The governments of Iceland and Suriname are hosting a high-level conference designed to change the way men and boys think and engage in discussions about gender equality.
The two-day Barbershop conference, which begins on Wednesday at the UN in New York, will bring together heads of state, male leaders and activists to share ideas and devise strategies for addressing discrimination and on the role men can play in achieving equality. The conference will also discuss ways to combat violence against women and girls.
The event attracted criticism when it was first mooted last year for not inviting women. Many campaigners for women’s rights – women and men – believed an event to discuss women’s rights that was solely aimed at men and attended by men would do little to change the status quo.
Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson, Iceland’s minister for foreign affairs, told the Guardian that women would be allowed through the doors – and even on a panel. He said the criticisms were a “misunderstanding of what the conference is about”, but had been helpful in drawing more attention to the event – the first of its kind to be held at UN headquarters.
“The aim is to have a room full of men talking about these issues. But that does not shut out any women who want to attend some of the sessions,” he said. “The idea is to … bring together men to talk about these issues that have been mostly talked about by women so far.
“We can’t leave out the men and the boys. They are a big part of the problem. If there is violence, most likely there is a man around.
We’re not going to see miracles at the conference, but hopefully it’s a step in the right direction.”
In 2013, about 85% of Iceland’s aid spending had gender equality and women’s empowerment as a principal or significant objective.
Joni van de Sand, coordinator and advocacy manager of MenEngage, a global alliance of NGOs and UN partners that seeks to engage men and boys in promoting gender equality, said there was value in conferences like Barbershop, but they only went so far.
“A lot can be said in favour of creating spaces where a group of people who share similar problems can meet, feel at ease, and safely talk about what affects them. This has long been an argument of women’s rights advocates too, and there continue to be many projects around the world which focus on creating spaces for women.
“The same can be said for creating safe spaces where men can talk among themselves about masculinities and power, about their experiences with violence, fatherhood, sexuality and health.”
She added: “What is key is that for real change the work with women abnd girls and the work with men and boys have to come together. After all, gender equality is a matter of relations between people, as part of larger systems that perpetuate inequalities. You cannot address those by working in isolation. The barbershop is a public space, in particular a political forum. It is still far from common that women are participating in such spaces, let alone their voices actually being heard. Iceland’s foreign minister wondered ‘where are the men?’, but the fact is that when it comes to diplomacy, in most cases it is still men who do the majority of talking and negotiating.”
Nicky McIntyre, executive director at international women’s fund Mama Cash, said she was pleased to see men “stepping up their efforts to address their role in gender equality”. But, she added: “I ask the men at the Barbershop conference to think about what they can do to help resource the hands that do the heavy lifting when it comes to gender equality. Women’s hands, that is.”
In 2012, a review of data on violence against women from 70 countries, over 40 years, concluded that feminist movements were the critical factor when it came to improving policy and practice on gender-based violence.
However, research by Mama Cash found that feminist movements were severely underfunded. Less than 5% of funding goes to women’s, girls’ and transgender people’s human rights work.
The Barbershop event is a response to an invitation to men to join in the gender equality conversation made by the actor Emma Watson, UN Women’s goodwill ambassador, in September. Iceland and Suriname hope it will build on theHeForShe campaign Watson launched, which has so far encouraged 204,978 men to pledge their support to the cause.
Organisers said the barbershop theme was adopted because barbers have traditionally been spaces for men to talk.