5. Lessons learned from programmes

ICRWs’ 2018 report on Gender Equity and Male Engagement summarizes key lessons from male engagement in gender equality programmes and the challenges these programmes face. These are also captured in the EMERGE Evidence Report, 2015 and the Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence (GAGE) programme review on ‘Programming with adolescent boys to promote gender-equitable masculinities’.

One key emphasis in existing literature and evidence from programmes that work with boys and men to achieve gender equality is the need to move away from gender sensitization to an approach based on gender transformation. While increasing men’s knowledge of gender disparities and creating more gender equitable attitudes among men is important, it is not enough. Such changes in knowledge and attitudes must translate into tangible changes in behaviour. 

Behaviour change requires gender transformation, with young boys and men reflecting on and challenging gender norms in their own lives, within their families and within their communities. Programmes should promote positive masculinities through, for example, the promotion of a more equitable distribution of power and labour within households.

 At the individual level, evidence suggests four key ingredients for success.

  • Start young, the earlier the better: young and adolescent boys will then have a greater chance of building equitable relationships and wielding a positive influence on people around them throughout their lives.
  • Engage with men throughout their entire life-cycle: it is important to engage with boys and men as they age and move from one life stage to the next.
  • Engage with men while considering their diverse roles and contexts: (within the family, in the community, etc.) and how these change over time.
  • Use a gender-synchronized approach: programmes should work with both men and women to achieve gender transformation, either simultaneously or sequentially, with single-sex groups and mixed-sex groups. It is important to provide both men and women with safe spaces where they can discuss and reflect on the ways in which gender norms shape their lives and the lives of others.

At the community level:

  • Use male role models and advocates: recruiting male role models in programme communities is an effective way to create norm change. However, it is important to unpack gender norms among male facilitators and role models.
  • Identify and collaborate with community influencers: (religious leaders or elders, for example) who create, shape and uphold social and gender norms.

As noted by Jewkes et al. 2015, there is also a need to look beyond the individual and community levels to the systemic and institutional forces that shape gender norms. Changing an individual’s beliefs and attitudes without changing the broader system and policies (see ICRW and Promundo’s 2010 report) in which gender relationships operate can limit the reach, sustainability and impact of programmes.

It is important, therefore, to hold men in positions of power accountable to create and enforce such policies. It is also important to consider the role of men who are part of the informal sector (small businesses, self-employed entrepreneurs and so on) and who may not comply with these policies. Here, strategies should  engage men both as individuals and as a part of a community.


A number of challenges must be resolved in current work with men on gender equality.

  • If such work is not based on an analysis of patriarchy and power dynamics, it risks playing in to a ‘men’s rights’ agenda, which argues that men are the victims of patriarchy and that gender inequality actually favours women. The key organisations, alliances and networks on men and gender equality base their work firmly on feminist analysis, acknowledging that it is women who are mainly disadvantaged by gender inequality the world over. At the same time, while men have to give up power if equality is to be achieved, they have much to gain in breaking out of the ‘man box’. While some women’s organisations welcome and participate in  work with men and boys, others fear that it will divert resources and support from much-needed work with women and girls. There are concerns that moving away from an explicit focus on women and girls in gender equality and equity work can blur the realities of patriarchal power, with the needs and voices of women and girls relegated where men become the protagonists. There is, therefore, a view among practitioners that while engagement with men and boys is beneficial, it must be complemented by a simultaneous focus on women and girls.

  • Accountability to the women’s movement and to other historically oppressed social groups is necessary to build collaborative and equitable partnerships. Organizations and networks that work with men for gender equality recognise and have tried to incorporate accountability principles. Sonke Gender Justice, for example, has a rule that 50 % of its board members must be women. For the MenEngage Alliance, being accountable means to: 
    • be critically aware of one’s own power and privilege, and be open to criticism
    • take action to address personal and institutional practices that go against  principles of gender equality and human rights, acknowledging any harm caused and making amends
    • respect and promote women’s leadership in the gender equality movement
    • create structures of consultation and partnerships with women’s rights organizations
    Accountability also requires men and others in positions of power and privilege to be receptive, so that they can listen to the perspectives of the oppressed groups in order to become authentic allies.

  • Another key challenge relates to intersectionalities. While there is agreement that programmes must recognize the contexts of men and women and the multiple influences these have on their practice of gender norms, there is lack of clarity on what this means in practice. At present, male engagement programmes do not address the broader structures of patriarchy within which individuals and relationships operate, and men and boys are often viewed one-dimensionally. It is important to acknowledge the overlapping identities occupied by men, and to remember that not all men share one single experience of power and male privilege.

  • A further challenge is how to engage men and boys effectively without instrumentalizing them as a pathway to women’s empowerment or marginalizing women and girls in the process. Some scholars argue that programmes should encourage men and boys to participate in gender interventions programmes by promoting promote the positive outcomes for their own lives and their relationships with their families and communities. Another good lens may be to promote the benefits to men’s health. However, programmes must not ‘oversell’ the positives: it is still important to talk about inequalities, the power held by boys and men and their responsibility to question this power. The focus should be on promoting the idea that men can be agents of change while holding them accountable. Engagement with men around gender equality and equity should aim to shift norms and power dynamics for the betterment for all, rather than being a zero-sum game between boys and men and girls and women.

  • There is a need for more enquiry on how to include people across the gender spectrum (LGBTQI) to promote gender equity. Programmes on positive masculinities rarely address sexuality or transgender and gender non-conforming identities. They use a predominantly heteronormative (and often binary) framing of gender relations that can be counterproductive to the achievement of gender equity.

Men need to be engaged more systematically at the institutional level. Efforts are being made in the health sector, for example. Many countries are working on policies for unpaid care and providing flexible work arrangements, parental and paternity leave and so on. These positive steps offer lessons for the greater engagement of men at the institutional level. Another approach could be for countries to institutionalize mechanisms that collect data on gender and time-use in their national health surveys, which can be used as evidence to develop and enhance policies. 

Kedia, S. and Verma, R. 2019, Gender norms and masculinities: a topic guide. ALIGN: London