Talking Gender


A blog about gender, culture and organizational change

Interested in stories on social justice? You are invited to Gender at Work events at 2015 CSW in New York, on 11 March, 2015. Check out the details below and please share widely.  

By Gender at Work Media / February 20, 2015 / Loading Disqus...

Through its Capacity Development program in India, Gender At Work supported a group of women and men leaders of grassroots NGOs to explore the gender and power dynamics within their organizations and evolve strategies for gender transformation. After an initial workshop to arrive at a common framework for understanding gender issues in organizational settings, participants designed and implemented change projects in their own organizations, then met again to share their lessons and learn from each others' experiences.

In India, as in most other cultures, story-telling is a familiar method of teaching and learning.  In many Indian folk-tales, the preceptor begins a story that poses a philosophical or ethical dilemma, challenging the student to take the narrative forward and resolve the conundrum in a way that upholds the moral, ethical or legal principle in question. Stories and story-telling continue to be widely used  to encourage deep reflection on complicated concepts and abstract ideas, or to validate precepts and principles by grounding them in everyday reality.

The G@W program was structured around peer-learning. Story-telling became the method of choice for the group to delve deeper into change processes. Change stories were fleshed out collectively through a process of critical questioning. Questions from the listeners helped story-tellers to re-examine elements of the change process that had been edited out from the first telling, endowing them with new significance. Often, a question rooted in the experience  of one organization became an “a-ha moment” for another, resulting in an entirely new angle to on the change process.  Telling and re-telling these stories added rich layers of detail and complexity to the understanding of change, throwing into sharp relief the ways in which personal histories, values, beliefs and ways of being and doing contributed to building the organizational culture and shaped its trajectory.

To close the program, we invited participants to create digital stories of each others' personal journeys. Along with giving participants a chance to learn a useful skill and honing the craft of building stories through asking questions, this process also resulted in a bouquet of engaging and inspiring life stories that we are happy and proud to share with a wider audience.       

As one participant put it, “I felt so proud when I saw the film that my partner made about my life – in telling my story, I realized how strong I am, how many battles I have fought and won....” 

By Gender at Work Media / February 4, 2015 / Loading Disqus...

Tweet #5thwcw

There will be no UN World Conference on Women in 2015. But there can be one in 2020. Or whenever the women of the world want it to happen. The 20-year review of the Beijing Platform for Action at the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York in March 2015 could generate a recommendation to hold a Fifth World Conference by 2020. 

Opinions on this have been divided. Here is an interesting article on this by Anne-Marie Goetz and Joanne Sandler at  Do we have more to gain than lose from holding a Fifth World Conference on Women? WHAT DO YOU THINK?

Across countries and communities, the common ground that those who fight for women’s rights have is each other. What are your ideas on how a world conference could push our common priorities for gender equality and women's rights forward?

Share your views, opinions and rants with us on Twitter from Feb 9 to 13, 2015. Use the hashtag #5thwcw. Let’s have this conversation.

By Gender at Work Media / January 26, 2015 / Loading Disqus...

By Nisreen Alami

Nisreen Alami has recently completed an assignment as gender advisor to a humanitarian team in Palestine. The aim of her assignment was to work with humanitarian partners to mainstream gender in their programming and to ensure that the humanitarian response both contributes to gender equality and effectively responds to the needs of men, women, boys and girls. 

The Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories and the prevailing policies restricting mobility, freedom and security of Palestinians has had a huge toll on the whole population. More than half of the population is vulnerable to food insecurity (2.3 million), and daily restrictions on freedom of movement, construction, water and energy affect people’s livelihoods, access to education, health and basic infrastructure. Land confiscation to expand illegal settlements in the Palestinian territories exposes Palestinians to physical threats and losses. The long-standing failure to reach a peaceful resolution to the conflict results in repeated cycles of violence. The last such cycle can be seen in the war on Gaza during July 2014. This resulted in large numbers of fatalities and injuries amongst civilians, the destruction of large areas of Gaza, and the displacement of almost half a million people (with 100,000 expected to remain displaced in the foreseen future). It also resulted in the destruction of public facilities including schools, hospitals, universities and water and sanitation infrastructure. The absence of state institutions (whether Palestinian or Israeli) that are mandated to protect the rights of civilians creates a legal and administrative vacuum that sanctions impunity for human rights abuses, exacerbating the vulnerabilities of the population. 

