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So What’s This Men’s Only UN Gender Conference I Keep Hearing About?

So What’s This Men’s Only UN Gender Conference I Keep Hearing About?

Photos by
Inga María Brynjarsdóttir

Published October 15, 2014

On Monday, September 29, the Icelandic Foreign Minister Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson gave a speech to the United Nations General Assembly. In between talking about things that few present cared what Iceland thinks about, he mentioned that the governments of Iceland and Suriname had decided to plan a conference on gender equality only open to male political leaders.

Because what is needed to achieve gender equality is men with political power telling others what to do?

It is hard to do justice to what he said without quoting his speech in full: “Iceland and Suriname will convene a ‘Barbershop’ conference in January 2015 where men will discuss gender equality with other men, with a special focus on addressing violence against women. This will be a unique conference as it will be the first time at the United Nations that we bring together only men leaders to discuss gender equality. It will be an exceptional contribution to the Beijing+20 and HeForShe campaigns.”

Is HeForShe that thing that Emma Watson spoke about and then got threatened with having nude photos of her posted on the internet?

Yes, neatly proving her point that the world needs more feminists of all genders. The threat turned out to be a hoax perpetrated by a group of internet pranksters pretending to be a marketing company pretending to be another group of internet pranksters. That the pictures were not real did not make it any nicer for Watson to receive threats of public humiliation. Watson is the spokeswoman of the HeForShe campaign to get men and boys to work for gender equality. It is run by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, also known as simply UN Women.

And what’s Beijing+20? Besides being the very wrong answer I gave on my final exam in math.

It is a programme by UN Women to highlight progress made in gender equality since the UN’s Beijing Declaration in 1995 to advance gender equality and acknowledge women’s voices and experience. And also to highlight where progress has been disappointingly slow. There will be many events in the coming year sponsored and hosted by various UN organizations. However, the conference announced by the Icelandic Foreign Minister is not a UN-sponsored event, though UN Women will provide technical and organizing support.

Male politicians talk about things while UN Women do all the work. Is this a conference or satiric performance art?

The announcement by the Icelandic Foreign Minister was greeted with criticism. Professor Dyan Mazurana, a major contributor to the 2002 Women, Peace and Security report for the UN Security Council, said when interviewed by Al-Jazeera that women “don’t want to be spoken for, we’d like to speak for ourselves.” She also noted that the UN “has a long and disgraceful history of men-only meetings on issues that are foundational to the rights of women.”

I guess this conference will be unique in bringing only men leaders together to do something else than laughing at gender equality.

It is not entirely unique, as the UN already maintains the Network of Men Leaders dedicated to speaking out against violence against women, though this group includes artists and other public figures, as well as politicians. When asked by Al-Jazeera, member of said network, Gary Barker, who works for Promundo, a Brazilian organization that focuses on getting men and boys to stop violence against women, criticized the proposed conference as reinforcing the idea that men “sit in a dark room, smoke cigars and hold on to power.”

I guess it’s unique in being called a “barbershop” conference.

Outside of conventions for barbershop quartets, of course. The idea behind the conference is to create a safe space for male political leaders to talk about how to reduce violence against women. This is not an entirely insane idea, as some studies have shown that men are more likely to change their attitudes to violence against women during all-male discussions than in mixed-gender ones. The analogy to barbershops is that they are places where men discuss the issues of the day in private.

I guess at least barbershops are usually bright so that the barber doesn’t cut anybody.

And it is difficult to smoke a cigar while being shaved. After receiving criticism, the organizers of the conference said that women would take part in some sessions, but would be excluded in others. While the hearts of the organizers are surely in the right place, perhaps listening to what women have to say about gender equality and violence against women would be the best place to start. And as shown by too many conferences of political leaders every year, there is nothing particularly unique about a male-only conference.

See Also:

UN Women’s Conference To Include Women After All


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