Él es mi media naraja: “He is the other half to my orange.”
During my Peace Corps service in El Salvador, many women would describe their husbands to me this way. It seemed like the perfect description for how men and women should relate to one another. Men and women are equal parts of the same society, no matter their age, class, race, or sexual orientation. An orange without its other half is incomplete, as is the women’s movement for gender equality and human rights without involving men.
Since the 1970’s, development projects have recognized the importance of focusing on women around the globe, and rightly so. Women and girls often lack power over their own lives and bodies, bear the brunt of sexual assault and violence, are the most vulnerable and most likely to die during a natural disaster, and are the people left behind to care for their families and communities during wars and migrations. But in the rush to address so many of the obstacles facing women today, have we started to leave out the other half?
Studies have shown that empowering women alone will not stop violence against women and that we as a global society will have to dig deeper and address its root causes. While gender norms are part of what makes up the fabric of every culture, they are not static and can be changed through education, awareness campaigns, media, legislation, and workshops that involve both men and women. In most societies around the world, men are still the ones who hold the power—religiously, economically, socially, and often even within the household. Therefore, doesn’t it make sense to engage and educate the very men who pass the laws and enforce them?
Many organizations, from governmental agencies like USAID to nonprofits like PROMUNDO, have begun focusing on engaging men in family planning and reproductive health as a way to include them in the process of empowering women and their families. Including men in the process of learning about the benefits of planning a family, using contraception, and protecting the reproductive health of the women in their lives, as well as the importance of getting tested for HIV, is an important step toward greater equality. PROMUNDO is just one example of an organization whose main goal is to engage men to address issues related to gender violence and overall family health.
The argument to include men in the movement towards gender equality and the elimination of violence against women isn’t about taking power away from women’s movements. It’s about including men. Many men and boys have never been educated as to why empowering women will also improve society as a whole. Once they have understood the benefits and importance of empowerment, they tend to want to support the movement.
Men and boys also experience physical violence at home and during conflict, as well as strain under the same social norms that discriminate against women. Because of global gender norms, men are taught at a very young age that showing emotion, seeking help, or even going to the doctor will make them “weak.” This leads to many men not getting tested for HIV, putting themselves and their partners at risk.
Involving men early on in the education surrounding reproductive health, family planning, and fatherhood can make them more invested in providing for and being a part of their families in the future. Providing men a safe space for them to support one another and breaking down traditional cultural barriers to redefine what is meant by “masculinity,” as well as redefining men and women’s relationship with one another, can take us one step closer towards gender empowerment for all.