/ 12 August 2011

‘Fight gender inequality by empowering men’

It might sound counterproductive, but any strategy to address violence against women has to work to empower men too, says Helen Joseph speaker.

In the same speech that Dr Gary Barker, a developmental psychologist from the United States, tells the audience about research that shows a third of the world’s women will suffer violence from a male partner at least once in their lives, he says men need to be treated with empathy.

Delivering the Helen Joseph Memorial Lecture at the University of Johannesburg on August 10, Barker spoke on the theme Men and Gender Equality: Between the Urgency and the Confusion. He is the international director of Instituto Promunda, a Brazilian non-governmental organisation that promotes the end of violence against women and children.

In no way does Dr Barker exonerate men who are violent towards women, but he argues that in order to deal with the oppression of women, men must be included in gender equality interventions: the difficulties in their lives need to be addressed, too.

He explains that most men “who have made women’s lives hell have themselves had hellish lives”.

Barker says that during research on women’s rights, men are seldom asked what they think of women’s rights. He also argues that men often don’t see the benefit of equality with women. Perhaps, suggests Barker, men “might be more supportive of gender equality if they could see something in it for them”.

“Seldom do we frankly and openly talk with men about [such] benefits.”

The benefits of egalitarianism
For example, he said, many studies showed that men involved with caring for children and with their families had lower rates of mental health, fewer heart problems and lived longer.

Research in India, Brazil and Croatia showed that in households where men did more housework, women were happier with relationships and the couple reported better sex lives.

And a study in Sweden showed that men who took paternity leave were less likely to take sick leave and lived longer than men who didn’t.

He says facts like these ought to be communicated to men.

Throughout his talk, Barker referrs to data from a study of more than 11 000 women and men in households from Brazil, Mexico, India, Chile, Rwanda and Croatia called the International Men and Gender Equality Survey (Images).

He says similar studies have been done in South Africa.

Only 12% to 23% of the men surveyed in the Images study had seen positive campaigns about fatherhood despite the fact that most of them had children, he says. However, 80% reported seeing a campaign against gender-based violence.

Barker suggests that when embarking on violence prevention campaigns, more positive themes relating to masculinity should be included.

Poverty and the emasculated man
Men get their identity from work, he explains. Unemployed and poorly paid lower class men may even question if they are “really a man”.

“To be socially recognised as a man, you have to work. No work means no manhood,” explains Barker.

Unemployed men often lose their sense of identity and feel powerless. This can spill over into violence against women, he adds. But Barker points out that major poverty schemes are more focused on women. Micro-financing schemes that have risen in popularity globally primarily target women.

But what is to be done about the number of unemployed men who have increased in number worldwide, due to the recent recession? “More than 80% [of those who lost their jobs] in the United States in the recent recession are men,” he notes.

Barker asks: If men define themselves as breadwinners and providers, what happens to their identity when they are unemployed? The answers are not pretty.

The dire effect of poverty
In South Africa and Brazil, where Barker works, undereducated and low-income men unsurprisingly have the highest rates “incarceration, delinquency and alcohol use”.

This trend was found in all six countries of the Images study.

Barker explains to the Mail and Guardian that the violence in South Africa could definitely be linked to high unemployment rates. “South African men’s use of sexual violence is amongst the highest in the world,” he says.

As men lose a sense of power when they are unable to provide, they need to re-conquer their power, he explains. They might not be able to articulate it but the need to feel powerful is often linked to violence, he adds.

While it was true that many unemployed men interviewed in the Images study reported spending more time with children and doing things around the house simply because they were at home, the sense of identity they would have received from a real job, did not seem to be gained from working in the home.

They reported that performing such tasks did little to bolster their sense of identity. Barker says that although women may argue they feel unappreciated for the housework and family responsibilities they undertake, they should also realise that men need affirmation when they take part in such care work.

In the Images study, men reported doing more around the house and with their families than their wives reported them doing. Either male participants thought they were doing more than they were, or women were not recognising their contributions.

What makes some men different?
Barker closes his speech referring to men from Rio de Janeiro’s favelas (shanty towns), who have managed to stay out of gangs or had left them. He met such men while conducting his own research.

What made the difference for these men was that they reported having significant relationships with other people. “First and foremost, what kept them going over the edge was the sense they would be letting someone down if they did those things — that they would lose valuable relations if they did those things,” says Barker.

But he says our society does not encourage men to have close friendships. He mentions a book written by developmental psychologist Niobe Way, called Deep Secrecy: Boys and Friendship and the Crises of Connection.

In her book, Way found that boys had close friendships in adolescence but “felt increasingly pressured to abandon the intimacy and connection in order to become autonomous and stoic, emotionally distant men”, says Barker.

Barker argues that in the same vein, stories of success often show only “the lone author of great works, the lone accumulator of wealth and the lone designer of new apps for our iPhones”.

He says we need to instead tell stories of success that show the obligations, connections and relationships that are part of the human experience.

“We strengthen the womens’ rights agenda when we help men develop the connections that make us all human.”