Gender equality is often seen as being synonymous with women. To some extent, rightly so – it is women who bear the brunt of current inequalities, and it is women’s empowerment that is the key to achieving gender parity. However, women’s empowerment is not the only requirement for reaching gender equality.

Husband and wife doing team building activities together during a SHE workshop

Husband and wife doing team building activities together during a SHE workshop

Often, efforts to promote the social, economic and political participation of women focus on women, are designed around women, for women. This has been successful in bringing women and girls voices and experiences to the development agenda and creating tangible momentum towards gender equality, which is incredibly exciting and a cause for great celebration. But women do not exist in a vacuum – their voices and experiences are inextricably linked to the voices and experiences of the men in their lives. And the more you explore this connection, the more you realise that men too have a key role to play in the quest for gender equality; indeed, men are an imperative part of women’s empowerment.

The issue with focusing solely on women when designing and implementing action to progress gender equality is that it promotes a limited, unrealistic understanding of gender relations. Women remain victims to be empowered, men remain perpetrators whom need to be disempowered. Approaches that set men and women apart in this way fail to take into account the agency of individuals and the complex ways their lives are interrelated. Rather than promoting processes of empowerment that will benefit all members of a family or community, approaches that focus wholly on women can have a polarising effect, setting men and women in opposing camps where they must compete for visibility, power, support and authority in their communities.

This polarising process has caught the attention of some organisations. One CARE study investigated men’s responses to their women’s empowerment programs and found that the prospect of change not only unsettled the men, but actually had the potential to negate positive impacts from the program:

“Men expressed fears that their wives would overtake the role of household provider, no longer listen to the men, become proud and disrespectful, or might find other men and abandon their husbands. In response to these fears, some husbands did not give permission for their wives to join village savings and loans associations or took control of women’s earnings. In some cases, domestic violence, separation and divorce increased”[1]

The SHE Incubator Program involves men from the start

The SHE Incubator Program involves men from the start

It is not hard to imagine how similar situations could arise here in Cambodia. Gender roles are deeply embedded in the highly traditional structures that continue to shape social life. Women, first and foremost, remain responsible for the family and the home, whilst men continue to hold economic and decision making power. These dynamics can be seen to be shifting in urban centers like Phnom Penh, but rurally (where the vast majority of the population still resides) tradition holds sway. For organisations like SHE that are working towards women’s empowerment in Cambodia, these gender relations have profound implications. Giving women more independence, agency and decision-making power is crucial. But also important is considerations of how this will be received by the men that are integral to women’s lives. SHE’s Business Incubator Program for instance promotes women’s entrepreneurship to facilitate wider economic and social impact -  but when participants leave the supportive environment of the monthly workshop, they return to pre-existing gender relations. Challenging those relations, implementing their visions and having a stronger voice may foster problems like those outlined by CARE. The participant’s husbands, fathers, brothers or sons may feel threatened by the women's increased agency in a place where the status quo has always prioritised men as the key decision makers.

Programs that focus wholly on women have the potential to create tension. Understanding the ways in which men may impede change when they feel threatened, it becomes clear that the threatening element of gender equality needs to be removed. We need to promote the perception among men that gender equality is their responsibility too, that women's empowerment is as good for them as it is for the women in their lives. It is not about taking power from men and giving it to women, it is about creating equitable relationships in which all people have control over their futures. If men continue to react negatively to women’s empowerment, then the impact of said empowerment is going to be limited. As a report in IRIN[2] pointed out – for as long as men continue to be excluded from processes of women’s empowerment, women and girls will continue to come up against barriers of male power and expectations, structures and beliefs that benefit men over women.

Contrastingly, when men and boys are included in processes of women’s empowerment, the understanding that gender equality is good for everybody grows. Rather than blocking impact, men are able to act as agents to amplify it. Creating this support and understanding is a crucial component of SHE’s Incubator Program – so much so that our Participants are encouraged to bring their husbands or other male family members along to the pre-program workshop. The aim of this is to include the men, fostering an understanding of the benefits and challenges of the program. The hope is that they will become active supporters of the participant once they understand the value of equal opportunities for the women in their lives. This has proved to be vital; having partners on board from the outset as supporters is one of the biggest predictors of future success for participants.

Bringing men into processes of women's empowerment is not about taking a step backwards, nor about promoting the continuation of systems that prioritise men's needs. Rather, it is about creating a new system, based on support and respect, that works for women and men, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, classmates and co-workers. These are the relationships that shape our lives - and this is why men are crucial to women's empowerment. 

- Written by Prue Allen, WhyDev Fellow with SHE Investments