Challenging times for gender equality
Eastern Europe and Central Asia are culturally and socially very diverse, but all countries have a strong gender divide and traditional gender norms. In parallel to the consequences of the economic crisis, there has been a rise in conservatism and a backlash against women’s rights. Both factors have pushed governments to adopt austerity measures which result in a growing reliance on women’s unpaid work.
In addition, the elderly population is increasing in the region, and middle-aged women have become part of the so-called “sandwich generation.” Low quality public childcare means that women provide unpaid care for older people, look after one or more dependent children, and, at the same time, try to combine paid employment and meet their career aspirations. Although women in the region generally have a high level of education, the unpaid care responsibilities assigned to them by strict gender roles do not allow them to follow their career aspirations.
Rigid gender roles impact on men, women, and their children as well. The gender divide restricts men’s role only to a breadwinner function and ties women’s primary value to their reproductive role, maternal care and the private sphere of home.
UNFPA has supported a number of studies exploring the concept of masculinity in the region, looking specifically at gender attitudes, gender norms and notions of masculinity. For instance, The International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES) was conducted in Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, Serbia, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine. The findings show that men are more likely to agree with rigid or traditional notions of gender roles compared to women. Masculinity is strongly associated with a man’s ability to financially support his family, for instance agreement with statements like “a man who does not have an income is of no value.” And men continue to dominate decision-making power in intimate relationships.
The survey has shown that men who have witnessed or suffered from physical violence in their childhood are more likely to be perpetrators of intimate partner violence in their adulthood. They also show a greater tendency toward less equitable gender attitudes and endorse statements about intimate partner violence such as “women should tolerate violence to keep the family together” or “in some cases women deserve to be beaten.” These findings illustrate the intergenerational transmission of violence.
Yet younger generations are more receptive to change and to challenging traditional gender roles and notions of masculinities. Men acknowledge that strict gender norms restrict men as caring personalities and as fathers. By expanding the definition of fatherhood for men beyond being sole financial provider and protector for the family, space is created for men to connect with others in relationships of greater emotional honesty and empathy.
Fathers who are more involved also have female partners who report greater relationship satisfaction and stronger feelings of support.
A narrow concept of masculinity does not give men the freedom to live their lives as they might want to. Specific notions about harmful masculinity vary across cultures, age groups and ethnicities, but the common points are anti-femininity, achievement, avoidance of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk and violence.
Allies, not opponents
For decades, gender equality has been considered a women’s issue, and gender equality policies have been contextualised mainly as a women’s issue as well. We at UNFPA strongly believe that men are an important ally and should be motivated by the positive impact of gender equality for them and the well-being of society as a whole rather than by fear, shame or guilt.
There are a number of myths that create obstacles to men and boys to advocate gender equality. Firstly, gender inequality might be dismissed by men as invalid, as privilege becomes a norm and is invisible to those who own it. Understanding masculinities is important.
Secondly, men might see gender inequality as a women’s issue rather than an issue that has implications for everybody. Therefore, it is important to show men how gender stereotypes limit their choices as well.
Thirdly, gender equality might be resisted by men out of concern that it will limit their own opportunities. The common misperception is that when women win, men lose. Helping men to see that gender equality benefits all helps to reduce this resistance and make them part of the change. Men need to understand that gender equality does not mean they “get less of the pie,” but that the pie gets bigger.
Fourthly, men might feel like they are blamed for gender inequality. UNFPA tries to avoid any labels such as “good man” and “bad man”. It is not about shaming or blaming men but treating them as strong allies with a common goal.
Fifthly, gender inequality can be seen as an abstract business problem rather than something that creates a disadvantage for women and girls, men and boys. Sharing the stories of women (and men) who have suffered from gender bias, harassment or discrimination is a powerful technique for invoking empathy and engaging men in the gender debate on an emotional rather than an intellectual level. Studies show that the emotional brain is a more effective motivator than the rational brain.
Sixthly, many men actually do not oppose gender equality, but they don’t know how to help. If this is the case, the best approach is to show them and explain concretely what they could do as an individual, in groups and within institutions. Transferring strategies to men for advancing women can help men “walk the talk.”
From data to dialogue
UNFPA advocates gender equality at different policy levels, focusing in particular on long-term benefits. This can be sensitive because gender equality is often perceived as something that is imposed from outside. Therefore, it is important to package it in a culturally sensitive way and use different entry points for interventions. Data from studies such as IMAGES help to define compelling arguments for a dialogue.
UNFPA works in several streams. One of them is gender-responsive family policies which offer a balanced combination of fertility and career aspirations, as well as addressing unpaid care work which is often considered a secondary issue. This allows men to be further engaged with sexual, reproductive and family planning related issues and to become more engaged as fathers. At the same time, it allows women to combine their motherhood intentions, while building their career path as well.
Addressing harmful social norms is another very critical area that we focus on. One approach we are taking is working with adolescent boys and girls, because the transition into adolescence is especially central in shaping and maintaining masculinity norms. Programmes focusing on peer-to-peer education or challenging masculinity norms of young people can have a significant impact on gender equality.
We look at the community level and work with gate keepers, the media and sports clubs, but also with more traditional bodies like faith-based organisations. On the country level, we try to look at different entry points which are more appropriate for the specific country. In Tajikistan, for instance, we work with sports clubs like taekwondo to involve sports figures in the gender equality movement. In Turkey and Ukraine, we work more with the private sector to involve men in paternity and care.
Through our partnerships at different levels with governments, among civil society, academia, research institutions and individual experts we upscale and institutionalise gender transformative approaches, so they can have a wider impact. By working together, implementing projects, conducting research, bringing and exchanging global and regional expertise and experiences, good practice and lessons learnt we can make a difference on the ground to policy making and behaviour change with a long-term impact on people’s lives.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is the United Nations’ sexual and reproductive health agency. Their mission is to deliver a world where every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe, and every young person’s potential is fulfilled. Dr. Nigina Abaszadeh is UNFPA’s Regional Technical Adviser on Gender and Human Rights for Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Dr. Nigina Abaszadeh is UNFPA’s Regional Technical Adviser on Gender and Human Rights for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.