Stephen O'Brien: On the role of boys and men in improving gender equality

Stephen O'Brien's speech at the launch of Plan UK's State of the World's Girls report, looking at the inclusion of boys and men in gender work.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Sir Stephen O’Brien

I’m delighted that I am here with you all this evening. I’d like to express my appreciation and on behalf of the Government to Plan UK and the sponsors Credit Suisse for organising this event and more generally to their continued commitment to this really important - and evidence-based - cause.

The exhibitions and displays here tonight are genuinely inspiring. I think they are the things we have to do. It is a real testimony to people’s lives who are being transformed and all the opportunities being granted because of a combined effort by so many people.

So in addition to saying a really good evening to all of you, I feel like I should be saying good evening to India and Cambodia, El Salvador and Ghana and all the people that are represented here tonight because it is what makes us one world and truly global citizens.

These stories also express the complexities well. If it was straightforward it would all be done very easily. The fact that equality for girls and boys, and women and men, is not just about investing in girls and women. It is about investing in boys and men too. That equality will not happen simply by putting the right laws in place, important of course as that may be. It is - crucially - about working with every citizen to change social norms and behaviours which perpetuate exclusion.

I’m delighted to be here today to celebrate the launch of the fifth ‘The State of the World’s Girls’ report about the critical role of boys and men. I commend Plan UK for its work in producing this valuable series of reports since 2007.

And I know just how much work goes into them. When I was not a Minister when I was in opposition, I spent, if not 35 years then but certainly the last ten years, producing a series of reports on malaria and neglected tropical diseases. And there is an enormous amount of work that goes into getting what ultimately sits within these reports for people like me, a policy maker, a law maker, someone who has to go an answer to my constituents about why we’re spending so much of their money on things a long way from our shores. It is the important authoritativeness that comes from these reports, where the logic and the force of the argument can come through because that helps defend against those who say you can’t justify using our money for that.

As you well know, in DFID we are pleased to be able to commit on your behalf to the Government’s policy to meet our pledge to spend 0.7 per cent on overseas development by 2013 despite the tough economic times here. As an MP, it’s a routine, scary place to be when people say “We don’t think that’s a good idea”. We have to stand up courageously and defend it. It is people like you tonight who help us do that, so make sure you’re out there being the champions for this as much as anybody else. We need to get this to be the norm in our way of working as much as the social norms and behaviours we’re talking about in other countries tonight. So I am of course delighted to be associated with the focus in this year ‘ s report on educate, campaign and legislate chimes well with my Department for International Developments work towards more equal societies in 27 of the poorest countries.

I would also like to commend Plan for the work it is taking forward in partnership with DFID to raise awareness of gender equality, improve sexual and reproductive health, and increase girls’ and boys’ participation in decision making in their communities and societies.

Last month in Washington, the World Bank published the World Development Report on Gender Equality and Development 2012. This is an important call to action for Governments, donors, multilaterals, civil society and the private sector. We all have a role to play in promoting gender equality. I am pleased to see representatives from such a diverse group of organisations here today. DFID is firmly committed to expanding our partnerships to promote a fairer world.

The WDR sets out that, despite progress on improving the lives of girls and women, huge challenges remain. Almost two thirds of the 750 million illiterate people in the developing world are women. 60 million girls are sexually assaulted at or travelling to or from school every year. Every year over a third of a million girls and women die in pregnancy and childbirth.

Yet we also know that investing in girls and women has a transformative impact on growth, poverty reduction and the MDGs. Where girls and women have more access to education, healthcare and economic opportunities, their children and their societies are healthier, more prosperous and more peaceful. In short, investing in equality for girls and boys, women and men, is good for everyone - and very good for development.

That is why the UK has put girls and women at the heart of international development. DFID’s Strategic Vision for Girls and Women, launched in March, identifies four priority areas where we want to see real change happen for girls and women:

  • Delay first pregnancy and support safe childbirth
  • Get economic assets directly to girls and women
  • Get girls through secondary school and
  • Prevent violence against girls and women.

I can tell from going to Nigeria - what is the best thing to get girls to stay in school? Build a latrine so she doesn’t have the fear and embarrassment of not having the necessary privacy, just at the point where she is moving from primary to secondary.

We know that we will never end global poverty until we begin to challenge inequality and discrimination. We must give girls and boys the same opportunities to flourish. And we know that raising adolescents’ awareness in particular about gender issues is vital, because interventions during this formative period can alter life outcomes dramatically.

I agree with Marie that education is absolutely critical. That is why, the UK will help more than nine million boys and girls attend primary school and two million to attend secondary school. And that is why we have recently announced the new Girls Education Challenge to support up to 1 million more girls go to school.

As the Plan UK report highlights, violence and discrimination do not happen in a vacuum but within an established system of power in which men are predominantly the power holders and which is condoned by wider society.

Our Strategic Vision recognises that we will only achieve greater equality if we invest our efforts in both direct action and a positive enabling environment that seeks to improve girls’ or women’s relations with the boys and men around them, and enhance their status within their family and wider society. When you visit Sierra Leone, the discussion has always been how do you deal with the local chiefs and the control that is centred throughout society. I will continue having these conversations.

These factors determine the importance placed on her attending school or a health clinic, her ability to make decisions that affect her life, to control household resources, and to take an active role in her community and beyond.

