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Dr Hafsa Mohamed, Mogadishu, Somalia; Mrs Sanokh, Tonkolili District, Sierra Leone.Dr Hafsa Mohamed, Mogadishu, Somalia; Mrs Sanokh, Tonkolili District, Sierra Leone; Ernestine Lenge wa Mbuyi, Tanganyika, DRC.Dr Hafsa Mohamed, Mogadishu, Somalia; Mrs Sanokh, Tonkolili District, Sierra Leone; Ernestine Lenge wa Mbuyi, Tanganyika, DRC.

Can better relationships lead to equality?

Can better relationships lead to equality?

On Valentine’s Day, women are under special pressure to find ‘the one’ to share a forever-after romantic relationship. But is a partnership of equals a non-negotiable for a modern relationship? And, if so, can a development approach in which couples seek to, bit by bit, change the day-to-day power balance at home and in the community, really help to bring about global gender equality?  

We think so.

Unless men and women work together to bring about equality, we’ll never end extreme poverty. That’s why, over the last 13 years, engaging both men and women in tackling gender inequality has become increasingly key to Concern’s programming.  

In this piece we outline the reality of gender inequality today. Then, we examine how, in very different country contexts, working with men and boys to unite behind shared goals, is proving key to positive change amongst couples and families, and to ending extreme poverty. 

Inequality in the world’s poorest places

There is no country in which women have economic equality with men, and women are still more likely than men to live in poverty.  Gender inequality in the economy costs women in developing countries dear; the UNDP calculates this at $9 trillion a year while, globally, women’s unpaid care work each year is estimated to be at least $10.8 trillion – more than three times the size of the global tech industry. The real cost to them is the lost opportunity to earn and spend for the wellbeing of their families and communities. 

As these statistics make clear, gender inequality has a far greater impact in the world’s poorest countries. Many women and girls have no access to or control over even the most basic resources and services. Some live in fear of gender-based violence (GBV), while others are denied education and have little or no say over decisions at home. This is apparent when girls start missing out on opportunities at a young age. 

I know my rights but they don’t apply in my home. When I come home, I leave my rights at the door.

Concern programme participant

Families living in poverty often decide to prioritise education, sending their sons to school instead of their daughters. Moreover, if girls do not have adequate information about their periods or access to menstrual products, safe water and hygiene facilities, they may also have to miss school. Less education means less likelihood of employment, worse health and nutrition outcomes, and greater risk of GBV ꟷ further exacerbated by household chores systematically falling on the women and girls, creating longer working hours and even fewer opportunities to earn an income.   

How are we change-makers?

If women and girls are to lift themselves out of poverty, we must attack inequality at its roots. Concern uses the Gender Continuum framework below to integrate gender equality into policies and programmes. We use it to understand the concept of gender relations (or roles and norms) ꟷ and how working in this way fosters equality. By ensuring our programmes are gender sensitive and, where possible, transformative, we aim to work towards greater equality. 

The gender continuum.
The gender continuum.

From gender-based violence (GBV) to avoiding domestic work and caregiving duties, men’s behaviour is influenced by social norms. These norms are also shaped around views of masculinity.  

Knowing that this was a widespread issue and that community empowerment was one of the keys to breaking the taboos of social stereotypes, Concern began to look for ways to bring groups of men together as part of a broader, healthier, safer, and richer cultural experience. The fundamental question for Concern shifted from why we should work with men and boys, to how we should work with men and boys.  

From ‘why’ to ‘how’

The ‘how,’ as it turned out, was close to home. In around 2012, Concern workers in specific countries requested intensive training to be able to make sustainable changes in women’s lives. We piloted an approach with consultants and, then, in 2017, worked with South Africa’s Sonke organisation to standardise our approach.  

Concern staff member, Sierra Leone (Photo: Jennifer Nolan)
Concern staff member, Sierra Leone (Photo: Jennifer Nolan)

Engaging men - our approach

The men and women who participate in our programmes learn new skills through group gender transformative dialogue. This can be in couples or in single-sex groups, in Afghanistan, for example. At regular sessions (8, 10 or 12) they take part in activities related to a specific topic, such as decision-making, violence, or communication.  

