Smarter Gender Mainstreaming in Development Programming: Addressing Masculinity

By Pippa Page.

This article looks at development interventions aimed towards women that often neglect to bring men into the discussion around women empowerment. One of the crucial behaviours such programs fail to take into account is the issue of toxic masculinity that must be addressed. The article looks at the work of an NGO in Ethiopia that seeks to tackle FGM by considering the role of women and men in such contexts. 

Including men in conversations of women’s empowerment is important in ensuring long-term changes (Source: Author)

Since the mid-1970s, gender has been a primary concern of international donors and governments alike. Yet the way in which gendered norms and relations are addressed can put policymakers and implementers in direct confrontation with deeply-held cultural and religious values. While men and women live together, their existences intertwined, development programmes have tended to exclusively focus on the empowerment and rights of women and girls as a historically subordinated and disadvantaged group. As Karen Grown et al. rightly point out in their 2016 paper, “Aid for Gender Equality and Development: Lessons and Challenges”, the direct tracking and robust accountability of gender equality programming is limited by the complex and multidimensional nature of gender inequalities, which do not fit neatly into one sector or area of investment. At the same time, there is growing awareness in the development community and beyond on the need to tackle ‘toxic’ masculinity: norms and beliefs associated with masculinity, such as competitiveness, domination and violence. Can development programmes therefore be ‘smarter’ in mainstreaming gender, giving equal focus to both men’s and women’s roles in gender equalising initiatives – and if so, how?

Men suffer from ideas of masculinities and stereotypes related to their gender, which not only perpetuate gendered power relations, but as Helen Keleher and L. Franklin explain, sustain ‘risk-taking behaviours’ that impact women: from sexual violence to denial of women’s rights. How does this look in reality? Taking an example from the developing world, research from the turn of the millennium in Tanzania and Kenya by Margrethe Silberschmidt demonstrated that sustained economic hardships and unemployment saw men withdrawing from their traditional responsibilities as breadwinners and heads of the family, and unable to fulfil new responsibilities. At the same time, women responded to the challenge of hardships, and their immediate priority to ensure the wellbeing of their children, by creating new economic roles for themselves. In doing so, they disrupted traditional gender roles. Silberschmidt’s work found that lacking ‘legitimising’ activities for their positions in the patriarchy, men in rural Kenya and urban Tanzania suffered an identity crisis, disposing them to extramarital activity and sexual control over women to compensate for their loss of social value. 

Taking an example from the developing world, research from the turn of the millennium in Tanzania and Kenya by Margrethe Silberschmidt demonstrated that sustained economic hardships and unemployment saw men withdrawing from their traditional responsibilities as breadwinners and heads of the family, and unable to fulfil new responsibilities.

Yet despite evidence such as this from the developing countries, men and boys’ roles in development programming on gender equality to date is limited. The EMERGE (Engendering Men: Evidence on Routes to Gender Equality) project highlighted the invisibility of men and boys and their roles in challenging gender inequalities within gender programming. Further criticisms by Keleher and Franklin point out that where interventions on men and boys exist, their narrow focus lacks efforts to fully understand the cultural stereotypes of masculinity which perpetuate damaging norms of dominance. 

So how can development initiatives successfully integrate and address gender norms around men’s traditional roles? The example of the Kembatti Mentti Gezzimma (KMG) intervention challenging female genital mutilation and cutting (FGM-C) in Ethiopia demonstrates how multi-pronged interventions involving men and boys can bring about societal transformation. As detailed by Erin Stern and Althea Anderson in their 2015 report, the KMG project’s efforts from 1999 onwards led to a drop in percentage of those practicing FGM-C in the Kembatta zone of Ethiopia from 97 percent in 1999 to 4.7 percent in 2008. Men were engaged at a number of levels as agents of change, with community committees established and grassroots development of policies and sanctions. In doing so, KMG successfully understood the ways in which FGM-C was linked to local gender norms and inequalities which fuelled its continuation, and how FGM-C affected men in their relations with women. It specifically challenged men to self-reflect on FGM-C in the context of maternal mortality and child morbidity – thereby appealing to its role in their own lives – and the benefits of women in their immediate community not undergoing FGM-C as a primary motivator for supporting change. Combined with community activism and economic empowerment, the programme successfully shifted gender norms beyond the sphere of FGM-C, with women displaying greater participation in civic life and economic activities. 

It specifically challenged men to self-reflect on FGM-C in the context of maternal mortality and child morbidity – thereby appealing to its role in their own lives – and the benefits of women in their immediate community not undergoing FGM-C as a primary motivator for supporting change.

Where men have not previously been engaged in gender issues, the interpersonal approach demonstrated by KMG may be an effective entry point. The ODI also recommends tailored approaches, focused on what different groups of men have to gain from changes rather than potential losses. However, it is critical to emphasise that the ‘mainstreaming’ of men and boys should be addressed in proportion to the issues facing women and girls, with appropriate monitoring systems in place to ensure the inclusion of men and boys does not inadvertently reinforce harmful gender norms and stereotypes.

Addressing women in isolation neglects a critical dimension of the changing patriarchal order. Increasing both men and women’s understanding of how gender roles change with socioeconomic shifts and what can be gained from these changes (e.g. higher household incomes, positive community relations) may help to advance gender equality. Incremental, tailored and multi-pronged approaches which focus on education and dialogue at different societal levels, from communities to local government, accompanied by strengthening of justice systems and institutional accountability on gender, are therefore the most effective at bringing about these changes. Above all, efforts must be rooted in local context, endogenous to communities – as the OECD rightly emphasises, “what we can do as outsiders is rather limited”.


Pippa is from England and has a background in development and health, having returned from three years in Tanzania supporting disability and maternal health programming before starting at IDS. Prior to this, she worked for six years in UK Parliament, followed by roles in advocacy and communications and a short-term volunteer project in Sierra Leone. Her interests include gender and health inequalities, social protection, and participation.


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