Opinion: For Gender Equality, Engage and Help Men to Embrace Change

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Cambodia has at least 16 international and local nongovernmental organizations that are focused on realizing gender equality and promoting women’s rights.

Thanks to organizations like these, real progress has been made.

The enrollment rate of girls in primary education, for example, which was approximately 5 percent lower than that of boys in the academic year of 2001-2002, has almost completely reversed course. Roughly 2 percent more girls than boys were enrolled in the academic year of 2015-2016, according to NIS Cambodia.

But there’s one issue that receives much less attention. It’s a blind spot that you probably aren’t expecting to hear about on International Women’s Day: Not enough attention is being paid to the roles that men could play, or are playing, either in pushing the gender equality movement forward, or holding it back.

Where are the gender equality programs aimed at achieving meaningful buy-in from men?

In the process of conducting my research, I dug through the websites of those 16 NGOs and compiled a list of the programs they have worked on. I can see there is a small number of initiatives targeting men.

For instance, only one out of the six projects from the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center is solely focused on men. It’s a program called Anger Management for Men, aiming to prevent violence against women from happening in the future.

Two out of eight programs at Banteay Srei are men-focused. The NGO provided training sessions with men who are in the Good Men’s Network on gender-based violence and gender inequality in the hope that those men can become advocates for change.

Among 367 articles about gender-related news from the Women’s Media Center for Cambodia, almost none address, discuss or show the positive aspects of greater involvement of men in gender equality work.

Because of the limited involvement that men have had in the gender equality movement, the pace at which men have embraced some progressive attitudes toward gender roles has been slower than that of women.

Though male thinking on gender-based violence and empowering women appears to have progressed, many Cambodian men are still stuck in traditional ideas of masculinity and male privilege.

A report from the Good Men Campaign — the one and only five-year campaign focusing solely on men — showed that while more men are found to disagree or strongly disagree with statements such as “there are times when a woman deserves to be beaten” or “I think that when a wife does something wrong her husband has the right to punish her,” 88 percent of men still agreed and strongly agreed that “to be a man, you need to be tough” and 63 percent said they would be ashamed to have a homosexual son.

In a study done by Partners for Prevention, one man said, “to be a real man, I must work hard and do everything for my family. I would not be called a man if my wife worked to support the family.” Based on a U.N. national survey, 62.6 percent of Cambodian men agree that men should have the final say in all family matters. That’s compared with 57.1 percent of Cambodian women who believed that to be true.

What problems could this different pace of change between men and women in thinking about gender lead to?

I have written about the impact mismatched views on gender can have on marriages for VOD — including the potential for this situation to lead to marital discord.

But, looking beyond gender perceptions, there are grander reasons why bringing men on board with gender equality is critical.

By not bringing men into the gender equality fold, we are also ignoring the reality on the ground in Cambodia, that it’s men who are currently equipped with the political power to make policy changes that could lead to greater equality.

The majority of the people who hold political power right now in Cambodia are men. While women make up more than half of the nation’s population, Global Data on National Parliaments as of 2021 shows that 16.1 percent of senators are women and only 21.6 percent of the seats in the National Assembly are held by women.

It isn’t just a problem at the national level. There have only ever been two women that have held the office of provincial governor — one in Koh Kong province and another in Pailin province. In 2017, the proportion of women on commune councils was only 16.8 percent.

Stark gender imbalance at all levels of the Cambodian government is both a cause and an effect of Cambodia’s failure to bring men into the gender equity conversation in a meaningful way. This lack of representation creates a self-fulfilling prophecy reflected in political decision-making.

In the political arena, where men predominantly make the rules and define the standards for political candidates, women, who are lacking experience, contacts, financial resources and internal political party support find it hard to climb the ladders, let alone get into the halls of power.

Women candidates for political office are listed lower on ballots consistently in both national and commune council elections. Political party officials said in one research interview that they could not place women high on their list because women were unlikely to have the material resources to run a successful campaign.

