Is Integrating Men Into Women’s Empowerment Programmes A Universal Solution?

Published: 2023/07/04 Number of words: 1770


To fully understand the current thinking on integrating men into women’s empowerment programmes, it is important to remember that both femininity and masculinity are constructed from cultural and subjective meanings that incessantly shift and vary, and thus the potential for the approach to empower women in one context might not mean it will have the same success in another. The engagement of men into women’s empowerment programming is gaining increasing recognition in the development sector, most notably in relation to women’s economic empowerment (WEE). Nevertheless, WEE does not always translate into greater gender equality. The complexity of gender identities can mean that WEE leads to increased gender-based violence due to the threat men perceive this to have on their masculinity and/or status quo (International Labour Organisation, 2014). Through the incorporation of knowledge and awareness building initiatives for male participants, NGOs have been able to sensitively challenge gender-based discrimination and reduce this threat, highlighting the importance for a better understanding of masculine perceptions towards women’s empowerment on a broader scale and how men can be actively engaged as gatekeepers to gender equality.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO, 2014) published a brief titled ‘Engaging Men in Women’s Economic Empowerment and Entrepreneurship Development Interventions’ to address the failure of economic and entrepreneurship development programmes in promoting sustainable gender equality. Identifying the need to better understand men and masculinities, the study aims to explore the issue of men’s engagement in WEE and women’s entrepreneurship development (WED) to understand male involvement, good practices that can be reproduced in future programming and areas for consideration.

At the family and household level, the study found that men can be engaged as a direct support for their female relatives in economic empowerment, such as giving women access to capital, information and networks that they would otherwise be restricted from accessing due to context-specific gender barriers. Another family level approach was to invite the men to training on what the household has to gain from their wives’ businesses and how they can support them, training aimed at challenging established gender norms to encourage mutual understanding between household members and behavioural changes for men, and decision-making interventions through guided steps on how to develop a mutually respectful dynamic to reduce domestic violence.

At a community level, the study draws upon two examples, one from a Brazilian-led intervention to help address wider issues of WEE and positively engage men to transform gender norms and support women’s economic participation and growth; and one from an intervention in Burundi where men who had started to question their traditional way of life, particularly their practices of domestic abuse, economic violence and the unequal share of the burden of work, were empowered as change agents to reach other men in the community and change traditional gender norms. Both interventions used training to disseminate messages promoting positive masculinities; encouraged conversations between the male participants, encouraged them to take ownership of what they have learnt, and empowered them to promote gender equality. Engaging men in WEE and WED at policy level was identified as limited and policies which promote positive masculinities and men’s support are required if sustainable gender equality is to be encouraged.

The ILO identify four key recommendations for engaging men in WEE and WED that with careful consideration could be adapted to women’s empowerment programmes beyond economic activities. The recommendations are as follows:

1) Understand context-specific gender dynamics by conducting gender assessments at all levels to identify existing cultural, religious, and institutional practices that can be leveraged or not in project implementation.

2) Devote larger efforts to developing tools and strategies to enable moving beyond income-based returns for women and lead to more sustainable change towards gender equality.

3) Engage boys and men as early/young as possible as they are more likely to embrace change.

4) Include all male family members as each male generation can play a role in gender dynamics at the household level.

In addition, the ILO highlights the importance in finding the balance in the extent to which men are engaged to avoid them overpowering female-focused development programmes (2014).

To expand on context-specific gender dynamics and how development programmes must adapt from one to another, it is important to draw upon contexts where women’s economic empowerment does not translate to greater gender equality. In certain Arab countries where economies hold higher-middle- and higher-income classifications, extreme religious beliefs pose harmful threats to women’s rights, such as ‘honour’ killings and female genital mutilation. Although such violent and/or fatal crimes against women need tackling first and foremost at policy-level, there is also the need to challenge deep-rooted patriarchal norms at a family-level, which this study has acknowledged as the smallest unit for change. Referring back to the ILO’s study, all four recommendations should be applicable to frameworks broader than women’s economic empowerment. In an article published by UN (UN, 2012) Women about how a Palestinian hip hop group raises awareness of ‘honour’ killings through music, the United Nations entity claim that the mobilisation and engagement of youth, men and women together is a “vital element to bring sustainable change” and subsequently challenge laws and systems by demanding reforms. To encourage women’s empowerment where financial enticements are not relevant, the gateway to women is likely to be more limited and research will be necessary to identify pathways, yet that does not discourage the potential that integrating men and boys into empowerment programmes can have on progress towards gender equality in these circumstances.

