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May 16, 2023

WAGE Male Engagement Strategies: What Have We Learned?

An Overview and Video of Lessons Learned from WAGE Initiatives

The engagement of men in women’s empowerment and gender equality programs is critical to the long-term success of these efforts. Historically, initiatives towards gender empowerment have often been perceived as solely the responsibility of women, with men standing in opposition. However, it is increasingly recognized that achieving gender equality requires the active participation and support of men as allies and advocates. The challenge, then, lies in meaningfully engaging men and boys without antagonizing them or encouraging an evasion of accountability for gender-based violence (GBV). Accordingly, gender transformative programming includes the promotion of positive masculinity and highlighting the ways patriarchy harms men, safeguarding women in the face of changing gender power dynamics, including men in all stages of the implementation process, and creating safe spaces for dialogue.

The Women and Girls Empowered (WAGE) Global Consortium has implemented initiatives across 15 countries to examine and transmute existing harmful gender norms into equal and empowering dynamics for both men and women. To advance our Learning Agenda and address questions regarding safeguarding and diversity and inclusion within WAGE male engagement strategies, WAGE recently convened a panel of industry leaders and gender experts that featured our programming in EswatiniGhana, and Sri Lanka.

Our panel featured Dr. Chloe Schwenke, President of the Center for Values in International Development, Tom Churchyard, Founder of Kwakha Indvodza, Francis Arthur, Project Lead at the Grameen Foundation (WAGE Ghana Lead), and Purna Roy-Chowdhury, Associate Director for Women’s Economic Empowerment, Grameen Foundation (WAGE Sri Lanka Lead). In addition to highlighting successes on WAGE initiatives, the panel emphasized the important role research plays in guiding male engagement strategies to mitigate GBV within women’s empowerment programs. They also raised a number of important points for international development practitioners and the donor community to consider.

Dr. Schwenke noted that do no harm approaches used in women’s empowerment programs are a starting point. The conversations around empowerment ought to go further and “need to challenge patriarchy in a way that is not so quiet [because] it is way overdue [for] our time to say, ‘Why are we allowing this system to not be challenged - to not be questioned - in a structured way’”.  Patriarchy, as a system inherently designed to disempower/oppress women, constrains the extent to which a woman is empowered. It is accepted as an all-encompassing truth, so far so that empowerment programming merely tries to navigate within it. This begs hard moral questions that we need to ask ourselves as practitioners - “How do we even think about empowerment? And, should women and marginalized persons have to accept that their ‘empowerment’ will be limited by patriarchy’s continuing dominance?”.  When 92.7% of GBV is perpetrated by men, yet the majority of those working toward gender equality are women, moral questions such as these need to be discussed with rigor and ought to inform international development.  There needs to be a change in the values we instill in children and greater involvement of more men as allies, at a systemic level, in this fight. This is essential for women to achieve economic, political, and social empowerment.

In his discussion, Churchyard noted framing utilized in male engagement should be aware that men often equate gender equality and women’s empowerment as a loss of power for men. In Eswatini, WAGE saw a change in attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors of fathers because emphasis was placed on raising their awareness of the benefits they stand to gain from being more present in the home, participating in family life, holding space for their wives to participate in decision making, being in community with other fathers, and looking after their mental health. International development programs that promote positive masculinity/fatherhood should utilize localized approaches and should be formally linked to women’s empowerment programs. Practitioners should also encourage men to reflect on their experiences within patriarchy and their understanding of masculinity to make sustainable changes to attitudes and behaviors. Those of us in this line of work need to ensure that more safe spaces are provided to men to discuss these issues and to share their vulnerabilities. This is important given the expectations placed on men that discourages their emotional vulnerability.

Arthur highlighted the importance of a localized approach in the design in male engagement and WEE programs. In Ghana, the team’s strategy and approach were guided by local norms - “We acknowledged the existing cultural and social norms pertaining to men and women within our project areas where most authoritative powers are ascribed to men, and anything that a woman does [she] needs to seek permission from a man.” At every stage of implementation including the recruitment of DFS agents; the training of agents on business operations, gender, GBV; the setup of their businesses; and their focus on GBV prevention; spouses, male community leaders and influencers were brought into activities as participants.  The training materials we developed utilized local terms used to describe GBV. This created a shared understanding between the implementing team, local partners and the DFS agents about key terms. Without this understanding, WAGE’s implementation would have been hindered.