Gender inequality presents a unique set of challenges to the effectiveness of the humanitarian response, as humanitarian actors usually consider this as falling outside the scope of humanitarian efforts. Barriers to Palestinian women’s access to income, assets, property rights, and mobility remain unchallenged by humanitarian interventions. Interventions in Palestine are mostly based on the male breadwinner assumption, with little recognition of the burden this poses for men as having the sole responsibility for large households. With available data mostly highlighting formal economic participation, humanitarian interventions generally do not recognize women’s invisible economic role, including their informal and unpaid work (such as agricultural labour), or the biases that restrict their access to land and economic opportunity. While the prevailing conditions are key drivers of social problems, the dearth of protection measures and services for gender-based violence (whether legal, health, security or psychosocial), especially in Gaza, receive little attention in humanitarian programmes. Interventions on psychosocial support often overlook gender and age specific concerns, despite variance in the experiences of boys and girls at different stages of their childhood. They also overlook available evidence on the particular vulnerabilities of adolescent girls and boys. 

Budget analysis of the humanitarian response using the IASC gender marker data for the three annual programming cycles (2011-2013) confirmed those challenges. Over this period, out of the 303 humanitarian response projects implemented (with a total value of $ 873,263,761), only 10 projects, amounting to 6.34 million, had gender equality as their principle objective (0.72%). Following a similar trend, the funding mechanism for emergency response up until 2013 had not supported any projects by women’s organizations (although this has significantly changed in 2013 and 2014).

To address these challenges, my work during the 2014 programming cycle focused on: strengthening systems of planning, funding and accountability at the institutional level; building an evidence base to give visibility to gender concerns in advocacy and programming work; and providing technical support to humanitarian partners to ensure adequate response. More specifically my work included the following:

1) Strengthening institutional collaboration between UNOCHA and UNW on gender related coordination. This included facilitating regular flows of information for complementary agency roles, in order to mobilize action amongst partners. 

2) Facilitating effective participation of gender advocates in shaping the humanitarian response, including through the convening of consultations with national women’s organizations, members of the UN Gender theme group and international NGOs.

3) Building capacity of humanitarian partners operating within the cluster system (e.g. GBV, Food security sector, protection, education, health and shelter) on gaps in gender equality programming and ways to address those challenges. 

4) Integrating gender data and analysis in OCHA’s information management systems in order to improve availability of quality gender analysis and address gender-related gaps in data collection tools.

5) Advocating for women’s needs and priorities in the emergency response following the war on Gaza. 

6) Providing support to strengthen accountability mechanisms on gender-focused programming, including monitoring implementation, the use of gender sensitive performance indicators, and meaningful application of the gender marker in projects.

7) Advocating with donors for increased financing for gender equality programming, in addition to providing support to improve country funding mechanisms such as the Emergency Response Fund (ERF)

It is anticipated that this work will be continued over the course of 2015.

For more information:

By Gender at Work Media / January 20, 2015 / Loading Disqus...

By Ray Gordezky

I recently returned from two weeks of work with organizations and communities in Cambodia and Vietnam. This was the first of what may be additional visits to Cambodia and Vietnam to provide support to non-government organizations working primarily in the area of community-based natural resource management, that want to bring a stronger focus to gender justice in their programming.

Achieving gender justice means that women and men are able to share equally in the distribution of power and knowledge. It also means that both have equal opportunities, rights and obligations in their private and public lives.

In both countries, even in those communities that have an emphasis on matrilineal descent, women are burdened by the full force of historical traditions that put them in positions of disadvantage.  This is not a theoretical claim; rather this statement is based on the meetings I had with four communities.

In my visits, I heard variations of the same theme: though their traditions (or the way women and men participate in village/community life) are supposed to save disgrace and misunderstandings, as well as provide for the well being of community members, the minimizing of women’s rights by claims that traditions reflect the natural order of life hides the daily dehumanization women face simply because of gender.

A restrained yet noticeable anger came through in the stories women told us, built up through daily experiences of work strain, beatings, and limited education opportunities. A man in one of the communities told us that the practice of early marriage (marriage at 14, followed by the multiple births by the age of 25) in time produces profound loneliness. No amount of visibility from past gender equality efforts, concerning how women are excluded or their contributions minimized, have altered how women are treated in a sustainable way. From hearing women’s stories, I felt in what they said loneliness akin to despair, a loneliness and despair made invisible in silence and through shame.