In a critical reflection on harmful gender norms in aquatic agricultural systems, Promundo-US and AAS led by WorldFish regard the engagement of men and boys in development as something that needs to be an integral part of agricultural development programmes. Promundo is an applied research institute that drives evidence-based advocacy and programme development on men and boys to promote gender equality, improve health, and end violence against women and children. With teams based in South America, Sub-Saharan Africa and Europe, and partners in more than 35 countries, Promundo provides a broad and insightful perspective on how engaging men and boys in women’s empowerment programmes, referred to as gender-transformative approaches, will improve the health, well-being, and rights of individuals. Promundo-US and AAS led by WorldFish have devised a manual – based on experiences – to provide thematically relevant resources that, with careful consideration, can be adapted to women’s empowerment programmes outside of aquatic agricultural communities (Promundo-US & AAS, 2016).

‘A Manual to Spark Critical Reflection on Harmful Gender Norms with Men and Boys in Aquatic Agricultural Systems’ utilises an ecological-model perspective to transform gender norms at multiple levels of society; where changes in global and regional economies, shifting family structures, and patterns of migration and urbanisation, among other factors, have “powerfully shifted and shaped the way men and women relate to one another” (2017:6). The manual is designed to guide development practitioners through 13 activity-based groups to 1) Promote an understanding that ideas of manhood and womanhood are determined by society and not by biology through cross-gender dialogue and open, respectful debate 2) Analyse and identify household decision-making powers to equitably share them between partners, and to promote men’s participation unpaid care and domestic work 3) Promote an understanding of violence – physical, emotional and economic – and the skills necessary to resolve conflicts in non-violent and constructive alternatives.

To implement the guidance of the manual to contexts outside of aquatic agricultural communities, three important factors must be considered:

1) Pick an effective facilitator – Someone who fully understands that to achieve gender equality, men must be part of the solution, and in turn has the ability to create a safe environment where participants feel listened to and are encouraged to engage in respectful, honest discussion. The manual recommends that the facilitator should be trained in active listening, able to manage group dynamics and has a solid understanding in the basic concepts of gender, femininity, and masculinity.

2) Decide whether to hold mixed or single-sex groups – To avoid the potential for group members to (re)victimise women and girls, whether intentionally or unintentionally, it is critical to ensure the safety and security of female participants through methodical preparation and training. The manual recommends conducting a focus group with female members of the targeted community to understand their needs, whilst acknowledging that mixed groups provide a “unique and powerful” opportunity to co-reflect on harmful gender norms and practice positive behaviours together.

3) Consider other sources of influence – Mixed groups could also engage extended family members who may have a negative influence on gender norms or could help support the construction of positive ones. For example, in some cultures, mothers-in-law have great assertions over decisions, including who is responsible for domestic chores, how children are raised and how wives should behave. By engaging extended family members, gender equality could be reached with less resistance.

Such considerations reinforce the topic of discussion regarding men and women’s empowerment programmes and engaging them is critical for progress to be made towards gender equality within a global paradigm of gender norms.


Throughout the research it has been identified that integrating men into women’s empowerment programmes has the potential for sustainable change towards equitable gender norms if programmes are planned and executed through methodical, context-specific research. Facilitating change at a family-level is likely to be more practicable than at a household level, as household dynamics vastly differ depending on the social and economic contexts that they exist in. The integration of men and boys into women’s empowerment programmes has the ability to transform deep-rooted hegemonic ideologies in a transnational framework, particularly through awareness-building activities, demonstrated by the first case study and further supported by literature sourced from notable actors in the development sector. The current thinking surrounding the approach illustrates optimism and it is justified to consider the integration of men into women’s empowerment programmes as the key to making progress that has been historically absent towards achieving women’s empowerment and gender equality.


International Labour Organisation, 2014. ENGAGING MEN IN WOMEN’S ECONOMIC EMPOWERMENT AND ENTREPRENEURSHIP DEVELOPMENT INTERVENTIONS. Women’s Entrepreneurship Development Programme. [online] Geneva: International Labour Organisation. Available at: <—ed_emp/—emp_ent/—ifp_seed/documents/briefingnote/wcms_430936.pdf> [Accessed 21 March 2020].

UN, 2012. The Millennium Development Goals Report 2012. New York: United Nations.

Promundo-US; CGIAR Research on Aquatic Agricultural Systems (2016). Promoting gender-transformative change with men and boys: A Manual to spark critical reflection on harmful gender norms with men and boys in Aquatic Agricultural Systems. Washington DC: Promundo-US and Penang: CGIAR Research Program on Aquatic Agricultural Systems

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