By Osai J. Ojigho
Country Director of Amnesty International, Nigeria
In the span of 12 months, the number of years it would take to close the global gender gap in key areas such as economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment increased by 36 years, from 99.5 years in 2020 to 135.6 years in 2021. This depressing news, captured in the World Economic Forum’s 2021 Global Gender Gap Report, shows a major regression requiring urgent intervention to reverse the trend. The coronavirus pandemic that broke out in 2020 is blamed for increasing the gap between men’s and women’s success. Many women were employed in professions hardest hit by governments’ lockdown restrictions. Moreover, they were the ones burdened with carrying out domestic chores and, with schools closed, increased childcare. This has led to the loss of jobs and the decision to give up work to look after children and sick relatives. In Bangladesh, for example, women make up a majority of workers in the garment industry, so when factories closed, they could not work. In the United States, a third of working mothers are considering resigning or downshifting their careers to address burnout and stress due to childcare responsibilities.
While the pandemic has led to more conversations around the value of unpaid work and domestic labor and has spotlighted gender-based violence and the inequality in healthcare access, these conversations have not resulted in a major shift in tackling long-term expectations of women as caregivers. A Financial Times survey showed that during the pandemic, two out of five men took on more housework than previously. However, the increase was not significant enough to mitigate the astronomical impact the pandemic has had on the gender wage gap in a year. The power and privilege on which most work structures are built essentially promote the ambitions of men to the detriment of women.
In addition to unequal positions in the domestic sphere, women are harmed by gender-based violence (GBV), a pervasive tool of suppression. GBV is a factor in limiting women’s full participation in politics and decision-making, where abuses or threats of violence make participating in elections a risky venture. It is also a major barrier for girls and young women in pursuing schooling safely due to their exposure to physical and verbal abuse, and sexual harassment. In conflict situations, abductions, forced marriage, and rape are other pervasive risks. GBV became known as the shadow pandemic because it spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic when many women and girls were trapped at home with their abusers. Most of the initial COVID-19 measures lacked gender responsiveness and governments did not prioritize the provision of services for victims and survivors of GBV. When interventions were approved, they were not as quick or robust as needed to address the volume and complexities that many of the cases presented.
The word ally means to “combine or unite a resource or commodity with (another) for mutual benefit.” Male allies should unite with women and other groups pushing to close the global gender gap. Men must share resources and work together with women to achieve goals for everyone’s enjoyment and benefit. An equal world is a fair world that we all stand to gain, so working together to achieve this faster is a reasonable possibility.
Thus far, the bulk of the advocacy to combat gender inequality has been done by women and women’s rights organizations. Much progress in law and policy reform tackling gender discrimination and GBV is due to solidarity with key allies in the community, government, and inter-governmental agencies like the African Union (AU) and the United Nations (UN).
Male allies can join in solidarity and use their skills and resources to advance gender equality in many ways. Men can open doors in institutions where they sit or hold authority, facilitate meetings with key agencies, and speak up for greater gender representation and inclusion in organizations. Further, they can support gender-sensitive policies and encourage other men to consider gender-responsive solutions to problems.
During the pandemic, domestic responsibilities increased because of mandatory stay-at-home orders. To change the tide of increased burden on women, male allies can lead by example by taking a more equal share of housework and encouraging other men to do the same, even after the stay-at-home orders are lifted. We must highlight domestic chores as everyone’s work, not just women's and girls’ work. Additionally, outside the domestic sphere, the workplace is an area for opportunities and growth, and men in positions of authority can support policies that entrench gender equality principles in the recruitment and retention of staff. Workplaces that provide learning and training on inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility would lead to a more empowered and gender-inclusive workforce.
When women’s rights organizations challenge power relations, the challenge is met by opposition from traditional gatekeepers including religious and cultural institutions, which are often led by men. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) carried out case studies in Asia and Africa and documented lessons learned on the benefits of engaging men and boys in gender equality work. One outcome the study identified was the improvement of GBV prevention, response, and coordination in a community where the program engaged with men in institutions mandated to implement anti-domestic violence and child rights laws. Men needed to take the initiative to take a stand against violence and not be a bystander when women’s rights were violated.
