Engage men for gender equality!: Op-ed

Engage men for gender equality!: Op-ed

Staffan Herrström
Engage men for gender equality: Op-ed

Today the International Women’s Day is celebrated in many countries all over the world. Rightly so. But how should it be done?

My answer is this: By addressing the overwhelming global inequalities between men and women. 

And by us men taking a clear stand, speaking out against gender-based violence and against the lack of rights, representation and resources for women. 

Too often this day is primarily notable because of flowers that are supposed to be given away, a bit like a second Valentine’s Day. 

Nothing wrong with that. But it is time to move beyond the flowers to the disturbing realities around us:

- 35 percent of women have experienced gender-based violence. In some countries this rises to 70 percent.

- Globally as many as 38 percent of murders of women are committed by an intimate partner.

- Women make up half of the world’s population, yet represent 70 percent of the world’s poor. 

- Globally women earn only 77 percent of what men earn. 

- Only one in four parliamentarians in the world is a woman.- In peace processes women are almost absent around the negotiation tables.

- Women bear three quarters of the burden of unpaid care and domestic work globally, and the pandemic is making it worse.  

- Hundreds of thousands of women become victims of maternal mortality each year.

- Every day 47 000 girls in the world under the age of 18 get married, often against their will.It is equally important to realize the potential of women in the economic development of our societies. 

It is estimated that some countries’ GDP could increase 15-45 percent if women’s participation in the labor market were at the same level as that of men. 

I am often asked why Sweden seems to be doing relatively well when gender equality is measured in various ways. I try to respond with a word of caution. We are not there yet. There is still much more to do address, not least the remaining gender pay gap and gender-based violence. But yes, progress has been made. Female participation on the labor market (almost 77 percent) is one example, the share of women in the Government (52 percent) and the Parliament (46 percent) are others. The economic drivers have been important.

It was realized, not least by the private sector, that women, their capacity and competence, were needed on the labor market. 

One additional crucial factor has been the women’s movement. A vibrant civil society of that kind is key to progress in any country. Their constant advocacy and political pressure over the decades have made a lot of difference. It was clearly seen e.g. in the expansion of high quality, affordable child care until we reached full coverage in the early 90’s.

What we would need much more of, however, is a movement of us men engaging ourselves for the sake of women and women’s rights I have personally been working together with such groups in so different countries as Ukraine, Vietnam and Sweden. But much more is needed to influence the political agenda and to make change happen in real life.

A quote from a man interviewed in a multi-country study on men and violence by the UN tells us a lot about the kind of attitudes we are facing: “If a man beats his wife the wife must have done something she shouldn’t. Disobedient wives should be beaten.”

It is a question of power: Some men – far too many unfortunately – believing men should have power over women. And some men believing they have the right to use violence at their discretion, especially when they feel that their power and privileges are challenged.

This is of course a mindset that is fundamentally flawed from all possible aspects, which makes it even more frustrating that it is still so entrenched. At the same time it is encouraging that we now have useful tools available, the Istanbul convention being one of them. Much of the change needed, needs to come from us men. I feel that responsibility strongly both in my official capacity as Ambassador and on a personal level – as a father of two daughters.

First of all we men need to speak out clearly and consistently in favor of gender equality and to make the fundamental distinctions between right and wrong. How can it e.g. anywhere be accepted that young girls are married away as children? How can it be accepted that men are negotiating peace while the burden of conflicts to a large extent is carried by women? How can it be that still so many boys and men continue to be the perpetrators of violence against women and girls? And others not taking a clear stand against the ongoing abuse?

Secondly, we men must realize that we have so much to gain from equal gender relations. Not least when we, as fathers, share the responsibility for our children, take the time with them that they need – including using when available the opportunities for parental leave. When the Swedish Government reserved a specific number of days (now three months) of the parental leave for the fathers, that had a significant effect. Now more than eight of ten fathers use that opportunity to be at home with their children when they are small. I did it myself, and I still feel I benefit from it more than almost 30 years afterwards.

Of the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the UN in 2015, goal five, on gender equality, signifies a clear commitment to end all forms of discrimination against women and girls everywhere and eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girl in both the public and private spheres. And this goal is a key to the overall success of this Agenda 2030. If we leave half of the world’s population behind, their rights and capacity, we will fail in all our development efforts. That goes without saying. That is also the reason why the Swedish Government as the first in the world is pursuing a feminist foreign policy – taken forward by our Embassy in close cooperation with partners here in Turkey

The HeForShe-campaign initiated by UN Women and strongly supported by i.a. Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Löfven is a way to reach out to and engage us men. It is not the only one but it is an excellent one. This International Women’s Day should therefore, apart from what it already is, also be an international men’s day for women’s rights. A day when men take a clear stand for gender equality. This is not about flowers. This is about equal rights. And we would all benefit from that. Hence, why do we still need to wait to see it happen?

*Staffan Herrström is the Ambassador of Sweden to Turkey.

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