Male-dominated political work culture, where male politicians establish networks by partaking in drinking and karaoke, makes it that much harder for female politicians to blend in and rise among the group.

These systems that keep women out of power won’t change until we convince men, particularly men with power, not just that the gender equality fight includes them, but that this fight will benefit them.

And there is good reason to believe that men do in fact benefit.

A 2018 WHO report, for example, which compared 41 European countries, found that the countries with the greatest gender inequality were also the countries with the least healthy men. Another study, using 81 European countries plus the U.S., found that men were half as likely to be depressed and commit suicide in more gender-equal countries.

Why is it so hard to get men on board?

The gender equality movement in Cambodia has been perceived for the most part as the domain of women not men.

Ean Socheth, project officer at GADC, agreed that most Cambodian men see gender issues as being only about women. He moreover stressed that the number of women showing up at his workshops is usually higher than that of men not just because of a biased perception of gender issues but also because husbands are generally the breadwinners in Cambodian families, and thus do not make time to join such gatherings.

Then there is the problem of the zero-sum dynamic — that men see gender equality as a threat to their power. 

Research shows that due to entrenched views on manhood and patriarchy, some men feel intimidated by women’s challenges to male entitlements and they are less likely to recognize existing gender relations as unequal.

Socheth, who is working on the ground with men, told me in an interview last year that in the Cambodian context, men have not understood the goals of gender equality and therefore tend to have a sense of anxiety and fear as traditional aspects of masculinity that they have embraced for a long time — consciously or unconsciously — are undermined.

Socheth says senior men working in governmental sectors and some NGOs — just like the target men for his projects — have held onto ideas of traditional manhood and patriarchy.

What has been done and could be done?

Various international and local organizations have attempted to engage men in the gender equality movement.

HeforShe, the U.N. Global Solidarity Movement for Gender Equality facilitated by U.N. Women, for instance, is the movement to invite men and people of all genders to stand in solidarity with women to create a bold, visible and united force for gender equality. You can check out how to join the campaign here.

In Cambodia, U.N. Women has worked together with local partners to engage men, especially young men, in special occasions such as 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence and International Women’s Day through creating a space for dialogue with young men and campaigning together with local male champions.

But getting men to consistently invest in the movement won’t be easy. Khun Sophea, a gender specialist at U.N. Women Cambodia, says, “engaging men to transform for positive social and gender norm change requires time and long-term commitment and continued efforts to address the power structures that have been socially constructed in the society.”

It won’t be easy, but Cambodia could be doing more to promote gender equality and addressing power imbalances by engaging men and empowering women at all levels — individual, community, institutional and policy-making — while balancing engagement and empowerment.

Individuals can start as agents of change to question, examine and transform definitions of masculinity and femininity. Of course, we would need to start changing perceptions of young boys on masculinity and start promoting positive forms of masculine gender identities. While holding men accountable for their behaviours, it is important also to acknowledge that they can contribute to gender equality. Avoiding a zero-sum mentality about gender equality is necessary.

Public institutions like schools and workplaces can serve to redefine the concept of masculinity and femininity through creative policies. Schools in Kenya have undertaken classroom-based interventions for girls (girl empowerment, gender relations, and self-defense) and boys (healthy gender norms). A study found that incidents of sexual assaults against girls were reduced.  

In Japan, the Ikuboss campaign in the workplace was introduced by the government for employers to encourage their male employees to become “ikumen,” or stay-at-home dads or take paternity leave. Japan has also introduced generous paternity leave provisions.

Policies addressing decision-making at all levels are also needed. In Timor-Leste, a gender quota policy has been integrated into the constitution. Moreover, on electoral lists, one of every three candidates must be a woman, or the list will be rejected. The results are clearly visible. Women’s representation in the General Assembly was 29.2 percent in 2007, increasing to 38.5 percent in 2012, and hit 40 percent in 2019.

Moving Cambodia’s gender equality movement forward will require input, energy and enthusiasm from all of us, including men.

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