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Michelle Obama Got It Right

By Marcia Odell

Michelle Obama got it just right when, in her address at the Summit of the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders last Wednesday, she pointed out that when it comes to the role of girls and women in Africa, “the problem…isn’t only about resources, it’s also about attitudes and beliefs.” Ms. Obama went on to observe incisively, “I am who I am today because of the people in my family – particularly the men in my family – who valued me and invested in me from the day I was born.”

I am fortunate to be working for a group, Plan International, which appreciates the importance of engaging men and boys in promoting gender justice. Through its programming Plan has learned, mostly in projects in Latin American, some important lessons when it comes to engaging brothers and fathers, uncles and grandfathers, in the enormous and challenging job of tackling the root causes of gender inequality – of achieving gender justice.

I know that at first this may seem a daunting, challenging task – and it is – but Plan has learned several key lessons that make the imperative that Ms. Obama laid out to engage male family and community members in supporting girls and women in gender-equal relationships achievable. 

First, to effectively engage boys and men to work towards gender equality, they need to understand that dominant masculinity has costs and benefits for them, in addition to the grave costs for women and girls that are universally recognized. Gender stereotypes and rigid gender roles can lead boys and men to high-risk and violent behaviors that prevent them from developing healthy relationships with girls and women, and with other boys and men. Understanding the costs of dominant masculinity, of behavior that can result from machismo, for example, that can put boys and men’s good health, and even their lives, at risk, is key to generating men and boys’ engagement in the gender justice arena.

Second, engaging men and boys to define their own healthy and non-violent ways of being a man is critical in promoting the rights of girls and women. Once young men and boys have gone through this process themselves, a shift towards gender equality can take place.

Third, awareness-raising and learning seem to happen most readily when boys and men have positive male role models. It helps them to hear stories that show them that boys and men can adopt gender equitable behaviors – and even inspire others to do the same. First-hand accounts make it easier for men and boys to imagine different gender norms from what they have known since birth. It is also important for boys and men to hear these stories and discuss masculinity in places where they feel safe.

Finally, Plan has learned that successful programs with boys and young men consider and address the potential risks in the process of change. Challenging gender inequality often involves conflict and could place boys and men at risk of bullying and other forms of violence if these risks are not anticipated and if steps are not taken to avoid them. 

In short, there are tested ways for making it possible for men and boys to tap their capacity to change their gender roles and design what their new roles will be. One day, perhaps sooner rather than later, hundreds of millions of women around the world will be able to say, as Michelle Obama did the other day, that the men in their families had valued them and invested in them, and had told them that they were smart and strong and beautiful.

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