Guest commentary by Dr. Cynthia M. Caron, Assistant Professor of International Development and Social Change, Clark University.
On Human Rights Day (December 10), civil society organizations around the world wrapped up the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence campaign. This annual campaign focuses on gender-based violence as a rights’ violation, draws attention to forms of institutionalized inequality and discrimination, and gives us a chance to ask what we’ve learned about the causes of violence against women and what strategies work to reduce it. One takeaway for the development community should be that when we create programs to strengthen women’s land rights, we should also think about how control of land affects gender relations and how empowering women with land rights affects men and boys.
One way to think about gender is as a relationship between men and women. And one critical element in this relationship, no matter where, is the control of valuable assets. Who controls what matters a great deal in a relationship. It can affect how a husband treats a wife, but it can also affect how a husband, father, son understands his own identity—and this may be particularly important when it comes to control of land.
Land inheritance laws and practice provide a good example. Women and increasingly girl-focused development programming often focus on educating women and girls about their legal rights and develop their leadership and social networks to do so, but too often men are excluded from these activities. When boys and men are included, it is typically to “educate” about the benefits of empowering women and girls. But, how do these efforts—which hope to change the traditional status quo—influence the way men and boys think about their masculine identity or what it “means to be a man?”
That men and boys are not asked these questions is, unfortunately, not surprising; development programs often employ the ‘win-win’ rhetoric. In the case of land rights, a ‘win’ of a land transfer from a brother to a sister should not be seen as a loss for the brother; it should be seen as a ‘win’ for the family or for society on the whole. But we must ask whether men and boys are able to see this as a ‘win-win’ situation or whether changes in inheritance practice are seen as redistributing land from men to women.
This is important because threats to masculinity can become excuses for committing acts of violence. And so, recognizing that men’s very sense of what it means to be a man might be directly tied to land ownership and control of this asset needs to be carefully integrated in our development efforts. Sustainable programming aimed at empowering women and girls with land rights needs to ask new and unexpected questions of and from men in order to move forward our collective understanding about men’s relationships with land. Development professionals need to know how men and boys engage with messages of gender equality, the extent to which they try to act on new knowledge, and if they choose not to try, why not.
A recent evaluation of gender equality programming with boys in Bolivia demonstrates how boys struggle to use new knowledge about equal rights for girls when it directly contradicts what they are learning about what it “means to be a man” from how their own fathers. A November 2014 ICRW report shows how notions of masculinity figure into the desire for sons and how this desire may be greater in agricultural rural-based economies due to boys’ potential to inherit land (55).
What this suggests is that the development community needs to think much more carefully about how control of land affects gender relations and how to creatively include men and boys as active participants in programming that empowers women with land rights. This means contemplating how women’s empowerment programming affects men’s identities and also supporting men through potential identity shifts. Adopting this perspective may help programming better achieve longer term goals and limit potential harms to women.
By thinking more strategically about gender relations and including both men and women in programming and planning we can help ensure that our activism around gender-based violence extends far beyond 16 days.
Dr. Cynthia Caron is a Gender Specialist for the Cloudburst Consulting Group, and also an Assistant Professor of International Development and Social Change at Clark University in Massachusetts. On December 9, she presented “Gender & Land Rights: Don’t Forget Men & Boys,” a webinar co-hosted by USAID’s Offices of Land Tenure and Resource Management, and Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment as part of the #16Days of Activism Against Gender Violence.