Empowering Women by Changing Men: Promundo’s Global Fight for Gender Equality

Giovanna Lauro, Vice President of Programs and Research at Promundo, talked with Philanthropy Women about finding key entry points for reaching men, in order to change gender norms. Some of these entry points include sports and prenatal education for families.

A great deal of emphasis in feminist philanthropy is placed on women, and changing the role of women in society. But what about men? What role can men play in challenging gender norms, and what initiatives are gender equality organizations taking to reach men?

To further explore these questions, I spoke to Giovanna Lauro, Vice President of Programs and Research at Promundo, by telephone from her D.C. office. Promundo was founded in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil in 1997, working with young men in Rio’s poorest communities on transforming gender norms and concepts of masculinity. It has since taken that approach far beyond Brazil, and its website notes, “Promundo works to promote gender equality and create a world free from violence by engaging men and boys in partnership with women and girls.”

The organization’s expansion from the global South to global North makes it an anomaly, as many NGOs start in wealthy countries and then move into less developed nations. Regardless, Lauro says that there is a commonality to the organization’s work, wherever it takes place, namely, “a frustration with the limits of putting the burden of change on women and girls only.” One can work to empower women and girls all one wants, but it’s a tough mandate without change occurring among the other half of the population.

Promundo’s Washington, D.C. office opened in 2011, allowing the organization to expand its reach globally to more than 40 nations. To date, Promundo’s projects and technical assistance have reached roughly 10 million individuals, including over 4,500 health professionals, 22,000 educators, 1,400 members of the police and military, and 300 government officials.

The emphasis on masculinities—what it means to be a man—separates Promundo from many NGOs in the gender-equity field. Lauro argues that continued female empowerment requires men and boys to see themselves as allies and partners, not adversaries. Moreover, change is not a zero-sum game; men and boys also gain in many ways when rigid attitudes toward gender are challenged.

Promundo’s “Manhood 2.0” project, developed in conjunction with the University of Pittsburgh, aims to prevent teen dating violence by engaging young males aged 15-24 in understanding the effects of harmful gender norms. Manhood 2.0 is modelled on Promundo’s Program H (named after homens and hombres, the Portuguese and Spanish words for men) which launched in 2002. Employed by Promundo and its partners in 34 countries worldwide, Program H is based on research with young Brazilian men who exhibited more gender-equitable attitudes than others in their demographic cohort. Men expressing less rigid attitudes around gender roles typically have peer group support in this area, positive personal experiences around gender equality, and male role models who express support for gender equality.

Stereotypical and rigidly enforced conceptions of gender are toxic to all. Statistics indicate the high rate of male violence against women, but it’s not as if men are untouched by violence. They are twice as likely as women to die of suicide, and comprise over three-quarters of homicide victims in the U.S. The large number of male lives lost in wars and other armed conflicts goes without saying. Research by Promundo and other organizations indicates that many of these negative outcomes have their basis in overly rigid conceptions of masculinity. Promundo’s report “Masculine Norms and Violence: Making the Connections” explores this relationship.

Engaging Men Through Pre-Natal Programs and Soccer

Engaging with young men in the U.S. and abroad around harmful gender norms is a noble goal, but how does one lead the male horse to the trough of gender equity? Firstly, Promundo identifies local partners who can make a difference. “Find a facilitator who believes in what they preach,” says Lauro, “someone who has shown a commitment or potential for working for gender equality.” Next, she says, it’s vital to “incorporate contextual intervention” in recruiting and retaining participants. In other words, don’t place an announcement for a gender-equity workshop in the local paper and expect men to rush the doors. Lauro notes two specific angles that Promundo has tried: fatherhood and soccer.

In Chile (and other locales) sessions on gender norms have been rolled into pre-natal programs for first-time dads. Fatherhood, family, child-rearing and gender norms are intertwined, and Lauro notes that a group for expectant fathers can function as “a place where men can have meaningful discussion around gender and express themselves in a safe space.” Promundo is a sponsor of the State of the World’s Fathers report series examining men’s contributions to parenting and caregiving globally. These are published as part of the Men Care (“a global fatherhood campaign”) which Promundo co-founded and coordinates.

Sports is another approach used by Promundo to recruit young men to explore gender-equity and masculinity. The study “Engaging men to prevent gender-based violence” sponsored by Promundo and the UN Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women documents a Brazilian program that used soccer to engage men around the issue of gender-based violence. According to the report, “Sports, particularly weekly football (soccer) matches were used as a venue for dialogue and an opportunity to convey the themes of the workshops.” The same report also details programs aimed at understanding and combating gender-based violence that were organized around the workplace (Rwanda), the health sector (Chile), and the community (India). Regardless of the setting, scale or target of the intervention, “We focus on building local partnerships with local organizations,” says Lauro.