Negative gender stereotypes perpetuate behaviors and practices that condone GBV. Addressing these stereotypes would go a long way in preventing GBV and strengthening support for victims and survivors. Male allies can play a key role in dismantling these negative norms while reconstructing belief systems for gender equality. For instance, male allies can consciously challenge toxic masculinity by not interrupting women when speaking, engaging with women in a non-threatening way, and encouraging other men and boys to alter their mindset on the harmful stereotypes that encourage GBV and violence.
These examples of male allyship require men to see the world from a woman's perspective. While seeing something from another’s perspective can be challenging, it is not impossible. It requires an active, consistent awareness about one’s conscious and unconscious gender biases, acknowledgment of privilege, and a willingness to listen and act decisively when required. The concrete actions also require that allies accept that certain reactions to allyship would be uncomfortable and must be taken in stride.
Andrea Dworkin, an American radical feminist activist and writer stated that “[w]omen are perceived to be appalling failures when we are sad. Women are pathetic when we are angry. Women are ridiculous when we are militant. Women are unpleasant when we are bitter, no matter what the cause. Women are deranged when women want justice. Women are man-haters when women want accountability and respect from men.” Dworkin shows how women’s expressions are stereotyped differently than men’s similar expressions. A male ally should respond with empathy, regardless of his own discomfort with the emotion or position expressed. He should not explain women’s emotions away or belittle someone else’s experience in order to feel better about himself.
Male allies can support women in many different fields. When the Boston Marathon started, women were not allowed to run on the false notion that they were not physically fit to run 26 miles. In 1967, Kathrine Switzer decided she wanted to run and was prepared to challenge this sexist and discriminatory practice. She succeeded in registering using her initials, hiding the fact that she was female. During the race, she was attacked by the race manager who wanted to stop her from competing. However, her coach and boyfriend stood up against her attacker and protected her from the attacks. She became the first woman to enter the Boston Marathon due to her sheer determination and the support of her father, who encouraged her to race, as well as the support from her other male allies who ran with her and protected her while she competed. Her male allies were essential to her success. By 1972, the rules changed to authorize an official women’s race.
Acknowledgment of women and girls’ contributions
Being an ally is not a title, an honor certificate, or a status symbol. Calling oneself an ally does not exempt from criticism or scrutiny. The biggest test for male allies is their ability to acknowledge women and girls’ contributions so that they receive the recognition due to them. This can entail deliberately stepping aside so that a woman can speak directly to the target audience using a male ally’s platform. The platform allows the attention to shift to the woman, and the audience can then recognize her expertise and contribution to the issues at stake. Male allies should resist the urge to speak on behalf of women unless specifically requested to do so.
For a long time, contributions of women to science, politics, social justice, and other spheres of life were hidden, rarely praised, or mentioned in passing. Women’s achievements in careers were eclipsed by their partners or considered secondary when discussing or reporting them. Initiatives like the Pioneer African Women in Law Project and Amandla African Women in Law Speaker Series are actively working to publicize African women’s contributions in law. Male allies in the media or in leadership positions can correct this “absence” of women by ensuring they give attention to women’s successes and publish them in a comprehensive rather than casual way. Nigeria’s Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was a political mobilizer and played a prominent role in Nigeria’s campaign for independence, yet many school books listed her key achievement as the first woman to drive a car in Nigeria with little reference to her political career. Many institutions including the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) have since placed this remarkable woman’s achievement in its Women in African History series for all to discover online.
Fundamentally, male allies must recognize that men and women are equal. This is the minimum standard without exception or conditions. If we are going to close the gender gap and reduce GBV, women cannot work alone. Men need to share the burden to make this a reality.
Osai J. Ojigho is a feminist, human rights expert, gender equality advocate, and civil society leader. She sits on the Global Advisory Council of the Institute for African Women in Law (IAWL).