I felt a visceral disappointment: the very help I am offering (to make visible the taken for granted injustice done to women), and the visibility this is intended to produce, may do little to alter women’s lives. And the men, for the most part, do not fully take in the injustice, as they after all have their roles.

Even in light of these challenges, I have experienced that gender justice and unequal gender power relations can and do change as a result of organizations and communities clarifying what gender concerns need to be addressed, and addressing these concerns through co-created solutions.

We are at the beginning: establishing relationships with partner organizations, gaining a shared understanding of the gender concerns as expressed and experienced by commune and village members, and building trust between those of us involved. I intend to send periodic updates on the work in South East Asia as a way to communicate with you about how we can collectively produce changes in culture, specifically in gender justice, and in what ways efforts to positively effect gender justice are particularly challenging.

This project is a collaborative initiative between Oxfam America and Gender at Work, and also involves organizations in Senegal and Ghana.

By Gender at Work Media / January 8, 2015 / Loading Disqus...

By Anne Marie Goetz and Joanne Sandler

At the 2012 Forum of the Association of Women’s Rights for Development (AWID) in Istanbul, there were heated discussions about whether to lobby for a Fifth World Conference on Women in 2015. The majority of older generation feminists taking part expressed reluctance. A young Turkish feminist took the floor and challenged us, essentially saying: “It’s fine for those of you who had the chance to go to Beijing and Nairobi to decline this opportunity. But what about my generation? We never had the chance to mobilize the way that you did. We need this!” The 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing – including the official governmental meeting and its parallel NGO Forum – is widely hailed as a watershed. We both attended the NGO Forum, held in Huairou, a town an hour north of Beijing.  In a deeply muddy field, covered in makeshift tents to ward off the insistent rain, with hundreds of yards of garlands made of discarded plastic water bottles festooning the few hastily erected buildings in which the concrete had barely dried, 40,000 women from civil society around the world converged to make history.  And they did.  In spite of being accommodated at such a great distance from the official event, women from NGOs and networks joined their allies on official delegations to make sure that the final Platform for Action fought off attacks from the Vatican, from Iran and from a host of others who lobbied to diminish commitments to women’s equality and freedoms. We left with a sense of purpose and a roadmap to gender equality: the Beijing Platform for Action.

1995 Beijing, Women in Black demonstration. Credit: Anne Walker

In 2012 the UN briefly debated a proposal to hold a Fifth World Conference on Women, as a twenty- year follow up to the 1995 Beijing Conference. It would have been held in 2015, forty years after the UN’s First World Conference on Women held in Mexico City. Turkey and Qatar both offered to host. The Secretary General asked UN member states what they thought - should there be a follow-up to the Platform for Action agreed at Beijing?  It has become relatively routine to hold these international meetings to review and then advance achievements in a range of human rights or environmental protection areas. For instance, the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development was a 20 year follow up on the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. Many experienced women’s rights advocates breathed a sigh of relief when UN Member States failed to pass a resolution in favour of holding a Fifth World Conference and, instead, recommended that 2015 should focus on (yet) another review of Beijing commitments. Beijing +20 follows other five-year reviews which have, at best, been lackluster, and could not replace the galvanizing force and visibility of a UN World Conference. The cautions against advocating for a new World Conference were made on the following grounds: It is far too dangerous now to re-open international agreements on women’s rights. Powerful governments and non-state actors today actively obstruct efforts to advance neglected areas of women's rights such as sexual and reproductive freedoms, and for this reason there was no 20th anniversary conference this year to advance the agreements made at the Cairo International Conference on Population and Development.  The power of these reactionary forces in an international forum is considerable; they could seriously reverse progress made at Beijing. So many of the commitments in the Beijing Platform have yet to be implemented - for instance the commitment to increase the proportion of seats held by women in governments to a minimum of 30%, or to put an end to female genital mutilation, or to cut military expenditures. An international conference will be a distraction. Let’s just focus on national and local-level implementation. Money! Women’s organizations are starving for money as it is. An international meeting is expensive and unnecessary in the age of ‘Skype’ and other electronic meeting venues. So there will be no Fifth World Conference on Women, at least not in 2015. This decision could be exceptionally damaging in terms of its potential impact on international and domestic women’s movements. But it is not irreversible. There will be no Conference on Women in 2015. But there can be one in 2020. Or whenever the women of the world want it to happen. The 20-year review of the Beijing Platform for Action at the Commission on the Status of Women(CSW) in New York in March 2015 could generate a recommendation to hold a Fifth World Conference by 2020. We are making this intervention to join voices with those who want this topic back on the agenda. As one civil societystatement to the upcoming CSW points out, the UN Secretary General's request for a Fifth World Conference has not been withdrawn or acted on, so any Member State can put it on the agenda again. We agree with those who highlight the real threat of losing ground on women’s rights. But let us think beyond the usual approach to these global inter-governmental meetings. The time has come to try a different format. We do not have a blueprint to hand, but there are options worth exploring. The Fifth Conference could focus on innovation in implementation, and could generate pledges for significant national investments in gender equality.  It could focus on the growing frequency and ferocity of attacks on women human rights defenders, and on effective strategies and commitments to end such attacks. The Fifth Conference could focus on a much deeper exchange between civil society and governments than has ever happened before. Its agenda and priorities could evolve from a bottom-up, inclusive process that engages millions of women and men.

