In international development, focusing on eliminating discrimination against women and girls has never been more popular. We’re told that the recipe for development is simple: empower women and girls.
UN Women promotes female empowerment as “essential to build stronger economies, achieve internationally agreed goals for development and sustainability and improve the quality of life for women, men, families and communities”. The World Bank sees empowering women as a path to achieving economic stability. The Nike Foundation’s Girl Effect, a movement about “leveraging the unique potential of adolescent girls to end poverty for themselves, their families, their communities, their countries and the world”, describes them as playing “a crucial role in solving the most persistent development problems facing the world today”.
This identification of girls and women as the key to development work was progressive when it evolved during the 1970s.
At the forefront of this shift was economist Ester Boserup, who pointed out that the majority of unpaid agricultural work in developing countries was done by women.
Given this, she argued that the lack of attention paid to women’s issues was not only an issue of gender inequality but also a hindrance to economic development. In 1995 participants at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing declared “the advancement of women and the achievement of equality between women and men are a matter of human rights and a condition for social justice and should not be seen in isolation as a women’s issue”.
The enunciation of the role of girls in development is more recent. It became visible in the mid-1990s with increased campaigning around gender equality in access to education. But rather than solely an issue of social justice, investment in girls – and women – came to be seen as producing high returns on family, community and national well-being.
That greater attention has been paid to the situation of women and girls, as well as their contributions, is certainly something to be celebrated.
But by now it’s time to question if the pendulum has swung too far. And to ask whether it might be unfair to place the burden of development on just one half of the population – what about more male allies?
The idea that men and boys should figure in to discussions about gender inequality is not new.
The White Ribbon Campaign, which began in 1991 in Canada, is the world’s largest movement of men and boys working to end violence against women and girls and promote gender equity. Recognising that acts of violence against women are overwhelmingly perpetrated by men, the now global campaign sees men as a necessary part of the solution.
UN Women’s He for She Campaign, launched in March of this year, is another more recent and noteworthy initiative. Using Twitter and YouTube as platforms, the campaign asks men to speak up for gender equality by posting messages of solidarity to the cause. Hollywood heartthrobs such as Matt Damon and Patrick Stewart, humanitarian luminary Desmond Tutu and UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon are among the campaign’s supporters.
Any single one of these efforts isn’t a panacea, but they all play an important part in achieving a common goal.
Men missing in UN debate
While these groups seem to be gaining steam, their messages still need more amplification.
Men are largely missing from a major part of the debate around the Post-2015 United Nations Development Agenda. The set of priorities laid out in this agenda will eventually replace the UN Millennium Development Goals, known as the MDGs, a shared framework for global action and cooperation.
This framework is highly influential. International development actors push initiatives that reflect the priorities of the eight MDGs. Variants of micro-finance and conditional cash transfers – popular with all of the aforementioned crowds – are examples of widespread programmes that are used to achieve any combination of MDGs No. 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5, which target, respectively, poverty, universal primary education, gender equality, child mortality and maternal mortality.
In line with the belief in women as the engine of development, low-income women are usually the targeted beneficiaries of these programmes. In the case of conditional cash transfers, for instance, women receive cash stipends that require them to take advantage of prenatal exams and classes on nutrition and hygiene, and for their children school attendance and regular health checks. Evidence for the success of micro-financeand conditional cash transfers in empowering women is at best mixed.
And one thing we do know at this point is this: MDG No. 3, the promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women, isn’t going to be met.
To address this, we can’t keep doing the same things. We need to make two changes. First, end the relative absence of men when we talk about and structure initiatives around “gender and development.” Second, acknowledge – and learn from – the organised efforts of men who are already committed to gender equality.
Because we currently fail to sufficiently do these two things men remain largely absent from crucial debates such as the one around the Post-2015 UN Development Agenda.
That men are missing from these conversations has at least three major ramifications. First, we disproportionately burden women with responsibility for development and the reduction of inequality. Second, we foreclose opportunity for men to express that they care about their wives, mothers, sisters and daughters. Third, we’re missing out on the power of half of the population.
We might be several months away from ringing in the new year, but crucial conversations about the post-2015 development agenda are happening now.
This month, at the 68th session of the UN General Assembly in New York, UN Women will be pushing for the inclusion of women’s rights and gender equality. Discussions happening there, as in conference halls and meeting spaces across the globe, could be highly influential.
We are currently at a pivot point – an opportunity to shift the conversation around the achievement of gender equality and who bears responsibility for it.
Some might worry that if men join this conversation women will once again be drowned out. This is valid. Men’s voices often take over and are the loudest in policy circles, upper level management of non-governmental organisations and government everywhere in the world. But disproportionately burdening women isn’t right – nor is excusing male absenteeism.
The male-driven or male-inclusive efforts underway embrace a hard-line assumption that gender equality is not a project for half the population, but for the whole one. If we give them more attention and support that can only boost the flagging global efforts to protect, educate and empower girls and women.
*Tara Cookson  is doing a PhD in Geography. She researches women’s rights and development. She has worked as a project developer with marginalised communities in Canada and Latin America. Find out more about here at www.taracookson.com. This blog was first published on womensenews.org. Picture courtesy of menengage.org.