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UN: Men Urged To Take Stand For Women's Rights

By Manana Kuzma

As this week's UN conference on women's rights has shown, it is frequently women who are assigned to handle gender issues on the international level. This tends to reinforce the view that the advancement of women is only in women's interests. RFE/RL correspondent Manana Kuzma reports on efforts to raise awareness among men that improving women's rights is important for them as well.

United Nations, 9 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- In her book "The Second Sex," the French writer Simone de Beauvoir promoted the idea that liberation for women was liberation for men too.

Her views, published in 1949, were revolutionary for their time and only appear to have engaged a small part of society. But de Beauvoir's notion than men benefit from women's liberation is being promoted anew at the international level.

The Beijing conference on women in 1995 stressed that women can achieve their goals of gender equality only by cooperating with men, not working against them. And those sentiments are being repeated at this week's review conference at UN headquarters in New York.

Two of the most prominent men at the United Nations -- Secretary-General Kofi Annan and General Assembly President Theo-Ben Gurirab -- started off the conference this week with renewed appeals to men to recognize that women's rights are their concern as well.

In numerous press conferences, speeches and other meetings, women participants have emphasized the importance of political partnership between men and women.

Typical of the speakers was Katrin Saks, Estonia's minister for population and ethnic affairs. Speaking to the General Assembly on Wednesday, she said women feel that the key to equality is in men's hands.

And Saks says despite some deep-rooted attitudes, there is now a good opportunity to change the mindset of young men.

"The attitudes concerning gender equality are changing. Free-mindedness is spreading among the younger generation. New views on stereotypes are especially common among younger women. In the future, special stress should be put on training younger men, using different methods to achieve a real change in mentality."

But are men interested in women's rights?

At the UN Development Program, or UNDP, a group of men has demonstrated it is interested. James Lang, from UNDP's gender division, says the group become committed to the cause after the UNDP held a workshop last year on engaging staff to think about gender issues in their work. Lang says less than 10 percent of the people at the workshop were men.

Lang and that small group of men in attendance ended up founding the UN's Men's Group for Gender Equality. The group now includes men and women in different UN agencies, as well as academics and professionals from around the world.

The group organizes seminars and discussions on the issue of gender equality and this week sponsored a panel on the role of men and boys in gender-based violence.

The men's group also seeks to influence men's attitudes on a more informal level. The UNDP's Geoffrey Prewitt, another member of the men's group, explains.

"We also do it very much on an individual basis with our colleagues and our peers. Because certain actions that people take within their office, or within their home, or within the communities that they live, can also contribute to improve gender relations and improve equality of men and women. Some examples are if a man is to witness an incident of sexual harassment, rather than be quiet about it, he should speak out against it and say this is not correct."

Men's group members say that the impact of globalization on family life is going to force men to reconsider their roles. Lang says he hopes more men will realize that women have a double burden of caring for household responsibilities and also earning money, and that men need to share that burden.

"It's just no longer viable for men to sit around only engaging in what they call productive or income-earning activities. The way that the economies are changing and both women and men are engaging in production in different ways and earning money, there is going to be have to be more of a responsible sharing of both, productive and reproductive activities."

Lang said that many men who want to spend more time with their children will feel encouraged when they see other men, especially those in high positions, making the commitment to take paternity leave.