Male Involvement

Limitations to engaging men in Anti-FGM Campaigns


While engaging men in the work to end FGM has been put forward as an important step in eradicating the practice, it is not a silver bullet. Several shortcomings and critiques of this strategy have been developed by experts.

First of all, involving men in FGM prevention is not always easy because men (and women) are not expected to challenge prevalent norms in patriarchal societies. During the webinar organized by the CoP within the frame of the discussion on male involvement, Peter Kemei,  Rodrigue Bukungu Nkwayaya and Modou Lamin Davies raised the point that men who are engaged against FGM may be seen as “weak”, “unmanly” and considered inferior to “real men”. For some male allies, working on FGM can challenge their status in their society and can make them susceptible to critics from community members, including leaders. This challenge of men’s status may be considered a central part in creating sustainable change of patriarcal societies but in practice it may result in slowing down the process of engaging men to take a stand against FGM.

Secondly, because of the privilege that men have in many societies, those who participate in anti-FGM may be given disproportionate space and praise and may in even lead to more gender inequality. Men who stand up for women’s rights are sometimes put on a pedestal, their work considered “amazing”, while that done by hundreds and thousands of women before them is sometimes not given the same attention. Thus, programmes may reinforce the status quo of men – and their work – being more valued than women’s and of women and their competencies in turn being downgraded. During the CoP discussion, members further argued that male involvement against FGM can unintentionally reinforce the gender norms and gendered power imbalances that characterize patriarchal societies and that give rise to FGM in the first place. They argued that voices in favour of male engagement tend to emphasize that women are the main perpetuators of FGM and that men in patriarchal societies have the power to make them stop the practice because women are expected to submit to men’s orders and that in fact they need men to tell them how to behave. While such a strategy might lead to an effective decrease in FGM it can at the same time reinforce the role and power of men while putting the entire blame for the practice on women alone, ignoring the true roles played by men in the practice of FGM.

“An approach that uses the power of men in patriarchal societies also risks confirming the assumption that women should not take decisions, because they apparently take decisions that cause harm, unless a man stops them. Men’s expectations and attitudes towards women and particularly women’s sexuality create the social context in which the practice can thrive. Their role is more than allowing it to happen by remaining silent about it.”

Julia Lehmann, SRHR Programme Manager for Plan International Denmark

Thirdly, men who work against FGM may not always consider FGM as part of a continuum of violence and within the broader patriarchal society. They may not consider their own role in upholding patriarchy, or the privileges they hold within this system. FGM may be addressed only as a stand-alone topic. Such programmes will not be gender-transformative i.e. will not contribute to ending men’s domination over women including all types of GBV. 

In fact, another CoP member, Maria Väkiparta, the Adviser on Gender Equality for the International Solidarity Foundation, stressed that discourses around the engagement of men and boys in the fight against FGM are often based on the valorisation of hegemonic masculinity. In her argument, she highlighted that « heroic discourses in relation to men discourages critical self-examination and portraits male anti-FGM activists as virtuous (strong, or courageous, or bold) and as ‘good men’”. She stressed that this view on male anti-FGM activists may place them and their own relationships with women beyond critical assessments and neglect the privileges that they and other men in general have in patriarchal contexts. 

Finally, by framing FGM in terms of sexual problems and inviting men to take a stand against it, FGM programs face the risk of focusing on men’ psychosexual problems and attributing women’s sexual health and pleasure an instrumental value. Thus further reinforcing gender inequality.

Samantha Royle and Frank Ouedraogo, from Tackle Africa, stressed the importance that anti-FGM programming seizes the opportunity of engaging men and boys, because of their relative power in the society, while at the same time working towards the long-term goal of gender equality by addressing the underlying gender norms and empowering women.

  • How do we ensure that anti-FGM campaigns are truly gender transformative and that male allies have the capacities to challenge patriarchal structures that uphold gender-based violence and men’s domination over women?

  • Which challenges or limits of working with male allies when tackling a violence against women such as FGM have you seen in your work? How can they be overcome?
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