1995 Beijing NGO Forum peace demonstration. Credit: Anne Walker

There is surely more to gain than to lose in holding a Fifth World Conference on Women in 2020. At the same time, we need to negotiate conditions that will help expand, not shrink, the women’s rights agenda: We are not proposing a re-run of Beijing. We need to re-think the way that UN world conferences are undertaken anyway. An international conference does not axiomatically have to arrive at a consensus document. There is no need to fetishize consensus. Women’s rights cannot be sacrificed to international agreement if that means lowering standards even further than they are. It should be possible, through global brainstorming, to come up with an agenda that builds awareness amongst even the most reactionary governments of the strength and determination of the global women’s rights constituency, and that raises the costs - both in the relations between states and in regional and international institutions - of domestic suppression of women’s rights. No United Nations Women’s World Conference has yet been held in the era of social media. In 1995 at Beijing, few had access to email, let alone the kind of instant commentary and feedback available now. Social media would expose to domestic and international scrutiny the reactionary positions of some governments. Democracies would have to think twice before refusing to support terminations for pregnancies of women raped by soldiers during conflict, or the rights of same-sex couples to inheritance, or the rights of adolescents to the kind of education that can prevent HIV infection and early pregnancy.  Young women and men have not had a chance to engage in this type of transnational feminism. This would be the chance for a new generation to take leadership. Younger feminists would have the opportunity to organize locally and connect globally and contribute to reviving women’s movements in many countries and regions. Women from countries under conservative governments need an opportunity to be heard around the world. If a world conference were to be held in countries or regions increasingly dominated by fundamentalist religious interests, it would be an opportunity for women to express their perspectives about the use of religion or culture to excuse repression and extreme violence. 2020 will mark five years from the time that the new set of globally-agreedSustainable Development Goals come into force. This could be an ideal moment for a World Women’s Conference, an opportunity for a diversity of women’s voices and views to assess how the first 5 years are going from our perspective, and whether progress is happening in ways women feel are most important. For many, an international women’s conference feels like an unwarranted extravagance. Yes, these meetings can be expensive; but the cost of gender inequality is much higher, and the benefits to democracy, development, and peace of reduced gender inequality, and increasing the strength of the women’s movement, are massive. These meetings also yield resources. They provide women’s organizations with opportunities to prove their relevance and to raise funds. You can’t put a monetary value on international solidarity. And you can’t deny its importance to women’s mobilization domestically and internationally.  At the time of Beijing +15, Sunila Abeysekera, the Sri Lankan women’s human rights champion and peace leader who died last year, pointed out in an articleon openDemocracy 50.50 that there was no mechanism for joining together “around the key challenges and demands of women from around the world, irrespective of their class, race or any other status, to combat the challenges of discrimination and violence they confront on a daily basis” and she encouraged that we move “beyond…narrow divisions to build a cohesive platform for action for women’s movements worldwide to confront and combat the common challenges…”  That is what a world conference on women’s rights can do that no other venue will allow: update and strengthen a common platform between women’s movements and networks in different countries and regions that creates opportunities for partnerships and agreements with, and between, governments and inter-governmental organizations.

