I've often shied away from identifying myself with the "feminist" movement. And yet I'm grateful for many of the changes feminism has brought about in our society. I have no doubt that my life is very different than life was for my grandmothers and great grandmothers. And I'm thankful for that. For many women today, life IS better. We vote, get educated, have careers, juggle family and work, run for political office, enter the ministry, get married - or not, play sports, own property... It may still be a "man's world", but women can hold their own. At least some women.
Having traveled in several developing countries I'm quite conscious of the fact that the majority of women around the globe do not enjoy many of these privileges. Despite the fact that women often draw on deep reservoirs of strength when faced with horrendous situations, enduring unspeakable hardship and abuse, the everyday reality for these women is oppressive on many levels. And yet, development specialists readily acknowledge that women MUST be involved in development initiatives if they are to succeed. The United Nations, in defining the 8 Millennium Development Goals, recognize the critical importance of promoting gender equality and empowering women (goal #3) if the goal of eradicating extreme poverty is to be realized. Stephen Lewis, former UN special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, has often noted - in his passionate and articulate style - the role that grandmothers play in holding Africa together. I've seen with my own eyes the incredible strength of Kenyan women, as they mobilize their communities to engage in community development projects and care for AIDS orphans. I applaud efforts to empower women, but I'm also just a bit uneasy.
I worry about the messages that we are giving to girls - YOU can make a difference! YOU can solve the problems in your society! YOU are the heart of your community! YOU can pull your family out of poverty! These are the messages of the Because I am a Girl campaign (see http://plancanada.ca/becauseiamagirl?WT.mc_id=BIAAGFY11GS18). It's not that I don't believe these things. I DO believe that girls can make a difference. I know that they have enormous potential for good when they're given half a chance. I fully support efforts to ensure that girls have the opportunity to attend school. My concern is this: what do these messages - intended to encourage and inspire GIRLS - say to BOYS? Do they imply that boys can't make a difference? Can't solve problems in their society? Can't be the heart of their community or pull their family out of poverty? Because they are boys, they CAN'T be counted on?
Can we foster gender equality and empower girls and women without DISEMPOWERING boys and men? And another thing: if we look at the ways that the feminist movement has impacted our own society, we have to be brutally open about looking at both the successes AND the failures. There may be some debate about how to define success and failure, but for me the successes are the things I listed above - voting, education, jobs, etc. On the other side of the ledger though, are lots of other things that indicate that girls are still trapped in unhealthy ways of seeing themselves and their role in society. Things like: the rates of eating disorders amongst girls and young women; stories about middle school girls performing oral sex for money at lunch time; accounts of girls - individually and in groups - bullying other girls, either online or in person; the rates of abortion in our society and the way that abortion is defined as a "women's right"; and so on. I can hardly turn on the television and flip through the channels at any time of the day or night without being confronted with reality tv shows that depict women as manipulative, conniving, vengeful, stunningly beautiful but somewhat dull-witted chameleons.
Are THESE women the heart of their community? Are THEY pulling their families out of poverty, making a difference, solving their society's problems? The way I see it, they are products of a feminist movement in our country. I'm not BLAMING feminism. I know that this is NOT what the early feminists had in mind when they sought to empower women. But we need to face the fact that these issues have somehow evolved out of the primordial soup of feminism.
Have these women been left behind by feminism? And what about boys and young men around the world - from the most developed to the least developed countries? Everywhere I look I see young men - boys 14 or 15 years old to men of 25, even 30 - who are restless, angry, dangerous. Males who do not know who they are. Males who have somehow failed to live up to some unwritten standard or code. Males who may seek meaning and an identity by banding together with other lost males, in gangs and militias and (maybe even) armies. Is it possible that these too, have been left behind by feminism?
On a recent trip to Kenya our team encountered a young man of 25. He had graduated from high school - a feat in itself in Kenya - and yet here he was on a Saturday morning, unemployed, drunk and wandering the streets. He had been trying to get into the military for several years but didn't have connections or money to bribe his way in. As hope leaked out of his life, he was giving into the temptation to let alcohol numb his pain.
Later in the same trip we had a meeting with some Christian youth leaders when we attended a networking session around HIV/AIDS awareness. The youth took turns reporting on their activities and discussing the merits of working together. These were all very bright young people, but amongst the young men, there ran a strong current of resentment and anger.
How many angry and resentful young men are there? What kinds of situations or events might cause that anger to flare up?
I can't help thinking that with all of the international attention going to the cause of gender equality and empowering women, these young men may be left behind... and that could prove to be very dangerous for all of us! Development experts recognize the need for engaging women in development efforts, but I would love to see development agencies also find ways to give these young men a purpose and an identity that will channel their ambitions and energies in a positive direction. The challenges facing our world are great and we will need all of the resources and energies and talents at our disposal - from both women AND men - if we are to grapple with them effectively. Yes, we should work for gender equality and empowering women, but not by dismissing or grinding down or disempowering men. Both men and women need to see power, not as a weapon to wield for personal gain, but as a trust to be used in order to create a future where no one is left behind.