Better Together: Achieving Gender Equality By Engaging Men & Boys

By SEED Foundation and Promundo-US

Globally, there is growing attention to the role men must play in achieving gender equality. In the past two decades, the question has shifted from whether men should be part of gender equality, to how men must step up as allies.

Across the world, gender disparities are still vast, and if anything, have grown as COVID-19 lockdowns and economic stagnation have caused widespread unemployment and isolated people in the home. One of the most alarming consequences of the pandemic has been increased gender-based violence (GBV).

In Iraq, the instance of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) is the worst in the world – with a reported 45% of women having suffered some form of violence from their partner in the past year.1 Here, high levels of IPV and other forms of GBV are linked to heightened gender inequality – exacerbated by hyper-masculine social norms, and the destructive impacts of prolonged conflict and exposure to violence.

Equality eludes us. That’s why we need men on board. Urgently.

With funding support from the United States Government, SEED Foundation, Promundo-US and the Living Peace Institute (LPI) have joined forces to develop a new program aimed at preventing and reducing GBV in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) by engaging men and boys as supporters of gender equality and by transforming harmful norms through awareness raising.

Gender Inequality Manifests Through Violence Against Women and Girls

Women and men’s roles in Kurdistan’s society have been heavily shaped by conservative religious and cultural norms. The dominant forms of masculinity in Iraq emphasize men’s role as protectors and breadwinners – strong physically, emotionally and financially – while women are characterized as caregivers and responsible for the majority of domestic work. When men perceive that they are unable to fulfill their role, they may resort to ‘re-masculinizing’ themselves through aggression and violence.

In addition to IPV, there are other insidious forms of violence embedded in the culture. ‘Honor’ violence, which is linked to the expectation that men are responsible for protecting their family and its reputation, can manifest as physical, emotional, or socioeconomic violence towards women and girls as punishment for breaking traditional gender expectations.

Technology-facilitated GBV (TFGBV), which has also become widespread, is used to sexually exploit, harass, and abuse individuals, including using threats, coercion, and blackmail for sex or money via mobile phone, email, or social media.

Aside from being a severe human rights violation and having devastating physical, mental, and emotional consequences, GBV can have vast repercussions for the economic and social security of society. Not only does GBV reduce GDP growth2 – through reduced productivity, loss of earnings and diverted resources – but it is also a predictor of whether a society is prone to violent conflict.3 Gender equality is the number one predictor of peace – over religious identity, democracy, and the wealth of a state.4

Trauma and Conflict Can Perpetuate Cycles of Violence

The KRI has been subjected to violent conflict repeatedly for centuries, from the more recent conflict with ISIS to the 8-year Iran-Iraq war, most Kurdish men have borne witness to several violent conflicts in their lifetime.

From their work in other conflict-affected regions, Promundo-US’s research has shown that men’s reaction to trauma and conflict is a key driver of poor health and behavioral outcomes – including: violence, substance misuse, and poor mental health. Data has consistently shown that in areas of high conflict and post-conflict trauma, men’s harm to women, children, and themselves increases – with costs disproportionately affecting women.

As in the KRI, hyper-masculine norms also stigmatize seeking help. These versions of “manhood” – without pain and sadness – set expectations for men to remain stoic and strong after prolonged exposure to death and horrific violence. This unresolved trauma, paired with inequitable gender norms, and a need to deliver financially for their families – despite widespread un and underemployment – perpetuates cycles of violence that will prove consequential for generations to come, unless we intervene now.

Promoting Healthy Masculinities in Kurdistan Through Engaging Men and Boys

Promundo-US’s work facilitates critical reflection among men and boys on what it means to be a man in their community, and how that affects them and the women and children in their lives. Through this process, men increase their accountability to and allyship with women and girls by committing to a more caring, equitable, and non-violent version of themselves – often resulting in a happier and healthier life.

Similarly, LPI’s methodology is grounded in a trauma-informed approach to healing and fostering gender equitable relationships. With men supporting each other, and together with women survivors of violence, a joint reflection and recovery process can lead to non-violent relationships, with benefits for the entire family. This positive shift in behaviour and thinking is what we call healthy masculinities.

SEED, Promundo-US, and LPI’s new joint program will aim to achieve this shift, complementing existing support services offered through SEED’s service centers across the KRI – which includes case management, mental health, psychosocial support (PSS), and legal services for women, men, girls and boys.

While the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has taken a number of steps towards improving gender equality in the KRI, including revisions of the Domestic Violence Law and establishment of the Directorate of Combating Violence Against Women (DCVAW), GBV remains a grave and widespread issue.

SEED Foundation has continued to provide critical training to the Directorate of Combatting Violence Against Women (DCVAW) staff since 2016, encouraging a survivor-centered approach to service delivery and advocating for improvements to existing legislation. But, more needs to be done to reduce and prevent GBV.

Over the next two years, SEED Foundation, Promundo-US and LPI will work to adapt, contextualize, and implement three programs to engage young men (ages 15 – 24), fathers or other men engaged in child care, and men who have experienced trauma as a result of war through evidence-based and trauma-informed group education led by SEED facilitators. All approaches have a common aim: to promote gender equity through the adoption of healthy masculinities.​​

SEED Foundation, Promundo-US, and LPI are convinced that engaging men as allies is an urgent part of the equation in advancing gender equality. By understanding the barriers and recognizing the opportunities for engaging men in gender equality, together we forge a faster path to a more equal society, which will benefit all.

1 Women, Peace and Security Index 2021/22
2 World Bank, (September 2019), Gender-Based Violence (Violence Against Women and Girls).
3 Caprioli, Hudson, et al,, (April 2007), Putting Women in their Place, The Baker Center Journal for Applied Public Policy,
4 Valerie Hudson et al., Sex and World Peace, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014)