Men’s accountability to gender equality: an overview of lessons and emerging challenges 


Across the international development community, men’s and boys’ engagement is seen as critical to advancing gender equality. Its roots can be traced back to programming to end violence against women and girls (VAWG) in the 1980s, which engaged men and boys to reject harmful masculinities, as well as to health interventions aimed at slowing the spread of HIV/AIDS. Since then, international development grants have increasingly recognized the need to design interventions which engage men and boys, be it to advance sexual and reproductive health and rights, recognize and reduce the disproportionate burden of unpaid care work on women, support women’s economic empowerment or strengthen education for girls. The majority of these interventions focused on the need to dismantle gender hierarchies, and soon positioned men and boys as not just partners of change, but beneficiaries, with distinct gains to make from equitable gender relations. 

Men’s and boys’ engagement is recognized for its strategic significance in the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW, 1979), the Beijing Platform for Action (1995) and the UN Commission on the Status of Women (2004). More recently however, the Human Rights Council Working Group on discrimination against women and girls and leading feminist movements and organizations, have emphasized men’s accountability to gender equality as being distinct from only engaging men and boys. There are three principal elements to this approach: (1) centering women’s and girls’ rights at the heart of all men’s and boys’ engagement work; (2) commitment to structural and systemic change that dismantles gender hierarchies; and (3) continuous dialogue with women’s movements. 

This blog spotlights lessons on engagement and accountability from Plan International’s and World Vision’s multi-country sexual and reproductive health and rights programs. It also draws on learnings from partners and allies to underscore how strengthening the accountability of men and boys can protect and promote women’s and girls’ human rights, particularly their sexual and reproductive health and rights, and address systemic gender-based discrimination and violence. Finally, we outline the challenges that remain and provide a roadmap for future programming.

Programmatic examples and lessons

At the individual level, evaluations of Plan International’s flagship Champions of Change program outline that rigorous and consistent training of boys on power imbalances, harmful masculinities and girls’ rights creates a conducive environment for them to reject the status quo and become ambassadors for gender equality. 

A tested strategy of engaging men and boys is through the formation of fathers’/husbands’/men’s groups to facilitate critical reflection and training on addressing gender hierarchies and transforming gender roles and norms. Special focus is given to ending all forms of gender-based violence (GBV) and promoting women’s decision-making and equitable participation in the continuum of care, and supporting women’s economic empowerment. These groups are typically designed to engage men in periodic sessions based on a contextualized curriculum. The sessions are facilitated by trained mentors and are regularly monitored.

World Vision Canada’s MenCare Training Manual points out that a key goal in engaging men and boys is to help men, in all their diversity, support one another as men, to adopt flexible, equitable expressions of masculinity and fatherhood, and to hold each other accountable for ending gender-based violence. In addition to becoming allies and advocates for gender equality, the training also helps men to reflect and comprehend the negative impact of rigid ideas of masculinity on their own physical and mental health. 

Results from the 2019 State of the World’s Fathers report, a qualitative study of fathers’ clubs organized under Plan International’s SHOW project as well as qualitative studies of three World Vision Canada projects ( SUSTAIN, Born on Time and ENRICH) demonstrated that intervention areas where men were participating more equitably in household chores (including childcare)  showed positive trends in women’s decision making, less intimate and inter-generational violence at home including reduced discrimination against girl children, decreased support for child marriage and decreased school dropout rates among girls.

Another approach – necessary to sustain men’s and boys’ engagement work and avoid backlash – involves consistent dialogue and training of local community-based power holders, such as traditional and religious leaders, as well as family-based influencers such as mothers-in-law and elders. The World Vision Canada studies found that the impact of target interventions was strengthened by the support it received from community, religious and government leaders who rallied behind the program and used their platforms and influence to promote the benefits of MenCare values and practices for the whole community. Similarly, Plan International Canada and Equimundo’s 2020 research observed changes in perceptions and actions among several religious leaders in Sokoto State, Nigeria, aimed at promoting men’s involvement in maternal health for the betterment of women and girls through a gender equality perspective. This holds great promise, indicating the potential for the religious stakeholders to emerge as outspoken advocates for these essential human rights.

