Michael Kaufman: "Men are not the problem, the structures and ideologies of patriarchy are the problem".

Michael Kaufman is an internationally recognized expert on the work done by men in favor of equality. Co-founder of the White Ribbon Campaign (a global campaign  born in Canada in 1991 to involve men in the fight against violence against women), a Promundo Institute Fellow and member of MenCare, (an initiative working in 35 countries to actively involve men in care work) Kaufman participated in a seminar within the framework of the Forum for Equality, promoted by Emakunde-Basque Institute for Women, in Bilbao. There he spoke about international guidelines and experiences in working with men for equality and we took the opportunity to interview him while he was here in the Basque Country.


1.- Over 100 participants have come together to share their experience on working with men for gender equality; you´ve advised and worked for NGO´s, institutions, governments all over the world, mainly on engaging men in feminism.

What can you share with us from beyond our borders?  What do the programs that work have in common?

First of all, it's interesting to see that there are groups of men all over the world that are working on a variety of issues; working to celebrate the diverse possibilities of being human. They are speaking out to end violence against women, working for LGBT rights, on sexual and reproductive health issues, or towards transforming fatherhood. There literally isn't a country in the world where this work isn't happening, so that's an amazing change compared to 20 or 25 years ago.

When some of us started this work in the 80's, and well into the 90's, it was seen as rather a strange thing to do. Why would you bother trying to engage men? Aren't men the problem? Isn't this just a distraction? At best, the idea of work with men and boys was seen as marginal, a waste of time, a distraction, and perhaps even as just plain wrong. Men are the problem we shouldn't be wasting time and resources.

This has turned around. Today, you practically won't find a UN agency, a large NGO, or government around the world that isn't devoting at least some energy, some personnel to figuring out ways we can engage men and boys. This is a huge change in our lifetime. It's not a specific example to start with, but it's a general statement of what we are seeing worldwide, a real change.

And that change isn't just at the level of governments, NGO's or UN agencies, but at the grassroots level. These changes are not only inspired by, but caused by the rapid changes in women's lives. Men are confronted with brand new realities. Their wives, daughters and friends are saying that the ways that their mothers and grandmothers lived are no longer valid for them.

As women's lives are transformed in the workplace, in the community, in the home, and more women are saying "we're not going to stand by, we're not going to continue to live in a violent relationship"; as women on so many levels demand equal rights and control of their own bodies, more and more men are saying "this is changing my life too".

2.- In terms of the international and historical context that you've just set forth, what do the best programs from around the world have in common?

There are several things. We've learned a lot, collectively, both men and women who are working to engage men and boys. We know we have to combine efforts at individual change with efforts at institutional and structural change. Obviously this is not new. The feminist movement has been based on those twin precepts, but so it's also true with engaging men. We have work with individual men to transform their lives, but we also have to bring about the institutional support and the legal structures that enable that.
We've learned that some methods work better than others. For example, positive approaches are more successful at actually reaching men and boys and motivating them to change, to think about their lives, their relationships with women, their attitudes and their behaviors. Just scolding men abut the behaviors we don't like doesn't get far. It doesn´t help someone change. So we know that positive approaches are critical.

We know that the programs that have worked, (a campaign, an educational program, or a program aimed at a certain group of men or boys) are programs that are gender transformative. They question what it means to be a man and not just say, "you should support women's rights" or "you should practice safe-sex" or "you should not hit", but that talk about men's lives and values. Because unless men have the opportunity to reflect on their own gender construction, they are going to perpetuate behaviors that follow from a certain definition of manhood and certain forms of power and privilege that we've given them. If we don't challenge the power and the privilege, if we don't question these stereotyped views of masculinity, we aren't actually going to be able to help men change.

We know that programs have to be positive, take gender transformation into the heart of their work and that they have to be in concert with the initiatives by women's organizations. This isn't about "men riding to the rescue of women". It's not about men carving up their separate space. It is about working as allies with women.

3.- Networks of Men´s groups working for gender equality are starting to grow all over the world. What are some of the most interesting experiences in this field? What are some of the contributions these groups are making towards a gender equal society? Can we say that they have contributed?

Yes, I think so. I think that by working with men, whether that work is academic intellectual work or whether it's organizing in communities, we learn. By working with men to try to change men's attitudes and behaviors, you have to figure things out. You have to question yourself. This has contributed to an inclusion of men within a gender discourse.

I'm not saying men invented that. There are women scholars and activists who have devoted much energy and their careers towards working to engage men or to theorize men and masculinities. But this process has required articulating a more nuanced understanding of men as gendered beings. I think that's a contribution to feminism.

If we look at some of the individual movements, (though it's difficult to quantify the contribution of these groups as somehow distinct from wider efforts), in some cases their efforts have raised awareness among men about men's violence against women. I think in some cases it's probably contributed to laws, but it's hard to generalize around the world.

