The Men As Partners 2013 conference took place two weeks ago, February 11 to 15 in Léo, Burkina Faso. I believe I blogged about the conference we held last year, but I thought I’d follow-up and write a few words about this year’s formation. The conference is sponsored and run by the Gender and Development (GAD) volunteer committee in Burkina Faso, and the funding came from a grant that we applied for with USAID, the American government’s foreign aid organization. The idea behind the conference is that women in Burkina Faso cannot make strides towards equal rights and better living conditions without the help and support of men, and so we need to involve men equally in the debate and movement, soliciting them as “partners” to act as positive role models in their communities and encourage behavior change in male peers.
The reason for including men in the fight for women’s rights, boys in the struggle for emphasizing girls’ education, is that neither gender can function without the other. Society requires both male and female counterparts to function, not simply to continue and multiply by having children, but because both parents reinforce and define gender roles and stereotypes for their children. Teachers, both male and female, inadvertently pass this knowledge down to students, and community members, both male and female, act accordingly in social situations. If women begin to change their attitudes and behavior, they will face strong push-back from their male counterparts, and since men are still seen as the head of the household in Burkina, it would be hard for women to make forward progress. However, the opposite also holds true. When men in Burkina start making changes to their behavior, for instance helping their wives around the house by doing something as simple as carrying their own bucket of water to the shower, oftentimes they face angry resistance from their wives. Women get up in arms to defend “their” work, demanding why their husbands are taking over their tasks. Does her husband think she isn’t doing a good enough job? She isn’t fast enough?
Both men and women here face a give and take scenario. We use MAP to target men that are influential in their communities to explain why it’s important for them to support the movement toward gender equality and how they can do so. Through our Gender and Development fund in Burkina Faso, we support dynamic women that are independently taking part in this movement, whether through building a soap selling business or organizing community activities.
All of that being said, gender equality is still a long ways off in Burkina; it’s still seen as a foreign, a “Western” concept, that we are trying to impose on society here. Many of the men that volunteers invited to the conference may be progressive or positive role models in their communities, but they still don’t understand or support many of the concepts that we introduce in MAP, and volunteer participants often found their counterparts answers shocking or disappointing (as I did, when I first attended MAP last year). For instance, in one exercise we asked men what they wanted to tell women to help them better understand men in Burkina (we asked women the question too), and they responded by saying that women should tolerate their infidelity. That may seem extremely crass (it is), but here infidelity is extremely commonplace and not considered a reason to leave a significant other. Because a large percentage of Burkinabé are Muslim, Burkina law permits a man to have multiple wives, so it’s common for men to cheat and then, if questioned (which is rare), to simply claim to be searching for a second wife. More progressive women in Burkina (and, at the conference, even our Peace Corps representative talked about this) will take measures to protect themselves, which include buying a box of condoms and discreetly placing them where a husband or boyfriend can find them (or not so discreetly packing them in an overnight bag) in the hopes that during trysts with various mistresses, he at least wears protection so he can’t pass anything to his wife/girlfriend.
Shocked yet? Don’t be. In a conversation at dinner one night during the conference, a volunteer’s counterpart told me that he can’t go a week without having sex, and that it’s not his fault – women plan for sex, but men can’t help it, their penises mess with their minds. If they sit down in a chair and their penis points out a woman across the room, they really have no choice in the matter. Cue Marvin Gaye. And then there was the day where we were discussing the problems with intergenerational sex and a heated argument ensued, during which one counterpart loudly proclaimed that at 16, a girl’s body is fully functional. Yes, functional, like an automobile. Last year at my high school, four separate male teachers impregnated their students, and the only problem that was seen with this was that one or two of them cheated on spouses to do so.
So, you can see where Burkina’s gender relations stand for the time being. Female politicians aren’t respected because most people assume they got the job by playing mistress to someone holding a seat two rows down in national parliament. The other night while watching a prominent female television reporter, the man sitting next to me denounced her simply because she had refused to get married, boldly stating that it “wasn’t part of her plan”; despite every argument I countered with, the conversation always returned to the fact that he didn’t respect her, and therefore her position or her work, because she had refused to follow the traditional path and find a husband, raise a family. Gender roles are so cemented here that having a conversation about them can be like attacking a steel-reinforced wall with a sledgehammer, feeling frustrated with how little mortar you dislodged as you walk away with stinging palms.
While many of the responses offered by counterparts at this year’s MAP conference were hard to hear, the level of participation in discussions and debates was outstanding. Even more so than last year, men were willing to give and defend their points of view; they weren’t simply saying what they thought we wanted to hear, which in my opinion is so important, because it opens an honest dialogue on the subject. Despite the fact that they may not have understood or agreed with all of the topics that we brought up, there may be one or two small ideas or practices that they decide to adopt upon returning to their communities. If nothing else, we gave them something new to consider the next time they reflect on the society in which they live, and the everyday activities and challenges faced by wives, daughters, or co-workers; I think that the women who attended MAP this year had a lot to do with that.
Last year, we wanted to invite women to the conference, but the Peace Corps Burkina Faso administration vetoed that idea. This year, however, we managed to invite two women, whom we handpicked so as to be sure that they wouldn’t be afraid to speak up and express their opinions in front of a room of men. Whereas in the past, men could have said, “well, this is what women here think,” this year the women were given a chance to speak for themselves. And it worked out great. Because of the cultural differences, the women did agree with the men on some issues that volunteers did not. However, most of the time, the women spoke out strongly during debates to disagree with what other men had said; while wives or girls may be too timid to disagree with the man in their household or a superior, at least the men at the conference heard what the two women had to say, and maybe were introduced to a perspective they had not had access to before. (I’ll add, and this won’t surprise any of you that met her, that my counterpart in Yako, Cathérine, was one of these two women, and she did a great job.)
Therefore, despite some logistical issues, I would call MAP 2013 a success. It’s a small activity, like dropping a speck of salt into an algae-filled pool you’re trying to clean with iodine, but it’s done in the hopes that it will lay the foundation for a cultural shift and greater gender equality generations from now.
P.S. I’ll try to post pictures when I get a good enough connection!