They then go home, where they have the chance to try out something new, before coming to the next session and feeding back on how it went, and then moving on to a new topic.  

The main thing we try to influence is attitudes, which can then be translated to behaviour at home. There are some specific skills included sometimes, for example, budgeting, but mostly it’s about attitude and the changes people want to make, after they’ve had a chance to reflect on their attitudes and previous behaviour. As these changes become part of everyday life, the groups are supported and sustained by wider influences and structures that are also part of the change process, including formal and informal peer groups and community and religious leaders, depending on the local context.   

Concern’s Engaging Men programmes have led to a number of changes in the relationships between men and women. Across all countries, men and women say they are now sharing responsibilities and have changed their attitudes about what constitutes ‘men’s’ and ‘women’s’ tasks. More fundamentally, attitudes have shifted towards women being equal.  

I used to be very dictatorial in my home but, with this training, I now listen to the views of my partner.

Concern staff member, Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone

The Sanokhs took part in Concern’s Living Peace training sessions in Tonkolili District.
The Sanokhs took part in Concern’s Living Peace training sessions in Tonkolili District.

Sierra Leone still faces many development challenges. This is especially true for women: it was only in 2007 that Sierra Leone's Parliament passed the first laws regarding gender equality.  

Concern shifted its approach from targeting women on issues of gender inequality to working with men and women at the same time. The results from our ‘Living Peace’ initiative indicate a potential link between this gender-transformative intervention and improved psychosocial, health, financial, and even educational outcomes. As one elder put it: “If you have one agreement — unity — there will be development in the home.”  

Roseann Kanu is our Senior Technical adviser. She says: “The paramount need to engage with men and boys alongside women and girls has been highlighted through our expertise in designing behaviour-change approaches. Our ‘Life Skills’ and ‘Living Peace’ sessions for husbands and wives, girls and boys are driven by the very core values of what Concern stands for: equality; listening; commitment; innovation; accountability.” 

Concern’s Salamatu Magdalene at Masokoray Community’s monthly Community Dialogue session. Women, girls, boys and men talk and use role play to bring about gender equality. Photo: Michael Duff/Concern Worldwide.
Concern’s Salamatu Magdalene at Masokoray Community’s monthly Community Dialogue session. Women, girls, boys and men talk and use role play to bring about gender equality. Photo: Michael Duff/Concern Worldwide.

Chad’s men as changemakers

In 2016 Concern looked closely at the main barriers to mother and child health in the Sila region of Chad. They discovered mothers rarely had a balanced and regular diet; their living conditions were precarious, they were overworked, their access to resources was restricted, they had little say in decisions about health and children, and their husbands controlled family finances.  

To get to the root of the problem in Sila, we have fully embraced a gender transformative approach, to engage men as equitable and supportive partners, fathers and caregivers.  

Female Care Group Volunteers (CGVs) and their male partners take part in dialogue sessions: each CGV visits women in their homes with gender-transformative nutrition messages, and men, selected as agents of change, train to use context-specific images to sensitise men in the community. Over a year, 10 couples from every village take part in 12 context-specific thematic training modules focusing on gender transformation.  

Community leaders accept the approach and women and men have grown comfortable discussing gender issues together. The main results? The community became far more aware of the conditions of women and girls; men started to take on household activities; and they made a commitment to improve women's conditions and accompany women and children to the health centre. And, over time, women are increasingly being consulted in household decisions on health-related spending.  

As Roseann says: “Yes, gender transformation can be slow. Nevertheless, we are seeing attitudes towards gender roles and the notion of equality improve through our variety of approaches... We will continue to do so no matter how long it takes.” 

If you are inspired by Roseann’s words and our transformative work, please consider investing in a change-maker. You will help us give them the tools to lift themselves and their communities out of poverty.  

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