So whilst we believe that gender equality is key to breaking the cycle of poverty, we realise that this cannot be tackled by focussing on girls and women alone.

We need to understand what it means to be masculine - and how this can reinforce inequality between women and men. We need to educate boys and men about girls’ and women’s rights and the benefits of more equal positive relationships. As a result our programme interventions will be more effective, for example in preventing the spread of HIV and AIDS.

We can see positive examples from all around the world about the proactive role which boys and men have played in creating more equal societies. Let me reflect on a few examples which have been supported by my Department:

In Uganda, 1000 men joined together to campaign through door-to-door discussions, drama and outreach to sports and film centres to reduce gender-based violence. DFID is now developing a new programme advocating for the implementation of the Domestic Violence Act to the benefit of Ugandan women and men.

Across South Asia, we are supporting programmes to change the attitudes and behaviours of boys and men. In rural Nepal influential men have been recruited to become advocates to tackle unequal power relations preventing women from participating in decision making. This has helped to speed up improvements in police responses to domestic violence.

In Nigeria, DFID is developing a new programme to challenge harmful traditional practices such as early marriage through: innovative and dynamic media and communications; working with traditional and religious leaders; and raising awareness through boys’ and men’s community clubs and training
DFID has also supported the development of a resource kit for teaching sexuality and HIV education with a strong gender and rights perspective, entitled ‘It’s All One Curriculum’. There has been overwhelming demand, with 12,000 copies already being disseminated to 103 countries.

But today, I would like to focus on three particularly inspiring examples: South Africa, Ethiopia and Jamaica. DFID has been supporting great work with boys and men in each of these countries, and there is clear evidence about the impact these programmes have had on improving the lives of girls and women. Building on this evidence, DFID is scaling up new ambitious programmes.

In South Africa, the figures are stark…42% of men have perpetrated violence against a partner, and 1 in 4 have raped.

DFID has been a strong supporter of the ‘One Man Can’ Campaign in three provinces in South Africa. The programme runs workshops for boys and men to prevent domestic and sexual violence, reduce the spread and impact of HIV and AIDS and promote both gender equality and social justice.

And the result?

  • Over 2000 boys and men attended the workshops
  • 25% of them accessed Voluntary Counseling and Testing within a few weeks of attending the workshop
  • 50% reported having witnessed acts of gender-based violence in their communities following the workshops
  • 61% reported having increased their own use of condoms, and
  • More than 4 out of 5 participants reported having subsequently talked to friends and family about HIV and AIDS, gender and human rights.

Building on these successes, DFID is now planning a new 4 year programme in South Africa to prevent physical and sexual violence. This will continue to work with boys and men to address violent masculinities and provide alternative role models for them.

Now, consider this simple fact: in some parts of Africa, half of all girls are married by the time they reach the age of 15. Parts of Ethiopia have the highest rates of child marriage in Africa. But early marriage doesn’t have to be inevitable, as the results of a DFID pilot project in northern Ethiopia has shown.

That project helped a whole community to come together to have a ‘community conversation’ about the consequences of young marriage. When project staff spoke to the young men in particular, they were struck by the difference in their attitudes compared with the older generation. Several of the boys said that they did not want to marry child brides. They wanted girls to speak up for themselves.

Over the course of the 18 month pilot, not one of the 376 participating girls married. Instead, they stayed in school.

Building on this successful pilot British aid will now help 200,000 girls directly - and many more indirectly - to delay their marriages and to stay in school.
And we will work with men and boys to achieve that by continuing ‘community conversations’ which lead to a collective decision by the community to end the practice.

Finally, I would like to reflect on a personal case of a former notorious gang member in Jamaica. For this man, the need for a change in lifestyle only dawned on him after the birth of his son, when he enrolled in a DFID supported vocational skills training programme.

He was interested in learning but he struggled with feelings of anger and aggression. During training, he was exposed to weekly Life Skills sessions which allowed for reflection and introspection on his life. During one session he shared that his mother died when he was seven years old and his father had played no role in his life.

The Life Skills support helped him to redefine his life. He went on to complete level two of the vocational training. He has subsequently been recruited by the Men with a Message initiative which uses former gang members to promote non-violence in schools and communities across Jamaica.

I’m proud to say that, in Jamaica, where young men are 10 times more likely to be a victim of homicide than in the rest of the world, DFID is supporting a new Citizen Security and Justice Programme over 2011-13.

The new programme builds on clear evidence which showed that targeting violence prevention programmes at male youth can reduce gender-based violence and will provide personal and material security for girls and women in communities which suffer from high levels of poverty and violence.

The programme will improve security, and deliver basic services and economic opportunities to 50 of the most volatile communities in Jamaica.

DFID support will help to establish community development committees; provide parenting education programmes for over 11,000 at risk families; and provide training for over 11,000 women and men on violence prevention, anti-violence and conflict-resolution.

These examples are just a few which highlight the importance of engaging boys and men to build happier, more prosperous and fairer and safer lives. They also illustrate that investing in equality not only benefits girls and women, but boys and men also.

Understanding what it means to be boy or a man in different societies, and how that can have positive and negative consequences is the basis for working them as partners to improve their lives, and the lives of girls and women.

I completely and fully endorse on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government Plan’s report: boys and men must be seen as a crucial part of the solution, not simply as part of the problem. Thank you.

Updates to this page

Published 13 October 2011