The role of men in women’s empowerment
International Women’s Day was celebrated on Tuesday, March 8, 2016 under the theme ‘Pledge for Parity’. The theme is a relevant one, as gender inequality has significantly hindered the progress of women globally.
In 2015, the World Economic Forum estimated that it will take until 2133 to close the economic gender gap and gain gender parity in areas such as economics, politics, education and health.
I was asked to deliver a presentation at a forum being held on the day concerning the role of men in women’s empowerment. I enthusiastically accepted the invitation, and, while gathering my thoughts, it occurred to me that men have a major role to play in the empowerment of women, as it is men who usually construct the rules, policies, laws, belief systems, dogmas and doctrines that suppress, repress and oppress women.
From ancient to modern times, men have designed systems to keep women ‘in their place’, even though today we see women continuing to contribute significantly to social, economic, cultural and political progress.
From Old Testament writings instructing men to “go in unto” women that they capture in war, and calling for women who are not virgins at the time of marriage to be stoned (Moses), to New Testament proclamations that women should be quiet in church and should not be given authority to teach men (Paul), the influence of male religious leaders on how women are perceived is apparent and powerful.
Religious pronouncements often become dogma, as they are believed to come directly from God, and in theocratic societies, not uncommonly, become law. For example, in Pakistan, an Islamic country, if a woman is raped and reports it to the police and is unable to provide at least four male witnesses, she can be arrested for fornication or adultery and punished with lashes. Indeed, under Shari’a law, women found guilty of adultery are to be stoned to death, while men apparently get a free pass.
Culture also plays a significant role in shaping attitudes towards women. Many males are socialised to accept the idea that women are to be subservient to them, and are here purely to reproduce and provide us with sexual pleasure.
In some cultures, women have to obtain permission from their spouses to engage in certain activities, or may be barred from them altogether. So, a pregnant woman can begin to haemorrhage, and if her husband is not around to grant permission for a doctor’s visit, she can literally bleed to death.
As many of these systems have been instituted and firmly cemented in place by men, we not only have a role, but a responsibility when it comes to the facilitation of the women’s empowerment.
But in order for us to be of any value, we must first understand the challenges and issues that women face, for example, issues relating to their bodies, such as menstruation, premenstrual syndrome, endometriosis, pregnancy, miscarriage, stillbirth, childbirth, breastfeeding and menopause.
Menstrual pain, or dysmenorrhoea, interferes with the daily lives of approximately one in five women. Menstruation is supposed to be a monthly inconvenience, but for many women it is a recurring nightmare, the extent of the distress being grossly underestimated by not only men, but by unafflicted women as well.
Pregnancy is considered to be a natural process, culminating in the delivery of healthy children. But many pregnancies end in miscarriage or stillbirth, leaving numerous women devastated and grieving, and approximately 300,000 women die every year from pregnancy-related complications.
Cervical cancer, the fourth-commonest cancer in women, kills hundreds of thousands annually, and nearly all cases occur in women who have had sexual intercourse with men.
Then there are the social issues, including gender discrimination, sexual harassment, domestic and gender-based violence, sexual assault, child molestation, and incest, which also affect males, but are far more prevalent with females.
Significant salary disparities still exist between women and men, with women often being paid less than their male counterparts. According to a recent analysis by TIME Magazine, women earn less than men at every age range, and the disparity in the pay gap negatively impacts women’s ability to obtain home loans and makes it harder for them to retire.
Men also need to understand that improving women’s status and advancing their rights does not benefit females alone. Protecting and empowering women enhances the health of families and improves the economic well-being of entire communities and societies.
As the balance of power rests overwhelmingly disproportionately and comfortably in the male domain, we are in an excellent position to assist with women’s empowerment.
We must appreciate biological differences between men and women but not see them as barriers or obstacles, and stereotypes need to be broken down. We must call for gender-balanced leadership and more inclusive cultures at the workplace, hold other men to account for sexual harassment and other forms of misogynistic behaviour, and lobby the Government on policies and laws that will promote gender equality.
But, most important, we must educate our boys and empower them with the emotional intelligence to understand and appreciate the value of our girls and women, and teach and socialise them to be respectful and sensitive to their needs.
Michael Abrahams is an obstetrician and gynaecologist, comedian and poet. Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.