Roy-Chowdhury emphasized several best practices including WAGE implementation at the district, community, and household levels. Additionally, WAGE was able to create multiplier effects by being nimble and creative about the various ways it leveraged opportunities to engage male allies for WEE in Sri Lanka. Male allies served as Women in Learning and Leadership (WILL) Club steering committee members and were instrumental in creating linkages to male district government officials who lent their support to the collaborative action plans the Clubs developed. In some instances, this support was in the form of the free use of venues for meetings, while in other instances it involved connecting WILL Clubs to service providers essential for business operations.  Male allies also served alongside the WAGE implementing team to provide training for women entrepreneurs, their spouses, male gatekeepers that provided space for collective exploration of the role harmful gender norms, unequal household workloads, and GBV act as a barrier to WEE. In addition to these best practices, Roy-Chowdhury raised the issue of sustainability and the concern about “projectizing” shifts in harmful gender norms. Systemic barriers to women’s empowerment have been perpetuated for generations, whereas international development projects operate in specific moments in time. More thought needs to go into sustaining project interventions.

From challenging patriarchal attitudes and behaviors to advocating for policy changes that support women’s rights, men can become valuable allies and advocates for women. We must always remember that the journey towards gender equality requires collective efforts and a commitment from all individuals to promote and uphold gender equity.

You can learn more about WAGE male engagement approaches here

Published on May 17, 2023.

About the Author

Muthoni Kamuyu-Ojuolo, Program Director, Women and Girls Empowered (WAGE), has close to two decades in the field of international development with regional expertise in Africa. Over the course of her career, she has focused on democracy and governance, women’s empowerment, and rule of law. Prior to joining ABA ROLI, Muthoni served as the Director for Africa and Accountable Governance at PartnersGlobal, where she led a range of rule of law programs designed to improve inter-agency coordination on criminal justice reform. During her 10 year tenure at the National Democratic Institute (NDI), she designed and managed political inclusion programs that increased the participation of women, youth, and people with disabilities in elections and prepared women to run for elected office. As the lead for NDI’s extractive industry governance programs, she drove consensus among government, corporations, and communities to secure the environmental rights and protections of mining and oil communities and in particular women living in these communities. At the Center for International Private Enterprise, Muthoni’s work focused on organizing informal sector workers for joint action to advance policy, legislative, and regulatory priorities that would enable them to enter the formal economy. Muthoni has led and managed programs in several African countries including The Gambia, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, South Africa and Zambia to name a few.  She earned a BA in International Business with a concentration in Finance from Eastern Michigan University and is a proud alum of Howard University where she earned a MA in African Studies with a concentration in Conflict Resolution. 

*Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States Government. 
Women and Girls Empowered (WAGE) is a global consortium to advance the status of women and girls, led by the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) in close partnership with the Center for International Private Enterprise, Grameen Foundation, and Search for Common Ground. WAGE works to strengthen the capacity of private sector organizations (PSOs) and civil society organizations (CSOs) in target countries to improve the prevention of and response to gender-based violence (GBV); advance the women, peace, and security (WPS) agenda; and support women’s economic empowerment (WEE). In this context, WAGE provides direct assistance to women and girls, including information, resources, and services they need to succeed as active and equal participants in the global economy. WAGE also engages in collaborative research and learning to build a body of evidence on relevant promising practices in these thematic areas. To account for the deeply interconnected nature of women’s and girls’ experiences, WAGE’s initiatives employ approaches that are highly collaborative, integrated, and inclusive. WAGE is funded by the U.S. Department of State Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues.

The materials contained herein represent the opinions of the authors and editors and should not be construed to be those of either the American Bar Association unless adopted pursuant to the bylaws of the Association. Nothing contained herein is to be considered as the rendering of legal advice for specific cases, and readers are responsible for obtaining such advice from their own legal counsel. These materials and any forms and agreements herein are intended for educational and informational purposes only.