SALVADOR, Brazil (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Gary Barker first started to attend feminist meetings nearly two decades ago, he would raise a few eyebrows and heads would turn.
“At the beginning it was ‘who let the guy in and what are you doing here?’ It was men versus women,” said Barker, the head of Promundo, an international organization that aims to enlist men in the struggle for gender equality.
Promundo is one of a growing number of campaign groups that believe working with men and boys is a crucial part of ending violence and discrimination against women.
“We see ourselves as allies to this cause,” Barker, an American, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
One in three women worldwide will experience physical or sexual violence, mostly at the hands of a boyfriend or husband, according to the United Nations women’s agency.
Campaigners such as Barker say men face their own pressures, such as being the sole breadwinner. A key part in getting men and boys to change their behavior involves them confronting traditional gender roles in patriarchal societies.
When men experience violence as children, often in the home, they are much more likely to use violence later in life, Barker said.
“Patriarchy is about power of men over women but it is also about men having power over men too,” he said.
“Some folks say we are making excuses for (men). No, we are trying to understand this and for men to understand their own violence.”
Research by Promundo shows men who are involved in caring for their children from an early age are more likely to be involved fathers later and are less likely to act violently towards their children and partners.
In Brazil, Promundo has worked with health authorities to promote pre-natal visits for men - and almost 50 percent of municipalities now offer such services, Barker said.
An on-going study in Rwanda involving 1,000 men and their partners will measure the impact of men attending ante-natal appointments on rates of domestic violence and decisions on family planning and caregiving.
Other initiatives to engage boys and men focus on education in schools and football leagues and programs to encourage men to intervene to stop sexual violence on university campuses.
In the Kenyan capital, for example, every secondary school child will take part in a program which encourages adolescent boys to stand up against violence towards women.
In India, where a U.N. survey found that six out of 10 men admitted violence against their partners, some government schools run classes to confront traditional gender roles.
And in Mozambique, another approach has been to get thousands of boys and men in kitchens and cooking.
“Teaching men how to cook and being in the kitchen changes traditional gender roles,” said Julio Langa, national coordinator of Mozambique’s HOPE Men for Change Network.
“It is a point of entry to talk about their experiences of being men and boys and how we redefine themselves and the responsibilities we have,” he said.
Encouraging religious leaders to speak out against child marriage and violence against women, including female genital mutilation (FGM), is another strategy being used by U.N. Women and NGOs in countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya and Indonesia.
MenEngage, a global alliance of non-governmental groups working towards gender equality, co-founded by Barker, has grown significantly to 600 groups today from 75 in 2006.
So far, engaging boys and men has largely focused on tackling violence against women and family planning.
The scope needs to be broadened to include women’s economic empowerment, with more women in positions of power in business and politics, and with earnings equal to men, said Barker.
But despite positive work done by groups seeking to engage men and boys, some female campaigners are concerned that funds once allocated to women’s rights groups are being diverted away to men’s groups working on gender equality.
“We are competing in the same pot of shrinking funds. The tension is there,” Barker said.
Speaking at a meeting of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) in Brazil, Awino Okech, a leading women’s rights activist from Kenya said a focus on engaging men and boys meant the priorities of women and girls were being eroded.
“The narrative is that progress on gender equality hasn’t been made because we don’t engage with men. This is a flawed argument,” said Okech, a senior research fellow at the African Leadership Center at King’s College London.
She said there was concern that funding for women’s rights groups was being undermined.
“You are seeing money being taken away to develop programs to engage men... Autonomous spaces for women are important and men come in and dominate.”