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I'm A Man Campaigning For Girls' And Women's Rights. Here's Why It Shouldn't Surprise You

30/11/2016 10:19

For the past 18 months, I've been leading a global campaign to help end violence against girls and young women. The catch is that I am a man.

Why - as a man - did I join a girls' rights campaign? It's funny because over the years I've worked with numerous organisations on campaigns that have addressed and benefited a whole range of groups and minorities - from indigenous people, victims of torture, and rural communities in Africa. Yet never before have I been asked so often why was I working on a specific issue until I got involved with girls' rights.

Girls around the world face violence, exclusion and discrimination every day, just because of their gender. That didn't sit well with me, and I wanted to change it. That's why I now work with Plan International UK, which is working to advance equality for girls globally. Our Because I am a Girl campaign aims to tackle violence against women and girls by addressing its root causes.

We are all aware, in different ways, of the different expectations of men and women, boys and girls - expectations of what girls and boys should or shouldn't do, expectations surrounding their domestic behaviours, occupation, physical appearance and personality.

Though they can seem trivial at times, these stereotypes can be harmful, and create an environment that enables discrimination and violence against women and girls. For instance, the view that women are better suited to or made for caring duties and domestic chores exposes young girls to the risk being forced into marriage.

If we assume certain roles for a girl or woman, we are making judgements on her worth. In doing so, depending on where in the world she lives, we put her at greater risk of not completing school, not having the career options she might crave, being married early, and being subjected to abuse.

But it is not just stereotyped expectations of women and girls that can be harmful. 'Masculinity' means many different things to different people, but there are age-old notions that linger in media, pop-culture and in our homes.

The idea that 'manliness' should be measured by a man's strength, earning power, 'banter' or even sexual performance is dangerous - it can create an inevitable power imbalance, and an environment where sexual violence against women is perpetrated, even implicitly condoned.

The gender stereotypes that men are expected to subscribe to create an inevitable power dynamic that often leaves women at the receiving end of discrimination.

So in order to challenge violence, it is not enough to empower girls and women - we must also look at the role of men and boys. In a sense, that's why my gender is important in my work.

At Plan International's recent Youth Action Festival in London, I ran a workshop on positive masculinity, helping boys understand how they can become everyday allies against sexism and gender discrimination.

During the discussion, a group of boys and girls talked about acceptable behaviour and language. It was amazing to see the 'light-bulb moment' when some of the boys realised that some of the things that they did or said might cause offence. That, for example, shouting "hey, gorgeous" to a girl they barely knew might not actually be received as a compliment.

It's not always easy for men and boys to be an ally for gender equality. Some men face backlash by not conforming to traditional 'masculine' behaviour. When Plan International set up an education centre in a Pakistani village home to a young man called Ahmed, he saw an opportunity for his wife, who had studied only until primary school, to continue her education.

Ahmed took on a share of the domestic chores to help her, but this was met with derision: "When I saw her overburdened with both household and school work I decided to help her by taking all her household responsibilities on my shoulders but my relatives and neighbours made fun of me and criticized me," he says.

"Despite this, I kept it up and just ignored what others are saying", he adds.

In my work, I meet more and more boys and young men like Ahmed, who, through changing their own behaviour, become powerful advocates for girls and women. Hearing their stories, I'm reminded that being a man managing a campaign for girls' rights shouldn't be exceptional at all. We need to empower girls to understand and claim their rights, but we must also recognise that the responsibility cannot and should not be on girls and women individually.

It's only when boys and girls, men and women work together that we'll create a society in which everyone is seen as equal, and violence and discrimination can become a thing of the past.

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