Painting banners, 1995 Beijing NGO Forum. Credit: Anne Walker

Women’s human rights have no country. There is no champion state making sure that women’s human rights are advanced. The common ground that those committed to working for gender equality have is each other. And a great way to find each other is on the crowded fields - however muddy - of international meetings and the local, national and regional preparatory processes that lead to them.  We use this ground to marvel at the arguments used to dismiss our humanity, and then not only hold fast against these attacks, but keep pushing to make it the ‘new normal’ that yes, women are human, fully equal, and must live without fear, pain, and prescriptions as to who they should be and how they should behave. The starting point for any agreement to hold a Fifth World Conference on Women must be that there can be no re-opening of past agreements or looking back to question existing commitments. We all have to look forward, for there is still so much to be done.

This article was first published at Open Democracy. 


By Gender at Work Media / December 23, 2014 / Loading Disqus...

By Tish Haynes, Director of DOCKDA

This is the final part of a two-part blog post. Read the first part here.

Home-based care workers have been working voluntarily for up to 10 years to bring those who are ill back to full health. They have walked through the windy summer sand storms of the Kgalagadi to reach their patients. They bring first and foremost themselves as women, tenderly caring and bathing the ill woman, making her as comfortable as possible in her small house. Home-based care workers provided their services voluntarily. They provided transport for the patient to go to the clinic; they shared their food with children; they fetched medication from the clinic. They also became aware of the different kinds of abuse they or community members were experiencing. DOCKDA facilitated workshops with women from Home Based Care organizations to address issues of inequality (in remuneration because they were women); abuse and harassment on women and girl children by men; the context of sexuality and gender; and the influence sexuality has in human relationships. When these organizations wanted to share their knowledge with the community, they organized and facilitated workshops. At the end of the year, after four mentoring and monitoring field trips by DOCKDA staff, DOCKDA would hold a Lekgotla to bring women and men together to share opinions on power relationships. This deepened their understanding of power relationships and they were inspired to support each other.  

Growing awareness brought more questioning. Through the Gender at Work peer learning process, I became clearer about the links between HIV and gender-based violence. We were successful in accessing stipends for 95 home-based care workers from the Independent Development Trust. The stipends would provide an income to reduce women’s debt and over time enable them to start saving.  A focal point for our grant-making was to shift from solely supporting GBV awareness workshops to supporting women to become financially literate and have more choices.

If women workers are unable to make decisions on household budgets because they do not receive a stipend, they are again in subservient roles. If they have access to a stipend at the very least, they can make decisions on their own or jointly with their husband/ partner. The change project is bringing new life into our organization. Women are receiving stipends and are contributing to their families’ budgets.

Tish Haynes is a participant in our Gender Action Learning process in South Africa.

By Gender at Work Media / December 19, 2014 / Loading Disqus...

By Tish Haynes, Director of DOCKDA

What is the value placed on the work of caring for children, the ill and the elderly in our communities? As people we know that our children are a source of joy, that we should care for the ill, and we want to show our gratitude to the elderly for their devotion and care in the past.

DOCKDA Rural Development Agency is an NGO established in 1994 to take resources to rural community initiatives. Over time, not only funds but organizational development and management skills training workshops were facilitated with emerging projects and community organizations in Eastern, Western and Northern Cape. DOCKDA highlighted HIV as a sector for special focus by the year 2000. Our current leadership program works with rural women who are already organizing in their communities.

Since 2003, we have been working in the John Taolo Gaeteswe (JTG) municipal district, one of the 13 poverty nodal districts in South Africa, with women and particularly with Home-Based Care Workers. This has surfaced long-held experiences of gender-based violence and abuse within households. We hold lekgotlas for people to dialogue on beliefs, perceptions of power relationships, and practices that promote harmony.

In 2012, we joined an 18-month Gender Action Learning Process with Gender at Work. Our board and staff were curious and eager and during the first session, we were asked what gender discrimination we had experienced. When I qualified as a teacher in the late 1960s, I worked in schools in the east end of London. Returning to South Africa, I married and sought a teaching position in a government school. As a white, married woman teacher, I was employed only in a temporary position, and I was not offered legally-due benefits like a housing subsidy. That discrimination awakened my personal understanding of the many injustices on the majority of people/ citizens in South Africa. I joined the Black Sash, a women’s rights organization that promoted universal franchise and gave practical assistance on forced removals, arrests and court appearances.  I became acutely aware of the hardships and violence the apartheid state committed towards the citizenry.