The only places where Promundo implements projects directly using its own staff is on its home turf of Brazil, the United States, and in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where in 2014 Promundo co-founded the NGO Living Peace with local partners. In Eastern DRC, Promundo has worked to promote gender equity in the wake of a brutal conflict which resulted in millions of people being injured, killed, and displaced. The DRC is notable for a very high level of sexual violence, not just as part of the armed conflict, but also in the home and elsewhere. Promundo’s outreach has sought to combat the prevalence of attitudes and practices, including ones about masculinity, which had embedded gender violence so deeply in that society. “We take into account trauma and how this affects behavior,” says Lauro.

Measuring Concrete Change

Promoting gender equity is not easy, and approaches must vary. She notes that sometimes norms change, and then drive a change in behavior. Other times a behavior—which might be encouraged by a public policy like parental leave for both women and men—can produce a change in attitudes, which subsequently influences behavior, and so on. It is not always easy to separate cause and effect. Regardless, the Italian-born Lauro, who has a Ph.D. in political science from Oxford, and previously served as Associate Director of the Women and Population Programme on behalf of the United Nations Foundation, believes in the power of research. “Our goal is to ensure that we can measure concrete change around attitudes, behaviors and norms,” she says.

To this end, Promundo and the International Center for Research on Women have created the International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES). This household survey probes men’s and women’s practices and attitudes around gender norms, gender-equality policies, care-work distribution, intimate partner violence, health, economic stress and other issues facing women, men, and families. As of 2017, notes Lauro, IMAGES and IMAGES-inspired studies have been administered to more than 40,000 men and 20,000 women in nearly 40 countries. Moreover, Lauro describes the IMAGES survey as an “open source” tool which “can be used by local organizations to inform their own work.”

Promundo uses research not just to take the temperature of a given community regarding gender-equity, sexual violence and other topics, but also to evaluate whether the programs that it and its partners sponsor are having an impact. Do they really produce a change in attitudes and practices? How, I wondered, can one know if a program simply teaches its participants to talk a good game about gender equity to researchers, but leave the reality unchanged?

Lauro notes that a rigorous attempt to gauge the impact of programs and interventions requires more than asking participants easily-answered questions. “From our research, we know that when we word questions in the positive, everyone answers the politically correct ‘yes.’” In other words, asking, “Do you support equality between men and women?” is likely to elicit positive answers, but more authentic responses come from creative questions. “For example,” says Lauro, “we don’t ask ‘have you ever beaten your partner?’ Instead, we ask, ‘how often have you beaten your partner?’” The idea is to remove the cues that would push respondents toward the “correct” response. Furthermore, says Lauro, to corroborate the trends highlighted in men’s responses, women are surveyed as well to find out if they have noticed a reduction in violence. Finally, notes Lauro, “At times we employ a control group which helps isolate the impact of the intervention.” This commitment to research has helped Promundo weed out or modify interventions which have been ineffective in promoting change.

Lauro has a long history of work in this area, including her Ph.D. thesis, which addressed the double standard of European governments toward the global South on harmful gender norms. The Europeans would advocate for women’s rights in Africa or Asia, but at home would use contentious gender issues as a wedge to demonize or punish immigrant communities rather than protect women. Lauro recommends that issues such as child or forced marriage, wherever it occurs, be “framed first and foremost as a human rights issue rather than a cultural practice.”

Promundo works with NGOs and multilateral institutions such as the United Nations, the World Bank, and the World Health Organization. These stakeholders have partnered with Promundo, or adopted their programs and implemented them in communities around the world. Promundo receives funding from bilateral and multilateral donors, foundations, international NGOs, and individuals. A range of feminist-friendly foundations also support Promundo, “There is a large pool of funders committed to combating gender-based violence,” says Lauro. Other foundations, she notes, are more interested in thematic work on fatherhood and caregiving, gender and youth, or the ramifications for women of large-scale conflict resulting from local gangs, or from ethnic, tribal, national or other differences. Regardless, funding and advocacy around male conceptions of masculinity and gender represents an important part of the fight for gender equality.

Related:

Potluck Power: How This Women’s Giving Circle Feeds Global Gender Equity

Hamutal Gouri: Seven Steps to Growing Feminist Funding Eco-Systems

World Bank Makes 10 Grants Totaling $1.14 million for Preventing Gender Based Violence

Praising the Deeds of Women: How Gender Equity and Reconciliation Can Change the World

Author: Tim Lehnert

Tim Lehnert is a writer and editor who lives in Cranston, Rhode Island. His articles and essays have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Providence Journal, Rhode Island Monthly, the Boston Herald, the Christian Science Monitor, and elsewhere. He is the author of the book Rhode Island 101, and has published short fiction for kids and adults in a number of literary journals and magazines. He received an M.A. in Political Science from McGill University, and an M.A. in English from California State University, Northridge.

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