By: Branden Ryan – Interim Gender Coordinator/PCVL
At first reading, the term Boys’ Empowerment can seem a little off-putting. Why do we need to empower boys? What does that mean? Are we trying to argue that boys need more rights or opportunities? Are boys even underrepresented in society? Do we have resources to spare when women’s empowerment is a big concern?
For Peace Corps Tanzania, our focus is reflected in our Cross-Sector Programming Priority: Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment. Generally, women’s empowerment work is aimed at providing skills, education, and confidence for women to participate fully in all aspects of society, from economic activities to governance. The aim is to improve quality of life for women and to provide women with opportunities to gain status in the workplace, marketplace, and community at large. Peace Corps Volunteers do a lot of female empowerment work, especially focusing on girls’ empowerment: Huru International, Maua Mazuri, Skillz Girlz, etc., and now, Let Girls Learn. Volunteers have become more focused on helping girls and women receive education, take ownership of their bodies and health, and understand the role and importance of a strong-minded woman in society. Volunteers, in general, understand the importance of female empowerment work.
But what about male empowerment? Are boys’ and men’s empowerment projects even necessary? The USAWA Committee has discussed the purpose of male empowerment as a whole, and it is agreed that gender equality and women’s empowerment must reach all groups of society, including men and boys. How can one promote women’s empowerment, overlooking part of the population? If men do not respect women’s rights, how can women hope to achieve and maintain equal rights? If men are resistant to change, how effective will efforts to instill behavior or cultural change be?
It is true. Using the term Boys’ Empowerment can have a negative connotation, but the truth of boys’ empowerment work is that it does not equate female empowerment with male empowerment (boys, men, or otherwise). Rather, we have to use the term empowerment because there is a lack of a better word. We aren’t elevating one gender over another and we aren’t trying to diminish the importance of women’s empowerment. We aren’t working for empowerment in the sense that men and boys need to have the same benefits of empowerment programs or that men and boys need to be afforded opportunities for advancement in society. Instead, the function of male empowerment is to empower boys to change societies that would generally privilege them. Boys, young men, and even men in their prime need to be empowered to ask why there is gender inequality, what the benefits of gender equality are, and how society as a whole needs empowered women. Without male empowerment programs that educate about gender equality, men and boys are likely to maintain the status quo as there would be little reason for change. Boys and young men need to be empowered to challenge existing beliefs or cultural values that hinder the social progress of others. Confidence or ability to be an agent for this change and an ally for women’s empowerment is best cultivated in safe and encouraging spaces that are created in environments of empowerment for boys and men.
Gender equality is not a zero-sum scenario where one group can only benefit at the expense of another; it’s a positive-sum game where everyone benefits from being empowered to improve and influence the quality of life for all.
Sometimes, Volunteers face challenges in implementing empowerment programs. Sometimes, it is not culturally appropriate for a Volunteer to engage in some projects. By providing resources to help Volunteers incorporate boys’/men’s empowerment elements into their projects, Volunteers will be able to contribute to the overall goal of gender equality even if they do not engage in women’s empowerment specifically. It is the ultimate goal of USAWA that all Volunteers can eventually be involved in all aspects of building the capacity of their communities to become equal, fair, and just.