A few days ago I was lucky enough to meet the wonderful Jenni Murray and the team on BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour, when we debated the issue of gender (in)equality and launched our new campaign Great Men. The show ran footage that we had recorded when we took the amazing comedian and social commentator Doc Brown to visit and talk to the boys at Kelmscott School in Walthamstow. Doc Brown was inspirational and had a theatre of teenage boys in total silence as he used observational humour and rap to cover everything from the Robin Thicke video to sex in tabloid newspapers. He even talked about the advertising messages behind an energy drink called Pussy.
We have been developing the campaign Great Men here in the UK with lots of enthusiasm and hope. Talking to the boys in secondary schools about gender and about how they define their manhood. The relation between the two was an amazing eye-opener. We have worked with Doc Brown and musician Marlon Roudette who have both done an amazing job with the boys, who were mesmerised by their thoughts and their words. Sometimes it got emotional, with the boys telling us about their own personal stories and views and we discovered the void in their education about these essential and life-defining subjects. Yet nature hates voids, so these boys tend to fill the gaps by reading the messages that society is sending us through the media and their peers. I really enjoyed the moments when those young men opened their hearts to the subject.
Raising a daughter in a society where she's told by the media that her place in world affairs is to be topless on Page 3, is not a pleasant reality. Nor is a society in which, before she can talk, she's given a cookery set and a toy baby. Luckily there are a lot of people doing amazing work to challenge these kind of persistent gender stereotypes.
I'm aware, as a woman who grew up in Morocco, and who has worked in many different countries with The GREAT Initiative http://www.thegreatinitiative.org.uk (the charity I founded with Mariella Frostrup and Jason McCue) that women and girls around the world often have tougher challenges to overcome than being faced with Page 3 on their daily commute. Young women like Malala Yousafzai who has been fighting for the right for girls to be educated, are a phenomenal example of the courage and impetus for change that our daughters, all over the world, have within them. In so many countries, girls are forced to marry at an early age, they are fighting hard to be schooled or even be safe to walk to school. Rape is such a big, and sadly, everyday threat, and yes there is also genital mutilation with which to suppress and enslave them.
Moving to London, I had never imagined that my work in international gender equality would be something that would speak to my own two sons, on a such a personal and domestic level. When they set up a GREAT Initiative club at their own school an amazing thing happened: the whole school, including both boys and girls, got involved, voicing how passionately they felt about gender stereotyping and inequality - both in the UK and abroad. I realised how important it was to include our sons in these conversations and also how much they wanted to be involved.
My sons challenged me! They challenged me to start thinking about how gender inequality effects and involves men here closer to home. I started to think about the language that's used to address boys: the language that teaches them that to be called "a girl" is an insult and that they're not being "manly" if they show fear or vulnerability. This kind of language is teaching our boys to be the 'men' of action films, stereotypical adverts and music videos; the kind of fictional roles that require sex, anger and/or money to be the only motivations of a 'real man'.
And the effect of these gender stereotypes are far from trivial. Not only is derogatory or violent behaviour towards women derived from these perceived roles, but these messages also deeply effect men themselves: suicide is the single most common cause of death in men under 35; violent crime is most often committed by men against other men, alcohol and drug addiction is far more common in men and boys than girls and women.
Our campaign Great Men acknowledges the important role of men and boys in the journey towards gender equality and in the conversations and action that needs to take place on the way to achieving it. Part of the campaign is a free school workshop programme, aimed at boys aged 14+, which uses participant-led activities to give young men the language and skills they need to tackle problems of inequality head on.
In ancient societies young men were offered rites of passage from childhood to manhood where they were taught by their fathers, their grand-fathers and other men of their social group positive male roles, they were shown the values of dignity, of courage, of work ethics, of family ethics, of social ethics. They were passing those rites on from one generation to another, as being central in their education. These rites have been lost with the "modernisation" of our world and the breakdown of family and this has left an empty sensation in those young kids, creating even more anxiety.
Children and young people should not be underestimated; they are so much more than the passive absorbers of contemporary culture that the media sometimes portrays them to be. If, while they're still at school, boys are given the tools to question the language, images and structures that allow inequality to persist, then just perhaps they will become the men to stop it; to stand up and speak out against violence; to not be afraid of being honest and open about who they are and how they feel; to be able to seek help and not feel ashamed; to see that they play a vital role in the movement for gender equality as agents for change and as the next generation of men.
Our Great Men campaign has been supported by the Department of Education and we have been joined by many ambassadors to work with boys in schools. But we need more voices to join this campaign, to make it a success for the boys helping define themselves in harmony with their girls peers.
Please join us and visit our website www.great-men.org and lend your support or follow us on twitter @GreatMenUK
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