Gender equality and women’s empowerment are prerequisites for prosperous societies. To begin a conscious shift towards such a future, we must understand that although gender is merely a social construct for identification, patriarchal systems and practices have made it a major basis of discrimination. And for far too long, men have enjoyed the greater opportunities and freedom presented to them by such a system without making amends for the resulting gender gap. Men need to urgently reflect on their role in perpetuating such inequalities and change existing norms and attitudes to create balanced and gender-equal communities.
Encouragingly, there have been some recent initiatives taken to address gender disparities, such as men pledging to shun all-male panels (or “manels”), the HeForShe movement, and the pro-feminist men’s movement. Yet, we have seen a rise in gender inequalities and injustices, particularly reflected in the troubling increases in gender-based violence against women. Data published by WHO in 2017 show that one in three women around the world experience physical or sexual violence, making it one of the most common human rights abuses. We have all witnessed with horror and dismay the recent worldwide outcry (the #MeToo movement) about sexual assault and harassment at the workplace by men in prominent positions.
Likewise, the unequal treatment of girls and women is still prevalent in the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region because of deep-rooted historical and cultural factors and unfocused, indifferent policies, among other reasons. Such treatment manifests in the form of sex-selective abortion, violence against girls and women, unequal access to and control over resources, lower wages, and unequal employment and career advancement opportunities. It is time to empower young women and men to challenge and break through prevailing norms that underpin such gender inequality in all its forms and manifestations.
On this International Women’s Day, let us celebrate women’s contributions and achievements by challenging entrenched gender-based discrimination and pledging an even deeper commitment to gender equality throughout the HKH, and the world. Our research has shown that the feminization of responsibilities is occurring across the HKH because of the increasing outmigration of men in search of better livelihood options. Women are developing their skills and capacities to assume not only conventional male roles but also traditionally male-dominated spaces and domains. This progress surely needs to be hailed and valued.
Men must now step up and take equal responsibility in tilting the scale towards a more balanced world by supporting the advancement of women’s rights and gender equality. A change in societal notions and interpretations of masculinity is urgently required, and men need to contribute. This means men need to critically analyze longstanding discriminatory norms and the advantages that these afford men, sincerely introspect on how these have been internalized and normalized, and challenge them. They need to recognize the systemic and everyday oppression that women face and correct the historical imbalance by creating a level playing field for women.
We must also understand that antiquated gender roles impact men too. Gender-biased norms often put great pressure on men, who are labelled as “providers”, “protectors”, and the “strong” gender! Such stereotypes and rigid gender roles need to be broken by uniting women and men as equal partners in the collective fight.
Change starts in homes and work places through a concerted effort to reflect on everyday interactions with women. As professionals, we must act to ensure that an equitable, inclusive and safe environment is created in the spaces we operate in; gender-balanced teams are formed; and women are given equal opportunity to be hired and promoted.
It is the responsibility of every employer to provide a safe, friendly and conducive workplace for women employees. Organizations should set up grievance committees that will listen to the complaints of women employees, maintain confidentiality and investigate independently. It is also important to organize awareness programmes so that women employees know their rights. All this will make women employees feel safer in the workplace.
While in the field, we need to be conscious of the societal restrictions that shackle women’s voices and participation. This consciousness will allow us to formulate alternate strategies to hear about their needs and ideas and amplify their voices. I find it important to frequently reflect on actions I take to see whether I am really supporting gender equality.
This year, let us call on men to make changes in their professional and personal lives on this International Women’s Day 2019!
By David Molden
Dr David Molden is Director General of International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).