I see examples as I travel. In Turkey there was a wonderful program that was started by one of the UN agencies. Turkey has laws against violence against women, but police officers, mainly male, aren't implementing them. So they started a cascading program mainly for male police officers. They trained a group of 30 or so senior police officers, over the course of a year. This was really deep, intense training. Then those officers went on to train others who trained others, and after just a few years they had trained 30,000 police officers in responding to violence against women. In this case, they decided to target male police officers because they have a particular responsibility.  That's just one example of how engaging men becomes critical. It wasn't enough to have a law about violence against women, it wasn't enough to have just ads on TV. You needed police officers implementing the law, and most of them are men. So the program had to take them to awareness.

4.- Gizonduz is an initiative by the Basque Government, led by Emakunde, the Basque Institute for Women, with the objective of engaging men in the continuing effort for gender equality. Are you familiar with their work? Which elements of their work would you point out? What would be the most effective working strategies to involve more men in bringing about equality between women and men?

From what I've been hearing, the work is fantastic, because they've been working on a range of initiatives. For example working with new fathers, men in positions of dramatic life change. Working with new fathers is important because that's when we start rethinking our values.

Also their work with different institutions, in schools and so on, without limiting their work to just one field, is quite interesting. The best is when I see different organizations, even within one country, that are using a variety of approaches and are able to be a catalyst for others to start their own work in their school or workplace.

5.- The White Ribbon campaign was born out of a tragedy. Sometimes these tragedies can spark reforms or even laws, but when will it be the right time for society to address the root of the social construction of violent masculinity? When are we going to talk about how we're raising our boys to become violent men? When are we going to talk about what nobody wants to talk about? When are we going to talk about the elephant in the room?

I think that that has to always be there. When we started the White Ribbon Campaign in 1991, it was sparked by several things, the most immediate was the murder of 14 women by a man who blamed women that he hadn´t gotten into university. This sparked a national discussion about violence against women in Canada.

But from the start, the specific focus, the specific language was to men to end our silence about violence against women. We realized that the men that we could reach were not necessarily the men who were using violence in their relationships, but the majority of men who weren't, but who were allowing it to continue. So we said, why don't we reach out to those who are not using violence and encourage, insist, that they speak out to their brothers, sons, fathers and workmates among whom are the men who are using violence. 

But we also wanted men to examine our own attitudes and behaviors.  It's not enough just to say, "be nice, don´t hit", although that's a key part of the message.

With White Ribbon, or my own work, we've always talked about the construction of masculinity. As soon as we developed resources for use in schools it wasn't just about wearing a white ribbon and being nice. We developed school based programs to talk about men and masculinity, assumptions of manhood tied into men's power, men's sense of entitlement, the way that some men will use violence to maintain the power. So from the very start we linked our work to analyzing the assumptions around manhood.

But there's always this back and forth between the complexity of the task and the need for a simple message. If you make a poster, it can´t be a 1000 word discourse on men, masculinity and feminism.  We must contribute to a social discourse that is already happening. Women have made sure it's happening.

What I actually worry about is the opposite. Sometimes I see groups of well meaning men who think that if they don't appear feminist enough, then somehow they're letting down our sisters and women, and so they actually lose their ability to communicate with most men.

I remember once my wife and I were at a place out in the country and a farmer came to me who knew the work that I did. He was 75 years old with just a few grades of education. He said, "Michael, I have a problem. I just found out one of my old friends has been beating his wife. What should I say to him?" and I said, "Well Jack, what did you say?" And what he said to his old friend was different from what I would say. I´ve got a certain analysis of the problem, certain language. For him it was about using language that was very basic. Men should just not hit women. You might say that's being paternalistic, but for me that is still the basic message: that we shouldn't hit anyone.

I would say that that man, that farmer speaking to another farmer, was actually more effective than I ever could have been, even though I've got more of an analysis of the problem. I understand the links to patriarchy and men and masculinities. But that farmer was much better speaking to the other farmer.

So what I think is we should worry less about constantly having the full program to discourse on, and rather be more concerned about creating opportunities for men to challenge other men to speak out; for that boy in school to say something to his friend who tells a rape joke. He may not know the word patriarchy; he may not know what feminism is, but I want him to interrupt that rape joke. So there are depths of understanding and analyses that are critical for our work, but to do mainstream work we can´t be precious.

6.- Of course, we can´t be precious, that's true.  But, while we might not always be able to have to have a complex conversation, as a society we have to put our finger on the facts about violence, and the fact is that most violence is committed by men. For instance, I just heard Obama this morning in his speech, after the latest gun massacre in the US, addressing the problem of how "easy it is for someone to get his or her hands on a gun", when in fact the problem is not with the women who purchase guns. When are we going to point our fingers at the actual problem?

Absolutely. One of the things that my colleagues and I in North America have been saying and writing about is that it is the elephant in the room. For example in the US, these constant mass killings, and to a lesser extent the odd one in Europe, what never gets named is that these are men who are committing these murders. If it were women committing any of these murders there would be a huge public discussion about "what's happening with women these days". But it's men and it's almost invisible.

