Politicising Masculinities: Beyond the Personal

IDS, Politicising Masculinities - Dakar report - Cover

Produced by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), this report summarises and draws inspiration from the Politicising Masculinities symposium, which took place on 15-18 October 2007 in Dakar, Senegal. The report reflects on four key areas of discussion that took place at the symposium: new ways of theorising; male bodies and sexualities; shaping policies and transforming institutions; and mobilisation, activism and movement-building.

Please see below for the attachment, in PDF.

Rochelle Jones from AWID provides a useful summary of the report:

The Politicising Masculinities Symposium took place in Dakar, Senegal, from 15-18 October 2007. Its aim was to inform and inspire a greater engagement by men in the struggle for gender justice and broader social change. The symposium was attended by 43 participants from different parts of the world, and was organised, led and facilitated by IDS researchers Andrea Cornwall and Jerker Edstrom, and Alan Greig, an independent consultant. The International HIV/AIDS Alliance, along with the Alliance Nationale Contre le SIDA a Senegal (ANCS), co-hosted the event.

A common sentiment amongst the organisers of the symposium is that work on men and masculinities has traditionally focused on the personal rather than the power and politics that form an integral framework in socially constructed gender stereotypes. As Alan Greig explains: "An interest in men's personal motivations for, and processes of, change in their own gender attitudes and practices has obscured larger political questions about structures of power and their sustaining gender ideologies, and men's relationship to these in terms of complicity and accountability" [p7].

The report begins with a brief introduction and overview of what took place at the symposium. It also provides some brief notes on masculinities - essentially creating a starting point of understanding masculinities, providing a solid framework within which participants could work. The author's approach toward masculinities is that they are multiple, complex and influenced by relationships between both men and women, and among groups of men. Importantly, they also recognise that masculinities are not static and work at different levels - the individual or personal level, as well as the collective, such as cultures and institutions.

The first section of the report really lays the foundations and captures the dynamic nature of the symposium, taking the reader on a journey through the different techniques used to narrow discussion, create momentum and inspire ideas. The next section then focuses on four key areas that emerged from discussions: new ways of theorising; male bodies and sexualities; shaping policies and transforming institutions; and mobilisation, activism and movement building.


Theorising masculinities in the context of the symposium focused on transcending binary stereotypes of female victims and male perpetrators. In doing so, however, it was recognised this "draws a false equivalence which ignores the real differences in power and privilege experienced by women and men on the basis of gender, and glosses over men's accountability for the ways in which they choose to act out their privilege. So while we need to engage with poor men's realities and explore how these normative constructs of gender are playing out in contexts of economic marginalisation, we need to do this without positing men as the 'new victims'." [p32]

To minimise the risk of 'false equivalence' then, participants agreed that the challenge is not to "fall into the trap of counterposing women's and men's experience and perpetration of violence. Rather it is to help illuminate the workings and functions of violence within the systems of oppression that organise our different societies, while holding accountable the individuals and institutions (mostly men and male-dominated) that are responsible for enacting this violence. [p33]

An interesting point of discussion also highlighted in this section was around the issue of heteronormativity and "its potential as an articulating principle between a spectrum of different political struggles" [p36]. How to problematise heteronormativity and how to destabilise norms were some of the major themes of discussion.


"Across diverse cultures, manliness is associated with (hetero) sexual potency and prowess." [p37]. This part of the report discusses this association and how it leads to complex issues in terms of living up to socially prescribed norms about male sexuality, ultimately impacting on both men and women.

"That men exist who violate and abuse women was not in question. But the problem with focusing only on the most negative dimensions of male sexuality is that we lose sight of the everyman in the midst of it all - men who are confused about the signals they get from their bodies and don't know how to read them, men who are scared of anyone knowing they find it difficult and painful to 'perform', men who would much prefer to have someone special who they can love but worry that if they don't 'screw around' they will be mocked by their friends..." [p42]

Unrealistic and oversimplified expectations of male sexuality are a "source of intense anxiety for men", and any inability to live up to these social expectations carries with it profound implications. An 'unpacking' of these norms is hence critical in order to construct new logics of meaning and transform hegemonic (and heteronormative) discourse.


This section highlights how "particular - often toxic - forms of masculinity are embedded within institutions: the military, other uniformed services, the education system, commercial sports, the media." [p43]. It also discusses the role that institutions play in reproducing hegemonic masculinity - most notably military institutions. Human rights emerged as an important tool to hold governments accountable for the actions of their militaries, and for "addressing the harmful links between militarism and masculinities" [p44].

At the local level, it was noted that "there are informal systems which have greater influence over people's lives - the family, religious institutions, informal work collectives, and so on. More thinking needs to occur on how to engage with these informal institutions to bring about gender transformation." [p49]


"Mobilising men to engage in broader struggles for social and gender justice is often left off the agenda. What would work with men look like if we took seriously issues of social mobilisation? [p50]

The answer to this question was formulated based on an initial agreement that activism and mobilisation around masculinities has mostly been taking place at the level of the personal - with workshops and trainings - and this needs to shift and evolve towards a greater social and political engagement. Practical strategies highlighted in this section to achieve this include:

*consciousness-raising on structural issues; *mobilising men to campaign for changes in government policy, the legal justice system, and corporate practice; *capacity-building for men as activists, and; *training, including on partnership building and on the functioning of social movements.

Identifying common agendas and participating in political spaces was also noted as important - as well as challenging sexism and homophobia in already existing movements.


The symposium was hopefully the beginning of an effort to bring masculinities further and more constructively into larger debates on gender. The IDS is producing a set of outputs from the symposium, including an edited compilation of the chapters presented by participants, and specialist briefing papers on men, HIV, sexual health and rights. All papers from the symposium will be available online at Siyanda - http://www.siyanda.org. The report also lists other follow-on possibilities and ideas that came out of the symposium, such as a follow-up meeting on heteronormativity.

The report is an interesting reflection of discussions at the symposium - and it especially illustrates the complexity of the issues because the report at times seems to cover too much ground. This is a true reflection of conversations that took place, however, and some of the tangents followed by the report add another dimension of interrelatedness to larger debates on gender and development. It makes frequent reference to work with HIV/AIDS, health and sexual rights, and is a suitable resource for anyone interested in gender.