Including men in anti-FGM programs is not enough

Several members shared experiences of working with men, addressing the challenges and how they can be overcome in order to ensure that male anti-FGM allies engage fully in the transformation of gender norms and inequalities. 

Annalisa D’Aguanno, a GAMS Belgium psychologist shared her experience of co-moderating a workshop with men from FGM affected communities, held every second week for 3 months and whose objective was to raise awareness on FGM, GBV in general and reflect on masculinities. While participants were convinced that FGM is harmful, there was resistance when the issues of other types of GBV and gender norms were raised: 

“from the moment we broadened the reflection to include gender-based violence such as forced marriage and intra-family violence and questioned the way in which little girls and boys are educated (which is at the root of inequalities), we encountered resistance.”

When discussing what it means to be a “good man” or a “good woman”, participants stressed the need for women to be educated according to “traditional feminine values” and were resistant to the questioning of male privilege:

“They clearly put their fingers on the importance for them that certain so-called “feminine” values be respected and perpetuated, while they are against FGM, such as the importance of virginity, the respect given to the husband… Do you see what I am getting at?

One reading of the episode is that the commitment [against FGM] was there but they were not ready to question these gendered behaviours that serve inequalities since some of their privileges stem from this. It was impossible at that point in the debate to be able to address the issue of privilege. The further we went in this direction, the more the discussion closed and so did their position.”

This resistance to questioning gender norms was also emphasized by Maria Väkiparta, Advisor on Gender Equality at International Solidarity Foundation (Finland), who shared results from her Phd research conducted in Somalia:

In her research with men and women who had volunteered in local anti-FGM/C campaigns in Hargeisa, Somaliland, Maria explored how particularly the male interviewees discursively construct knowledge and beliefs about gender. 

“I found that they employ ‘hierarchical difference discourse’ and ‘masculine responsibility discourse’ to challenge some forms of violence against women (e.g. pharaonic cutting), while legitimating others (e.g. sunnah cutting), and to reproduce the patriarchal gender order. There were, however, also signs of the men renegotiating some elements of prevailing gender norms.

The ‘hierarchical difference discourse’ locates women and men in strictly separate roles and spheres: women in the private sphere and men in the public arena. This strict gender segregation is presented as a ‘balanced’ division of rights and responsibilities and justified by Islam. It is further legitimized by emphasising ‘natural’ gender differences, defining feminine and masculine in opposition to one another. In many interviews, Somaliland was presented as a gender equal society. Moreover, strict gender segregation is justified by representing gender equality as a ‘zero-sum game’: improvements in women’s labour market status (through, for example, affirmative action) are portrayed as discriminatory towards men.

The masculine responsibility discourse, in turn, justifies men’s superiority through men’s substantial responsibilities towards their nation and their family. Stressing men’s primary role as the family breadwinners, constructing men as ‘natural leaders,’ and representing anti-FGM/C campaigning as both a male and professional responsibility is strongly aligned with the idealised ‘Somali manhood’ which emphasises responsibility, protection, and care for one’s family and country.” 

 Maria conducted a critical analysis of the discourses used by the male anti-FGM activists. Similarly to what Annalisa shared, she unveiled how women’s subordination was discursively justified, normalised, and (re)produced in many ways, including by people who passionately oppose FGM. 

“This is problematic because FGM/C happens because of patriarchal structures, beliefs, and values.” said Maria Väkiparta.

Both Annalisa and Maria shared saw solutions to this situation in implementing gender transformative approaches to ending FGM: 

FGM/C should be discussed as a symptom of gender inequality and oppression, not (only) as a contributor to women’s health problems. Working to deconstruct men’s superiority can proceed, for instance, by helping the participants to develop critical consciousness of constructions regarding what is ‘natural’ and ‘normal.’ Also, Interventions engaging men should not draw on ideas associated with hegemonic masculinity, such as strength, or being a warrior or a leader, that reinforce the gender-inequitable masculine ideals.” Maria Väkiparta     

Speaking from her position on a programmatic level, Annalisa explained how she and her colleagues managed to get out of the locked situation with the male workshop group, by bringing the men to speak about their own gendered education and how it affected them negatively:

“We took a few steps back and went back to how they, as a little boy and a man, were brought up. “What does it mean to be a good man? And there […] we heard things like “Bring home the money”, “Protect the family”, “Be an example to others”, “Be strong (don’t cry)”… We questioned what these values meant to them, how these values were instilled in them… We questioned the meaning of these values for them, the way these values have been inculcated in them… and we heard that there was also suffering in their discourse in the sense that if they do not conform to these so-called “masculine” values, they are excluded, mocked, diminished, denigrated by the community, which impacts on their self-esteem. Some confided very intimate things, there was crying, a lot of empathy and love during these moments.

From this moment in the group, we were able to return to the previous question of inequality and gradually come to the question of privilege.

One of the things we learned from this experience was that as soon as we listen to our personal feelings, as soon as we give space and listen to the suffering of men, without judgement, it is possible to work on other themes and come to inequalities.”

GAMS Belgium is planning new sessions with men to deconstruct the gender inequalities that suport FGM, in the near future. 

The International Solidarity Foundation, apply gender transformative approached by integrating FGM prevention efforts into the promotion of women’s livelihood resilience and status in family and society and aim to include discussions on rigid gender roles and responsibilities in all their projects in the 2022-25 programme period.

“The Community of Practice on Female Genital Mutilation” is part of the “Building Bridges between Africa and Europe to tackle FGM” project, supported by the “UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme on the Elimination of FGM”.
The project is coordinated by AIDOS in partnership with GAMS Belgium.

The views expressed on this website are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the UNFPA, UNICEF or any other agency or organization.

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