Yes, we have to name the problem. And the problem isn't men. The problem is our dominant conceptions of masculinity, inequality between men and women, and the structures, the institutions, the ideologies of patriarchy. How we say that is going to be different in different contexts. Our message has to embody a certain complexity and yet be able to connect. But it's pretty basic. These are men who are pulling the trigger. It's a problem about how we raise boys to be men.
When I speak in communities, I often address how to raise boys to be good men who won't use violence. I agree, let's name it. One example of not naming it is when we refer to family violence, or domestic violence. There is family violence, there can be violence against children, violence against men. But we know that most lethal violence within the family is committed by men, not all, but most.  So let's name it as men's violence.

7.- Many men say they've "come around" to consider gender equality as a result of a life-changing event, mainly fatherhood. Obviously, gender stereotypes and social constructions about parenthood, both fatherhood and motherhood, are at the crux of the matter of gender equality.

As a member of MenCare, what are some of the best, most transformative public policies you've seen?

By far the leaders in terms of policy changes, specifically in parental leave, are the Nordic countries. In Iceland for example, for new parents, if it's a heterosexual couple, the mother gets 3 months off, the father gets 3 months off and there's another 3 months that either can use. In Sweden, they have a year and they can divide it up, half time each, at the same time, a month here a month there, so they've made it very flexible, and at a fairly high percentage of your pay.

They've made it really possible for women, but also for men, to take time off of their paid work to devote themselves to being a father. That's one of the policy changes that we're seeing a huge impact from.

In Quebec, when they changed the laws around father's leave and made it easier to get, longer and better paid, the percentage of new fathers who took advantage of this skyrocketed. Now the vast majority are taking time off, as with the Scandinavian countries. So the first thing is policies around parental leave.

But we also need better policies around childcare. For example in Quebec they brought in a new childcare policy that was very affordable, a fraction of what other Canadians pay. Not only did this mean that more women could get paying jobs, or stay in their paid work, now the income taxes they generated by their work more than paid for this program.

We also need site-specific policies within workplaces that encourage instead of stigmatizing parents, traditionally mothers, for taking time off. We need more flexible workplace policies such as job sharing, or allowing people to work part time. We need to be able to guarantee that people can put in the time and energy they need to be good parents, without sacrificing their paid work.

But in addition to these policies, we also need to train managers and executives to lead the way. It's one thing to say your company has a certain policy, but if a senior manager brags about how he took off half a day when his kids came along or when her kids were born she only took off a week, is that something to brag about? What sort of example are we setting? We need the training. That is critical.

We need specific training, for example, for those social workers or healthcare workers who are doing parental visits, where men have tended to be marginalized. Sometimes they will tend to just talk to the mother as if there is no man there, no father. So it's about enabling both the big policy changes as well as specific changes in workplaces, areas of work, or institutions.

A good example: in England there's a group, the Fatherhood Institute, that was working with some schools to try to encourage more fathers to come to meetings with teachers, since overwhelmingly women would come. So they printed the next leaflet saying "All parents welcome". They still got more women. So they asked themselves what were they doing wrong, and they decided to name the problem, the issue. The next time they wrote, "All fathers and mothers welcome." Suddenly they had many more fathers who came. So in part this is about making visible what's invisible.

8.- With regard to masculine violence, you´ve written a novel (an interesting tool!), The Afghan Vampires Book Club, with Gary Barker, another longtime expert on engaging men for gender equality, International Director and founder of Promundo. You recently explained in an interview that you, "wanted to write about manhood and war and the encroaching surveillance state".

Violence against women by men is connected to all violence perpetrated by men. Indeed, the study of the hegemonic construction of masculinity as a soldier, capable of exerting violence for the state, is connected to anti-militarism, human rights and pacifism.

What would the world be like if we could ever stop teaching, or socializing men to kill? Is this concept only available in fiction?

It's available in both fiction and history. I was just in Portugal, in Évora, where there are many neo-lithic sites that go back 5000-7000 years. The 7000-year-old sites seem to be pre-patriarchal. They are from the beginning of the period of domestication of animals and agriculture. They have found circles of stones that are calendars for the seasons, recognizing and celebrating life. The sites from a few thousand years later were burial tombs for the male leaders and they are finding weapons. So it is in this period when our cultures went from largely peaceful societies to societies based on war and aggression; where either men had to arm themselves to defend themselves from other men or to use those weapons to attack and expand their territories. So 8000 years into the past is not that long ago in terms of the sweep of human history. When we think of violence and patriarchy we come to understand that men's violence from the start was mobilized by the society, and as states developed later on, these state societies trained groups of men to be warriors, to fight. 

Our novel looks at the impact of war on the soldiers who fight the wars, but also on the societies that wage the them; how these wars, half the world away, actually affect our own cultures, the choices we make, our ideas of ourselves and our sense of safety. I think those effects are profound. We can see it very clearly. The fact that so many people have accepted a drastic reduction of civil liberties in their own countries in the name of supposed safety, even though it doesn't make us safer, in a way it makes us more vulnerable.

The project of patriarchy has not only been a project of men's domination of women, but men's domination of other men, and of course, men's domination of nature. When we think about war and peace, when we think about the destruction of our environment, these are all part of the patriarchal project: controlling the environment, controlling nature, controlling women, controlling other men, and controlling one's self, and one's own emotional life.

The feminist challenge to patriarchy is such a profound one, and as men join it, we get to the roots of a whole range of problems and issues.