Rural women who had shown so much resilience surviving apartheid, had to face the scourge of HIV within their communities from the late 1990s. Often, it was working children who returned to their villages to be cared for by their elderly parents as they deteriorated further. The women took the initiative and banded together to help each other in this new and overwhelming task. The women gained experience in the villages. They grappled with extending their meager grant to cover the needs of their newly orphaned grandchildren. The government was slow in setting up training in Home-Based Care and in giving access to anti-retro viral treatment. The women were becoming the eyes and ears of the community as they went into the homes of the ill and dying. Their growing awareness became clearer to me in the Gender Action Learning Process.

We want to strengthen women’s leadership and affirm their position in their communities as valuable workers, citizens and leaders. But habitual ways of thinking and expression are hard to break through to enable fresh words to flower. We have come through feelings of exasperation and frustration. We sometimes wondered if we would be able to find a safe landing for our change project.

This is the first of a two-part blog post.

DOCKDA Rural Development Agency is a non-profit organization working in partnership with home based care organizations in the deep rural areas of South Africa’s remote Northern Cape province. 

Tish Haynes is a participant in our Gender Action Learning process in South Africa. 



By Gender at Work Media / December 5, 2014 / Loading Disqus...

By Kailee Jordan 

This November, Toronto officially opened its first "Canadian Center for Men and Families.." Supported by the Canadian Association for Equality (CAFÉ), the center will address problems facing men in today’s society, and will provide a range of services including mentorship, counseling, and support groups for victims of abuse. The opening is already causing controversy, with CAFÉ claiming that although their main goal is to break down gender barriers, they have faced pushback from the feminist community. Women’s rights activists point to their association with several misogynistic men’s rights groups in the US, and claim that CAFÉ is more frustrated with women’s rights being promoted than men’s rights being violated. This divergence between men’s issues and feminist activism goes beyond this one center, and into the broader concern of how to improve gender relations in Canada. How do we find productive ways of engaging men on gender equality, without it turning into a he said-she said battle over who has rights to vulnerability and harm?

Let’s make this clear right off the bat: there are real and important issues effecting men in our society. Increasing rates of mental health and suicide, addiction, and the lack of services for abuse all deserve our attention. Stereotypes of what it means to be “a man” can lead to harmful notions of masculinity, that at best constrain the ways men feel they can express their emotions, and at worst, lead to cycles of violence. These are real problems, and do need to be addressed.

As someone who cares deeply about global discrimination towards women, however, the fine line between discussing contemporary issues facing men and completely sidetracking the conversation around gender equality makes me uncomfortable. Our society operates in an environment where women are still over-represented as victims of violence, and under-represented in positions of decision-making. Activists have fought for years to get gender equality to be seen as a priority, and Canada is still very far from making progress on these issues. As a new report launched by the Canadian Coalition for Policy Alternatives demonstrates, 34 out of every 1000 women in Canada have reported a sexual assault, and over 6.4% of women have reported intimate partner violence. As these are thought to only be 10% of actual cases, in reality, the numbers are much higher. When it comes to looking at women’s roles in decision-making, women make up only 25% of MPs, 14% of board members, and only 3% of CEO’s. 

Any approach toward tackling societal inequity must take into account this uneven impact still placed on women. In addition to failing to adequately address gender constraints, we’re also operating in a climate where there are fewer and fewer resources allocated to alleviating women’s inequality. Canada does not have a stand-alone policy on violence against women, in addition to only directing minuscule resources to the Status of Women Canada. Because of funding cuts, the Status of Women was forced to close 12 out of its 16 regional offices, and support has been cut to operations such as Women’s Centers of Excellence and research and advocacy organizations. 

I am not arguing that just because resources for women are being slashed should automatically mean that we don’t have the space to address challenges facing men – that is definitely not the case. Yet, it makes me uneasy to think that discussions around women’s inequality may get inadvertently stifled by men wanting to change the conversation. If we want to create new spaces to address male issues in Canada, this must not be at the expense of failing to recognize the disproportionate social inequities women continue to face.

