HIV/AIDS prevention: How empowering men and boys to promote gender equality can help

The empowerment of women has long been considered a crucial element in the response to HIV/AIDS. New evidence, however, points to another important element in the equation - addressing the role of men and boys in promoting gender equality as a way of helping to prevent HIV-infection. ILO online spoke with Linda Wirth, director of the ILO Bureau for Gender Equality about these issues and the first-ever intergovernmental process to address them.

Article | 25 May 2004

What are some of the "costs" of gender inequality for men?

Unequal power suppresses women and girls - but also oppresses men and boys - and makes each sex vulnerable in different ways to HIV infection. In fact, men pay significant costs within patriarchies: enormous health disadvantages include occupational health and safety costs since men predominate in dangerous industries such as mining. They are more likely to be subject to alcoholism, sexually-transmitted diseases, homicidal violence, and imprisonment. And in the formal economy there is enormous pressure on men to spend long hours at the workplace.

In some occupational groups this results in a life practically consumed by 'work'. The negative side to a poor 'work/family life balance' is that there is little time to share with partners and children, the bulk of unpaid work in the home falls on the shoulders of women, and it is difficult to be a good father in any way except as an economic provider.

Rigid gender roles and expectations also narrow men's cultural experience. In education, men predominate in 'technical' courses and natural science while they are under-represented in humanities, social sciences and human services. And power-oriented masculinities are often associated with ethnocentrism, rejection of other cultures, and inflexible and rigid barriers to change. Dominant and violent military masculinities in conflict zones around the world create extreme forms of oppression of women and girls.

What are some of the benefits of gender equality for men?

Resistance from men to equality with women is often based on the 'patriarchal dividends' to men which include material benefits and power. Formal benefits include generally higher incomes than women, and informal benefits include care and domestic services provided by women in the family. Nevertheless, there are many examples of men's support for gender equality and many men are engaged in intellectual and public advocacy, organizational and political alliances, as well as campaigns to promote gender equality and end gender-based violence.

In 'gender just' societies and families, more men can expect to enjoy more intimate, trusting and respectful relations with women, and with other men. They could have more opportunities for sharing in the joy of caring and contributing to the growth of young children - both as parents and as professional caregivers. Moving towards gender equality would also be an important step towards reducing conflict and violence. Men, who are victims of many forms of personal and institutional violence - primarily at the hands of other men - have a great deal to gain from a more peaceful, non-violent world.

Will attention to men and boys take away resources and efforts focused on empowering women and girls?

Initiatives to work with men and boys, stresses UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's report to the Commission on the Status of Women in March 2004, "must be placed in the overall context of promotion of gender equality. Increased support to men and boys should not mean a reduction of the necessary support to women and girls".

Principles identified by the report for policies and programs that address the role of men and boys in achieving gender equality include: collaborating with, and accountability to, women's organizations and feminist movements; ensuring that funding for gender equality work with men and boys is not at the expense of existing or future funding for empowerment work with women and girls; and developing integrated gender policies rather than separate and parallel policies for women and men. Adhering to these principles would ensure that gender policies focus on relations between women and men, rather than on women and men separately.

Why talk about men and boys? Isn't gender equality about empowering women?

Often the goal of gender equality is considered a 'woman's issue'. The focus on women only in the 1970s - the women in development approach known as WID - shifted in the 1980s to the gender and development approach or GAD. This new perspective on gender relations created the opportunity to increase attention on men and boys. The role of men and boys in challenging and changing unequal power relations is critical.

Over the years a stronger focus has developed on the positive role men and boys can and do play in promoting women's empowerment in the home, the community, the labour market and the workplace. A better understanding of gender roles and relations at work and at home can make policy measures and actions for overcoming inequalities more effective.

Increasing precarious conditions of life and livelihood for many women and men, worsening sex ratios in some regions, the effect of global economic restructuring on household economies, and the HIV/AIDS pandemic mainly affect women and children, but also large numbers of marginalized men. Therefore, involving men and boys in promoting gender equality is critical.

How can men - in the home, workplace, community and at the national level - promote gender equality?

In his report, Mr. Annan notes that the attitudes and values of men and boys as fathers, brothers, husbands and friends, have a direct impact on the women and girls around them. Men sharing family responsibilities such as domestic work and care of children and older, disabled and sick family members, is key to promoting equality in paid employment. Men with decision-making power in economic and political life - and those who have control over public resources - can facilitate gender-sensitive policy reform. They can also support laws designed to protect women and children's rights.

Men and boys can also play a crucial role in combating HIV/AIDS and violence against women. The ILO has identified steps to address gender inequality in the context of HIV/AIDS. These include providing workplace education for men and women - both separately and together - about sexuality, violence at work, family responsibilities, and reproductive health. Zero tolerance should be shown for violence and harassment against women and men at work, and workplace medical facilities are encouraged in order to diagnose and treat sexually-transmitted infections that increase vulnerability to HIV.

Note: The issue of the role of men and boys in promoting gender equality was discussed for the first time at an intergovernmental level at a meeting of experts held by the UN Division for the Advancement of Women on 21-24 October 2003 in Brasilia, Brazil. This unprecedented meeting focused on the role of men in achieving gender equality and issues related to the workplace and HIV/AIDS Several of the experts presented their recommendations during a high-level panel for government delegates at the 48th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, held in New York from 1-12 March 2004. The ILO is following up in several ways: in December 2003 the Program on HIV/AIDS and the World of Work (ILO/AIDS) and Bureau for Gender Equality held a panel at headquarters in Geneva to brief ILO staff about the findings of the expert meeting in Brasilia. The Office will also develop advisory and training materials on integrating men and masculinity issues in the work of the ILO especially in relation to safe work, migration, and HIV/AIDS.

For more information on the Brasilia meeting and the ILO issues paper to the meeting:

Further information can be also obtained from the United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2 UN Plaza, DC2-12th Floor, New York, NY 10017, United States, fax: +1212/963-3463,, summary of Brasilia meeting, papers and expert report on, information on the UN Commission on the Status of Women on