Masculinities in the West Bank

Date: Thursday, March 14, 2019

During a community event organized by UN Women. Photo Credit: Sharek Youth Forum

With the late September light filtering over the stone building of the University of Bethlehem campus, several dozen people milled around a series of large-print photographs erected in the courtyard. The photos, of men from the local community in the West Bank, attracted the interest of student and staff alike, as they depict men in a way not often seen in this community: playing with children, cooking and cleaning at home. The series of photographs is an exhibit of UN Women’s Men and Women for Gender Equality regional programme.

Rateebah Abu Ghosh, the head of the Board of Directors of the Sharek Youth Forum, a non-governmental organization based in Ramallah that worked closely with UN Women on the Men’s Story Telling. Sharek works with youth to support them to become engaged, employable, and active citizens in the Palestinian community. The group’s activities aim to strengthen the capacity of Palestinian youth to communicate clearly and convincingly with local authorities and stakeholders in order to bring about positive change. Sharek has been a pioneering local organization in Palestine, integrating men into their gender equality programmes and offering trainings on positive masculinities to local youth. Sitting in the library of the University of Bethlehem, Rateebah spoke about the gender equality work Sharek is leading, and the progress she’s seeing. “[Previously] in Palestine we were just focusing on women’s rights and trying to get men to support women in their struggle to get their rights. But now we’re focusing on men’s issues, their challenges, and working to make them realize how they can benefit from gender equality.”

Sharek began its focus on men and masculinities in earnest in November 2016 in Jordan, at a training hosted and organized by UN Women and conducted by Abaad, a Lebanese NGO working on gender equality and masculinities.

“It was the first time we focused on masculinities as a window into gender equality. After taking the training we realized that we must change our gender policies and strategies to include masculinities. Now we also focus on men’s behavior themselves, so we can change the concept of masculinities in Palestine as a way to promote gender equality.”

The reorientation of Sharek’s work to focus on addressing masculinities proved to be a breakthrough for the organization.

After a second training on masculinities and working with men and boys for gender equality in November 2017, Abu Ghosh said, Sharek started using techniques specifically for working with men, and met other organizations from around the world that shared their experiences. Supported by UN Women’s Men and Women for Gender Equality programme, they also traveled to Malaysia and South Africa, to meet organizations doing similar work, finding inspiration in common challenges and solutions.

Theater has become “a tool” Sharek is employing to engage men and boys to challenge gender norms. “We’ve been including boys and men in mobile theater, and the plays we create are shown at schools for boys, where they focus on ideas of “what is a man?” in Palestine, how traditional male gender roles cause problems in the community, and how to break this male stereotype for a healthier life. We want the boys to understand that they’re affected [by gender inequality] too.” After the actors—composed of male and female university students—do their sketches, they hold discussions with the audience on gender equality, masculinities and social change.

In August, Sharek conducted a series of trainings with students at universities for men, focusing on challenging traditional norms of masculinity, and giving students tools to debate these issues publicly. Most recently, Sharek has started the “We are Partners” media campaign, where they produce radio episodes discussing masculinities and gender equality for youth.

“Why is it important that we focus so much on Palestine’s youth?” asked Rateebah. “Recent figures from IMAGES Palestine tell us that young men have just as conservative gender norms as older men do, so that they might reject gender equality. So, we have to work with kids in Palestine to change these concepts, whether in grade schools or universities.”

Perhaps the most profound lesson Rateebah has gained after embarking on masculinities work with UN Women has been that many of the ideas can be applied to her own life, and her organization. Living and working with positive masculinities for gender equality

“I used to believe that my husband’s household work is just for supporting me. Then I realized that he is not supporting me, rather he is sharing household responsibilities. I went home and we have discussed the issue and agreed to respect the fact that we are both responsible for housework. Then after the second UN Women training, I realized that my organization was actually protecting traditional gender roles. So we started changing the [organization’s] rules. We started letting fathers with kids under 12 years old leave work an hour early too [like mothers] so they could pick up kids from childcare, and share mothers’ responsibilities in child-rearing.”

Sharek added two consecutive weeks plus 10 individual days of paternity leave for new fathers. “When the young men at Sharek see the fathers leaving early each day to pick up kids from school or daycare, they start to get used to it.” Smiling, she added, “And they start think that a man who takes care of his kids like his wife does is something normal. Even something good.”

Fatherhood has been another successful doorway into talking about masculinities. The International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES) Palestine, Rateebah said, indicated that 66 percent of Palestinian fathers wished they could spend more time with their children. Yet in line with gender role stereotypes, most fathers spend more time away from their children than with them

“We also focused on fatherhood. We discussed the fact that fathers have a role in the home, beyond simply bringing money. And this dovetails with their inner feelings—that they want to spend more time with their kids. This way he can play a bigger role and focus on his children’s health and wellness more. This way he can be an agent of change.”