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Nordic initiatives made impact at conference on men and gender equality

How can the prevailing masculinity norms be changed? This was the central issue discussed at the recent international conference on men and gender equality, ICMEO, arranged in Stockholm. The 2-day conference programme also covered topics such as methods to prevent violence in the Nordic countries.

Issues related to men and gender equality are assigned key importance in Nordic gender equality policy, with the main point being that men need to take greater responsibility and be included more in the gender equality work. Gender attitudes that affect and restrict women have an impact on men, too. Restrictive masculinity norms influence the roles of men and the conditions they face. A large number of initiatives have been launched in the area, aimed for example to end men’s involvement in violence both as perpetrators and victims, find ways for men to balance work and family life and challenge destructive masculinity norms.

ICMEO stands for International Conference on Men and Equal Opportunities, and the diverse conference programme included everything from keynotes on Arab masculinities to minister panels and workshops on norm-critical work in the school environment. Hosted by the Swedish Ministry of Health and Social Affairs, the Swedish Gender Equality Agency and the Nordic Council of Ministers, the event was part of the Swedish Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers and attracted a wide range of actors in the gender equality field, including researchers, policy makers and representatives from government agencies and the civil society. 

Focus on Violence Prevention in the Nordic Countries

One workshop, organised by Lina Lundborg from the Swedish Gender Equality Agency, focused on what the Nordic countries are doing to prevent violence among young men, including honour-related violence. According to Lundborg, the event was a continuation of the violence prevention work carried out within the framework of the Nordic co-operation. During the Finnish Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers in 2016, a report on the violence prevention methods used was written. Last year, the Norwegian Presidency added to the efforts by carrying out a study of how the Nordic countries are implementing the so-called Istanbul Convention.

‘We wanted to continue building on the previous work. The reason for the focus on violence prevention among young people in particular is that it is important to prevent violence at the earliest possible stage, to change norms when people are still young. Research shows that a norm-critical approach is what yields the best results,’ says Lundborg.

Mentor Programme Reducing Violence in Stockholm Suburb

The workshop presented several methods and experiences from the Nordic countries, including a violence prevention programme titled Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) and carried out in Botkyrka municipality south of Stockholm. The Swedish police have identified Botkyrka as a high-priority area, and to reduce the violence, the local schools, the municipal social services and the police have started to deal with the problems together instead of separately. The municipality has a systematic approach in place, reaching all the way from individual to municipal level, and the interventions targeting children and young people are central components of it.

‘The work begins already at preschool level, with preschool staff receiving training on violence in close relationships. There is a focus on the adult world around the kids and on being sensitive to indications that children are being violated,’ says Pernilla Junior Vera, municipal head of security.

The violence prevention work continues throughout primary school and lower-secondary school, where the MVP mentor programme is introduced. The programme consists of 11 lectures where the pupils reflect on ways to act against violence in everyday life and talk about various aspects of violence, such as bullying, racism and honour-related oppression. The 9th graders serve as mentors to 6th graders.

Mashury Mirza and Mmesoma Ezekiel are in 9th grade at Karsby International School in Botkyrka and participate in the MVP programme. They say that the fighting and other problems in the school hallways have decreased since the mentor programme started.

‘There is much less psychological violence and harassment at school. We don’t laugh and say mean things to each other as much as we used to,’ says Ezekiel.

As mentors, their task is to support the 6th graders.

‘It works because we talk the same language as the 6th graders. We can reach them better. And our work has a snowball effect, as it affects not only the school environment but also everyone the pupils interact with at home and in society,’ says Mirza.

Broad-based Approach to Stop Intimate Partner Violence

The workshop also included a presentation of a project titled Stopp Kjærestevolden (stop intimate partner violence) by Hedda Hakvåg from the Norwegian organisation Reform. Stopp Kjærestevolden is an education programme for young people. So far, more than 3500 adolescents have participated in the programme, which primarily aims to prevent intimate partner violence through information and discussions about violence, values and sexual boundaries.

‘We try to keep the gender roles open and don’t talk about men as perpetrators and women as victims. We target young people, people who are in the process of negotiating masculinity and femininity and who don’t want to reproduce gender norms,’ says Hakvåg.

She adds that a perspective where men are always made out to be perpetrators brings about a sense of passivity and a defensive attitude. It may also remove the attention from male victims. The emphasis in that discourse is also often placed on heterosexual relationships, which may make queer relationships invisible.

‘We talk more about what than who. The goal is to open up for a broader discussion in the area. At the same time, though, it is necessary to talk about gender and the fact that the violence tends to be gendered, and we do this at a later stage,’ she says.

Hakvåg also says that she sees a lot of good violence prevention work in the Nordic countries, not least by grassroot organisations.

‘The performance at this workshop is a good sign of this. But the problem is that the work is not long-term oriented. My hope is that this will become a hot political topic, because today it is not.’

The Importance of Safe Spaces for Men

The discussion around how masculinity norms and the prevalent male gender role can be changed was an overarching theme of the ICMEO conference. A debate involving representatives from all Nordic countries focused on the MeToo campaign and what men have to do with it. The participants included Harry Lunabba, senior lecturer who has done research on the topic of boys in school at University of Helsinki. According to Lunabba, there is a need for safe, gender-sensitive spaces where men can be vulnerable in a way that is not possible today.

‘MeToo is a great platform where we have been able to listen to women’s stories. For men, however, talking about personal shortcomings on social media is a risky thing to do. Instead, there is a need for safe institutions where men are allowed to look weak and foolish and where we are not held accountable for everything some men do,’ says Lunabba.

He sees a need for an intersectional perspective in order to understand the complexity of issues concerning boys and men. In his PhD thesis, Lunabba wrote about boys in school and what happens in the face-to-face interaction between adults and the boys. In the public debate, girls are often portrayed as the well-adjusted winners in the school environment, while boys are thought of as noisy, disruptive and underperforming. According to Lunabba, this is a grossly simplified view.

‘Most boys perform at the level of girls in school. It’s just a small share of all boys who don’t do well. When you listen to the debate, it is easy to start believing that boys are loud and annoying by nature. They as a group are viewed as a problem in the classroom,’ says Lunabba.

Instead, he says, there is a need for sensitive tentacles in order to understand why some boys cause problems in the classroom. He calls for a greater understanding of masculine vulnerability.

‘Many people get really mad at boys and men, when instead it would be wiser to treat them with love and empathy. Boys who cause problems at school don’t do better by being moved somewhere else – they need individual attention.’

Updated 20 November 2019