Gender equality is not a zero-sum game. If there is going to be any sustainable progress on combatting discrimination, we need to find ways to include men and boys into these conversations. Campaigns such as UN Women’s #HeforShe movement, or Canada’s White Ribbon campaign recognize this, and we’re seeing a global shift in trying to find new strategies to engage men in the fight for women’s rights. This recognition does mean that we need to make sure to include the voices of men (and all other categories across the gender continuum) who also feel the impact of gender constraints. The same societal forces that perpetuate violence against women also lead to harmful and aggressive masculinities; we must recognize that what holds women back from reaching their full social, economic, and political potential can also have negative impacts on men as well. Creating spaces where men can talk about the challenges they face, as well as topics such as consent, positive masculinity, and how to be allies to women, could be a helpful tool to realize the goal of a more equal and peaceful society.

No one is arguing that gender polarization isn’t detrimental for both men and women. Do I think that the new Men’s Center will be a positive step in combatting this? I’m still not sure. If this turns into a debate about how “women have their space, now give us ours”…. then I want no part in that discussion. But if this opens up new ways for men and women to combat harmful gender inequalities together, well then, that’s something worth supporting.

By Gender at Work Media / November 26, 2014 / Loading Disqus...

By Mary Nkonyana

I remember the day I met Virginia. It was the 22nd of October, past 4 pm and I was on my way home from work as a domestic worker. The weather was nice and cool but I was tired because of my work. I approached her and asked her how her work was? She said it was not good. I asked her to explain. We walked together on the way to the station. She told me she does house cleaning, washing, cleaning the house blinds and that she felt like leaving the job. I asked her what time she starts and ends work. Virginia informed me that she works from 7 am to 4 pm.

I informed her that she had a right to speak to her boss about her unfair working hours. She asked me what this meant. I told her that work hours are 8 hours or less and that she has rights just like her employer. This information was new to her. I gave her a document that showed her what her rights were as a domestic worker and I left her my contact details as it was getting late. I gave her time to read and then I promised to call her the following day. I told her to join the union (SADSAWU) as they could help her.

That same day she called me to ask me how to join the union. She became a paid member and she approached her boss about her long hours and heavy load of work. After her talk with him, it’s much better.

SADSAWU is the South African Domestic Services and Allied Workers Union. They help many women like Virginia. This union was formed in 2000. The union is not just a place for complaints. It also encourages workers to stand up for themselves and find their own voice.

Recruiting of domestic workers is important to me because it helps to build a strong union, adding more workers and educating them. We also want future young women leaders. To recruit is not easy, especially if you don’t know about workers’ rights and labour laws. We give pamphlets and newsletters, and tell people something that will make them more interested in knowing about their rights. What makes domestic workers join is the awareness that they don’t know their rights. Mostly we go door to door, on trains and taxis, and in parks, where we can find more than one worker.

That is an ongoing journey because after education there must be practice of what they have learned and sharing with others, especially the young workers. It is more difficult to bring young workers in as members. They are still ashamed and afraid to be known as domestic workers. I used to also be ashamed like them but I now fully understand the meaning of domestic work.

Another thing is that it is harder to approach men because they feel “it’s not for us it’s only for women”. Men who are gardeners don’t understand the word ‘domestic’. Only those who clean inside a house are seen as domestic workers. But domestic work also covers care givers, child minders, cleaners, gardeners and chauffeurs. It has been a challenge to bring two men in and sign them as members. It was like a debate because they asked me “who told you I am a domestic worker, why are you calling me a domestic worker as I am not cleaning in my bosses’ house?” I had to make sure that I understand, give good reasons, have courage, and make them feel comfortable.

I was not involved in the Gender Action Learning process but I saw the changes that happened because of that in SADSAWU. The opening of new branches came from my colleagues who were very much involved in the process. The idea was to take the union to the people. It was difficult to bring all the workers to the office for meetings and workshops so new branches were opened. My colleagues puts it nicely when she says “the union is not only a union but it’s a home to those who are broken-hearted and need comfort and support”. At the end of the day, we go back to where we started and realize it is not only a place to think but also, most importantly, a place to share and practice.

Mary Nkonyana is a participant in our Gender Action Learning process in South Africa.


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