender norms?

Those working to promote gender equality must engage both men and women in the conversation, according to Fellows attending a workshop hosted by the John Smith Trust. 

A group of John Smith Trust Fellows came together for an online workshop on 12 January about how to engage men and boys in challenging harmful gender norms. This theme emerged as an important topic during our Ideas Exchange in Tashkent in March last year. 

Richie Benson, Universities Project Lead at UK-based non-profit Beyond Equality, facilitated the workshop. Jane Kato-Wallace, Senior Fellow at Equimundo, Centre for Masculinities and Social Justice, and Fellows Arailym Ashirbekova from Kazakhstan and Shamima Oshurbekova from Tajikistan also spoke at the event. 

Richie explained that Beyond Equality’s mission is to: “unpack masculinity, promote gender equality and tackle gender-based violence”. He talked about male allyship – encouraging men to call out unacceptable behaviour and act to support gender equality – and how to open up conversations about these issues with men and boys. 

What’s holding men back? 

Richie asked Fellows to consider the question: “What holds men and boys back from being allies?” Some of the Fellows responded with examples of how both men and women in their countries perpetuate harmful gender norms. 

Parviz Baghirov, from Azerbaijan, said: “We come from a part of the world where men have the predominant role in society.” Joldoshbek Osmonov, from Kyrgyzstan added: “Boys and men in our part of the world are afraid of being perceived as being weak.” 

And Uluk Kydyrbaev, from Kyrgyzstan, said: “Our mothers have a big impact on us. In our traditional families, mothers are the guardians of household traditions and demand that their daughters-in-law behave as ‘good wives’. These interactions could be very harsh.”  

Research on gender attitudes 

Following this discussion, Jane presented a new report: UNFPA’s Spotlight Initiative in Central Asia – a situational analysis on engaging men and boys in decision-making on gender initiatives. Shamima and Arailym both contributed to this research.  

This is part of the broader Spotlight Initiative by the EU-UN, which aims to end all forms of violence against women and girls. The research looked at attitudes, perceptions and behaviours related to men and boys in five countries: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. It covered topics including life-satisfaction, gender-based violence, work, money and household tasks. 

data on gender attitudes and practices Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Belarus and Estonia showing time spent on unpaid care and domestic work as minutes per day, showing that women spend about twice as much time than men.
Data from a forthcoming situational analysis report on men and gender, prepared under the Spotlight Initiative Regional Programme for Central Asia and Afghanistan

Overall, the research showed that although there is some progress towards greater equality and changing attitudes towards gender roles in Central Asia, there’s still a long way to go. The majority of both men and women surveyed across all five countries agreed with the statement: “It’s better for everyone if the man earns the money and the woman takes care of the home and children.” 

Drawing on her experiences in Kazakhstan, Arailym described the kind of programmes aimed at men that successfully challenge these attitudes. Programmes that recognise diversity among men and boys and consider the different roles they play at work and in their families are more likely to succeed. The Father’s Union and MenEngage by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) are examples of this approach. The challenge is to scale this up. 

Why do women self-discriminate? 

A big issue Shamima wants to see addressed is “self-discrimination”, where women themselves help to maintain gender stereotypes and discrimination. “Imagine a case in Tajikistan,” she said. “A pregnant woman is doing the housework. Her son sees she’s tired and starts to help her. The woman stops him and says: ‘This is not your job. Go and play football.’” 

“It’s time for women to step up. That’s how they will bring up sons and daughters to know that they are equal.” 

According to Richie, women who uphold harmful gender norms often do so because they have been brought up within an unequal social structure. Ultimately, men have the power to reward women who enforce gender norms and punish those who challenge them.  

Double burden for women 

Barnokhon Issamiddinova from Uzbekistan highlighted some of the tensions that working women experience: “In my work, I support women through different projects. And I’m the mother of two boys. In my family, people say, ‘it’s harder for boys because it’s their role to look after their families.’” 

As Barnokhon pointed out, empowering women can ease this burden for men because of the financial contribution women can make. She added: “The problem is finding that ‘golden middle’. Because when women are empowered to work, men often do not take care of the responsibilities in the home. So the woman does both.” 

Richie shared insights on this theme from the UK. Studies show that the burden of household chores still falls disproportionately on women. However, men tend to think they are doing a higher proportion of chores than is actually the case. “Men and boys need to know that this is holding women back,” he said. 

Lack of understanding 

Uluk believes that many men in Kyrgyzstan are still unwilling to engage in conversations about gender issues, especially men working outside the development sector. “When I talk to my peers in the private sector, they have a hard time understanding it,” he said.  

Uluk has two daughters, who he is raising with gender equality in mind. “But I find myself in a bubble,” he says. “There should be some tools for a country like ours. Feasible small steps. Things that will be accepted.” 

Richie offered some ideas for how to have these conversations. “For example, if you’re talking to men working in the private sector, there’s an amazing business case for gender equality,” he said. 

Raising awareness 

Citing the approach of  US judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Ketevan Khutsishvili, one of our Fellows, teaching Gender and Law to LL.M. students in Georgia, believes there is a case for advancing gender equality by supporting men’s rights alongside women’s. One example is men’s rights as caregivers. 

For Shamima, one of the most important things people working for equality can do is to raise awareness, especially when it comes to issues like gender-based violence. She said: “The change comes first from the family, then it goes to the school, then to society.” 

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