At the institutional level, World Vision Canada’s ENRICH MenCare Program ensured that its goals were well aligned with, and directly supported national and regional gender equality, reproductive, maternal, newborn, child health and nutrition (RMNCH/N) and GBV policies in its target countries. Several community leaders and government representatives interviewed for a 2022 assessment referenced the strong alignment between local government health and gender equality plans and priorities, and the goals and strategies of the MenCare Program. To this end, Plan International’s compendium of good practices recommends integrating messages on men’s and boys’ engagement in training materials and job aids developed for facility and community-based service providers. 

These messages are geared towards encouraging healthy masculinities among service providers to promote women- and girl-centered care, reject harmful traditional practices such as child, early and forced marriage, female genital mutilation and intimate partner violence, and support male accompaniment during the continuum of care. Interventions also include strengthening gender-responsiveness of local health governance and protection committees by increasing women’s and girls’ equitable participation and leadership. Fostering collaboration between government and non-governmental organizations is essential to address gender inequality. This empowers women and girls to control factors impacting their health and their children’s well-being.

What are the challenges that remain?

A 2022 study by Equimundo looked at men’s and women’s practices and attitudes related to gender equality in 15 countries. The study found that in issues related to power, household gender roles and violence, younger women held more gender equal attitudes compared to their older counterparts, while younger men did sometimes but mostly did not. In the report, Equimundo highlights the backlash witnessed globally against the gains made by the women’s movement, the rise of strong men as political leaders and the growing pushback against the women’s rights agenda. The study also points to “’men’s rights’ and male supremacist groups, particularly in online and social media spaces frequented by young people” as further influencing these trends. The study’s findings clearly challenge the commonly held view that “social change is just a matter of inevitable generational change”, and underscores that “for many younger men, the case must still be made for why gender equality is urgently needed and has not yet been achieved, which presents a serious challenge for policymakers, activists, and educators alike.” In promoting gender equality, it’s vital to avoid the oversimplification that labels all men as perpetrators, as this can provoke backlash and perpetuate harmful masculine norms. Instead, prioritizing positive masculinities through male engagement programs, as advocated by Fotheringham and Wells (2019), is crucial. These programs should utilize community leaders and mentors to offer adolescent boys constructive role models, thereby fostering a more inclusive and effective approach to achieving gender equality. Additionally, recognizing that when men and boys improve themselves, it substantially enhances the situation. A non-violent man becomes a role model and an agent of change, as boys and younger men aspire to emulate the older men.

When engaging men and boys, World Vision Canada has learned that it’s equally important to engage their partners, either through couple sessions or women-only sessions. This partner engagement can improve understanding of the changes that MenCare participants will be encouraged to make, help reduce any suspicion among wives of the motivation behind their husband’s changing behaviour and clarify the desired impact of these promoted behaviours, allowing spouses to support one another and ease the transition towards new, more equitable household practices. In addition, sensitization should be offered to the wider family group, including adolescent boys, to leverage this critical life stage where attitudes and behaviours are being shaped and relationships and power dynamics are forming and solidifying. The same is true for older men and women (i.e., grandparents) to decrease resistance and inter-family conflict. Plan International Canada’s research on men’s engagement during COVID-19 reveals that men and boys in caregiving emphasize the importance of fair sharing of unpaid care work. They believe it fosters family harmony and enables women and girls to pursue income-generating and educational activities.

Roadmap for the future

Consider the following to effectively address the surge in harmful masculinities and instigate lasting positive change:

  • Initiate male engagement programs with a primary focus on nurturing positive aspects of masculinity. 
  • Rally male community leaders as advocates for gender equality, positioning them as mentors and role models for adolescent boys. 
  • Prioritize the promotion of non-violent masculinity and equip young men with tools to adeptly navigate and manage social stigma from their peers. 
  • Engage religious and community leaders as role models for gender equality and positive masculinity (ADRA Canada has developed faith-based training modules to promote positive masculinity among Muslim men.) 
  • Advocate for gender-inclusive policies that promote positive masculinity in education, workplace, and community settings. 
  • Remember that men’s engagement is about positioning men and boys as allies for women’s rights, as well as working towards healthy masculinity and other benefits. 


March 7, 2024


Merydth Holte-McKenzie, World Vision Canada and Saifullah Chaudhry, Development Impact Solutions