When it comes to women’s rights, it turns out it’s really all about men.
A recent World Bank report underscored that strong economies and greater education for women, once thought to be silver bullets against gender inequality in the world of work, are effectively trumped by persistent social norms.
Entrenched social attitudes and traditions remain among the greatest obstacles to realising women’s rights globally - and most of those attitudes and traditions are held or enforced by men, according to experts.
An emerging theme at this year’s United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW58), is an increasing acknowledgment of the importance of addressing and changing the attitudes of men and boys to achieve the stubbornly elusive goal of gender equality.
“We can empower women more and more, but if men remain the same, what’s the point?” Waruna Sri Dhanapala, minister counselor at Sri Lanka's permanent mission to the United Nations, told a panel discussion on Monday.
He was echoing comments by Babatunde Osotimehin, head of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), who says equality can't happen without boys and men being on board.
"Why is it possible for men to have access to condoms without any question, but when it comes to providing contraception to women and girls, the whole world comes against you?” Osotimehin said at an earlier CSW58 session.
“It's about power. Men want to determine what women do and tell them what to do and how to do it. That must stop. Men must learn to accept gender equality."
Education programs for men and boys are key, according to Julie Pulerwitz, director of social operations research at the Population Council.
She cited an example from Brazil, where young urban men who support inequitable gender norms are more likely to have sexually transmitted infections (STIs), use condoms less often and act more violently towards women.
After a year of community-based educational programs, men who initially had agreed with the idea that, at times, women deserve to be beaten, reported fewer STIs, decreased violence against women and increased support for gender equality compared to a control group not exposed to the program.
Similarly, a group of factory workers and students in China, who initially had agreed with the statement that women should be paid less than men, changed their attitudes significantly after gender equality education.
In the case of factory workers, the percentage who thought women should be paid less than men decreased from 70 percent to 50 percent, while the percentage of students who agreed with that idea dropped from 40 percent to 15 percent.
The most effective antidote to gender inequality is the early education of boys, said panelist Samuel Kissi, programmes coordinator of Curious Minds, a youth development initiative in Accra, Ghana.
Attitudes about the value of women start at birth in much of Africa, Kissi said. When a woman gives birth in Ghana, she's typically asked: “Did you give birth to a girl or to a human being?”
In adolescence, girls are taught to be submissive, nurturing, unquestioning and respectful of men, he said. The ideal woman is one “who doesn’t even show anger when she’s angry, especially to a man”.
Adolescent Ghanaian boys are taught the opposite: to be strong, dominant, controlling of their wives and children and never to show emotion.
Formal education doesn’t necessarily change that, Kissi said. “I’ve seen men come out of university who still have the attitudes (toward women) of their grandfathers.”
These are the men who will often hold leadership positions in the country and control policy, so a different kind of education is crucial, he added. “It must be education that includes comprehensive sexual education. I say comprehensive because it’s not just about your body, but about your attitudes.”
Women also must be educated about their value and rights, Kissi said, citing the example of a mother who kept a daughter from progressing beyond the grade in which a son had left school, in order not to embarrass him.
But boys remain the key, he said. “We have to take advantage of the window of opportunity we have now to reach out to young boys,” he said.