11th October – the Problematic International Day of the Girl

In 2011, 11th October was declared by the United Nations to be International Day of the Girl. This an important declaration, both because of its symbolism and because it focuses opinion-makers (and the wider public) on the plight of young women across the world. This year, it sends out the following message.

As adolescent girls worldwide assert their power as change-makers, International Day of the Girl 2020 will focus on their demands to:

  • Live free from gender-based violence, harmful practices, and HIV and AIDS  
  • Learn new skills towards the futures they choose  
  • Lead as a generation of activists accelerating social change”

International Day of the Girl comes cold on the heels of International Women’s Day – 8th March – (finally recognised by the UN in 1977, but proposed in the early 1900’s) which focuses on the following :

“An equal world is an enabled world. How will you help forge a gender equal world?
Celebrate women’s achievement. Raise awareness against bias. Take action for equality.”

For all their importance and symbolism, these high-profile recognitions of girls’ and womens’ roles and aspirations appear to leave boys and men high and dry. As Dr Jerome Teelucksingh has pointed out:

Too many of our boys are invisible and forgotten. Each boy is important and in this race of life, nobody should be left behind. It is within this context that the first observance of  “International Day of the Boy Child”, henceforth known as “International Boys’ Day” will be observed on 16 May 2018.”

I don’t know Dr.Teelucksingh. For all I know Dr.Teelucksingh may be associated with men’s organisations that are unpalatable (anti-women or anti-gay, for example) – I simply don’t know. But, even if he were, would this invalidate what he says above? I don’t think it would. Similar points have been made by better-known authors such as:

David Benatar, whose arguments and evidence in his book, ‘The Second Sexism’, are predictably dismissed as ‘victim-envy’ from certain quarters. My reading of his book does not correspond with Suzanne Moore’s, but even she recognises that “that many men are suffering at the moment”. David Benatar, a man writing about men, is unfortunately not considered credible by some – because he is a man. Yet his well-researched and well-argued book raises too many important points for it to be summarily dismissed as ‘victim-envy’ (even if, like all books, one can discuss and question it);

and

Linda McDowell : a feminist researcher of impeccable credentials, whose arguments are not so easily brushed aside by those who feel threatened when value is assigned to boys and men. Her arguments are not so easily dismissed by such commentators, because she is a woman. However, the gender of an author should have nothing to do with how their arguments are evaluated: Linda McDowell is a researcher who has published fascinating work on gender roles (particularly as they play out in City banks), including her book ‘Redundant Masculinities?‘.

Of course, it is not the intention of those who promote women’s and girls’ days to downplay the contribution and value of boys and men; nor do they explicitly do so. Devaluation of masculinity is performed more by omission than comission: unfortunately, what some boys and men take away from the one-sided and well publicised celebration of women is that boys and men are of little value. It is especially boys and young men who, in the Global North at least, have benefitted far less than older men from any pro-male institutional bias; and it is they who may be most sensitive to the absence of postive discourse in their favour, never having known a world in which ‘girl power’ was not regularly trumpeted.

This was brought home to me in about 2002, when one of my daughters came home from school (she was about 10 at the time) telling me that:

Girls are far more clever than boys“.

Why?”, I asked.

Because a professor from a university told us so [on the occasion of one of these women’s days]; he told the class that he found his women students far more clever and quick than his male students”.

My daughter, of course, felt pretty chuffed.

But what about the boys in her class (who are now in their mid to late twenties)? What message did they take away? Presumably this professor’s message reinforced the background narrative – which prevails in Canada and within global institutions like the UN – of girl-power and women’s capabilities. Note that this message was promoted by a successful man, for whom it is easy to (unconsciously) pull up the ladder once he has climbed it!

A generation of boys and young men has now been raised with no recognition of their struggles, and with no value assigned to them by important institutions such as the UN, nor, increasingly, by schools and by the media (except for the type of media that promotes macho and toxic masculinity). Some of these men may begin to harbour the same type of resentments that women felt when society systematically downplayed their achievements, intellect and agency.

Two wrongs don’t make a right. Repeatedly diminishing (even if only implicity) young men and boys because their fathers and grandfathers were of a generation that benefitted from patriarchal norms will not educate them into respecting equality: rather, it will convince (some of) them that equality is not the goal of feminist struggles – surely something that many feminists, as well as others who search for equality, wish to avoid.

I find this worrying. If the only ‘value’ assigned to men is by way of macho-media à la Fox News, by way of reactionary and racist entities such as Proud Boys, by divisive and frankly moronic and sexist men like Trump (bravely ripping off his face-mask, trying to show the world he is a ‘real man’), or by clever and ruthless men like Putin, then we are faced with a problem. This problem is compounded by well-meaning commentators, and by liberal institutions and thinkers, as their focus on empowering women comes at the expense of young men and boys.

It is time for comfortably left-leaning or liberal institutions such as the New York Times (which is beginning to move), The Guardian (which is also making an effort), Verso publishers – and, of course, universities, governments (such as Trudeau’s) and organisations like the UN – to shift away from their conservative marginality (leur marginalité bien-pensante, is what I’m trying to say), and help craft a new vision and discourse on masculinity. They have the power and credibility to do this whilst ensuring women’s and girls’ rights, roles and aspirations continue to be identified, recognised and promoted. They should continue pointing out biases against women, but also be more open to the existence of certain biases against men.

And any effort to (re)value men – a valid gender identity held by many – should also complement, not compete with, the recognition and valuing of other gender identities, which can easily get lost in debates centered on femininity and masculinity.

Published by Richard Shearmur

I am a professor at McGill's School of Urban Planning. I perform research on innovation, on how we locate work activities (in a world where people often work from many places), and on urban and regional economic geography. I used to work in real-estate, and teach a course on this. I am an urban planner, member of the Ordre des Urbanistes du Québec and of the Canadian institute of Planners.

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