United Nations

In the advancement of women, men are increasingly seen as important partners

At this year's session of the Commission on the Status of Women, more men than ever stepped forward in a spirit of partnership to advocate for the rights of women. In so doing, they helped promote a new model of masculinity.

UNITED NATIONS — As the founder of the South African Men's Forum, Mbuyiselo Botha might certainly have felt a bit out of place here at the annual meeting of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).

One of the world's foremost forums for the discussion of women's rights and advancement, the CSW has traditionally been attended primarily by women and representatives of women's groups.

But Mr. Botha felt entirely at home. In South Africa , he and his organization have won a reputation as staunch advocates of women's rights — and particularly as opponents of violence against women.

Mr. Botha's presence and his level of comfort were signs of the increasing recognition in international circles that women's full advancement can only come with the participation — and transformation — of men.

At the 48th Session of the CSW, held here 1-12 March 2004, more men than ever stepped forward in a spirit of partnership to advocate for the rights of women. In so doing, they helped promote a new model of masculinity.

“For the first time you are seeing [at the CSW] the involvement of men not as tokens, but as full-fledged participants,” said Mr. Botha. “It is also empowering to men that together men and women can destroy the back of this disease, violence against women. When women are oppressed, men are oppressed as well.”

Recognition of “the role of men and boys in achieving gender equality” was one of the two main themes at this year's CSW. The other main theme concerned women's “equal participation” in conflict prevention and peace-building.

In resolutions adopted at the end of the meeting, governments emphasized the key role of men in supporting women's advancement — and also the importance of involving women in the settlement of conflict.

“The Commission further recognizes that everyone benefits from gender equality and that the negative impacts of gender inequality are borne by society as a whole and emphasizes, therefore, that men and boys, through taking responsibility themselves and working jointly in partnership with women and girls, are essential to achieving the goals of gender equality, development, and peace,” stated the Commission.

In regard to the settlement of conflict, the Commission said: “To achieve sustainable and durable peace, the full and equal participation of women and girls and the integration of gender perspectives in all aspects of conflict prevention, management and conflict resolution and in post-conflict peace-building is essential. Yet women continue to be under-represented in the processes, institutions and mechanisms dealing with these areas.”

The documents go on to recommend a series of steps at the international, national and local levels to promote gender-sensitive education and other programs “to accelerate a socio-cultural change towards gender equality” — and to better involve women in conflict resolution and peace-building.

This year's CSW was also significant as a lead-up to next year's meeting, which will feature an overall review of progress since the 1995 Fourth World Conference for Women in Beijing .

Behind the scenes, a large number of delegations agreed in principle not to re-open negotiations on the Beijing Declaration — a document that reaffirms the international community's commitment to promoting equal rights for women at the global level.

“This is very important,” said Bani Dugal , chair of the NGO Committee on the Status of Women. “Many NGOs have been worried that some governments might re-open negotiations next year in an effort to roll back some commitments. Formally, this decision is not part of the agreed conclusions, but the indications are that governments intend to focus only on implementing current agreements, and not changing the underlying principles.”

Ms. Dugal, who is also the principal representative of the Bahá'í International Community to the United Nations, said governments had agreed to include the expanded use of interactive dialogues with the broad-based participation of governmental delegations, UN agencies and civil society at next year's meeting.

“Our goal over the next year, as NGOs concerned with the advancement of women, is to mobilize and re-energize women's movements at all levels, particularly at the grassroots, to be well prepared to participate in all aspects of next year's 10-year review,” said Ms. Dugal.

NGO participation was strong at the CSW this year. More than 2,200 people from some 400 NGOs were registered, according to Tsu-Wei Chang of the UN Division for the Advancement of Women.

While statistics were not available, a noticeably larger percentage of males attended this year, in part because of the thematic focus on the role of men and boys in achieving gender equality.

Some NGO participants questioned the inclusion of men in the process, concerned that it would divert precious resources from women's development organizations. Others worried that men, by virtue of their acculturation, would not be able to empathize with the plight of women.

“Many hold the view that because men and boys are the beneficiaries of male privilege and the discrimination against women and girls, they can never fully understand our struggle,” said Njoki Wainaina, founder of Men for Gender Equality Now, a Kenyan NGO, in a panel discussion at the opening session.

However, she added, “as the understanding of gender dynamics, their social construction, masculinity, femininity and their impact on all groups in society deepens, it becomes clearer that males have many reasons to want to change, and that gender equality would have benefits for them, and for all the groups in society.

“The focus on the girl child since the Beijing Conference has particularly challenged men to look at the boy child,” said Ms. Wainaina. “In several countries in Africa, gender programs are targeting boys because of the recognition that boys too suffer certain gender specific problems, especially arising from their socialization.

“There is, for example, growing concern that while girls have been overburdened with family responsibilities as helpers to their mothers, boys are growing up without learning and taking their responsibilities at their personal, family and community levels,” said Ms. Wainaina. The result is an increase in drug abuse, violence, crime and other social problems ­— a high social cost for the community, she added.

In its conclusions on the importance of women in conflict-resolution and peace building, the Commission called for a greater effort — and more resources — to ensure that women and women's organizations are involved in ending and healing war and conflict.

“The realization and the achievement of the goals of gender equality, development and peace need to be supported by the allocation of necessary human, financial and material resources for specific and targeted activities to ensure gender equality at the local, national, regional and international levels as well as by enhanced and increased international cooperation,” said the Commission.

The Commission further noted the “differential impact” of armed conflict on women and girls, and called for measures to prevent and to punish sexual violence and trafficking arising from conflict and post-conflict situations.

Related to this, much discussion this year centered around the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, adopted in October 2000. That resolution makes women, and a gender perspective, relevant to negotiating peace agreements, planning refugee camps and peacekeeping operations and reconstructing war-ravaged areas.

It is the first resolution ever passed by the Security Council that specifically addresses the impact of war on women, and women's contributions to conflict resolution and sustainable peace. Moreover, as international law, it is binding on the members of the international community.

“We have to leave the era where gender is incorporated in an ad hoc manner,” said Noeleen Heyser, executive director of UNIFEM USA . “It is not enough to say gender has to be mainstreamed. There need to be the necessary institutional mechanisms and the necessary resources, not from voluntary funds but from designated sources.”

In many of the NGO workshops and side events at the Commission, the role of religion became a focus of discussion. Among the some 176 events sponsored by NGOs, for example, there were workshops sponsored by the Anglican Consultative Council, the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America, the Franciscans International, the International Islamic Committee for Women and Children, and the Quaker United Nations Office.

The Bahá'í International Community sponsored a workshop entitled “The Role of Men in Overcoming Challenges to the Advancement of Women.” And in its statement to the Commission, the Bahá'í International Community also stressed the importance of involving men in the process of women's advancement.

“The full development of men and boys is inextricably linked to the advancement of women,” said the Bahá'í statement. “A society characterized by gender equality serves the interests of both sexes. It enables men and women to develop in a more balanced and multifaceted way and to discard the rigid role stereotypes so crucial to shifting family dynamics, and to accord women full access to the world of work.

“Enduring change comes through cooperative activity of men and women rather than through confrontation. Hence, we call upon all members of society to encourage and support women to develop their full potential and to strive for their equality and human rights and we recognize that much more can be accomplished in the long run if men and women work together.”

With reporting by Veronica Shoffstall