Our brains establish our social values, behaviours and beliefs from an early age, and it’s hard for an adult to stray from the social culture they have been immersed in for their whole life. The older a person becomes, the harder it is for them to accept a new idea or belief that contradicts something they have believed since they were a child. This is why teaching our children and young people the values that we want our future societies to hold is so important, including the treatment of women and girls by men and boys.
Many of us see feminism as a fight for women by women, and in some cultures, this is the case – the definition of a ‘feminist’ varies and in some places the label can only be given to a woman or girl. Most cultures, however, are increasingly recognising the importance of men and boys in our fight for gender equality, for two reasons.
The first reason is that men and boys are also victims of the patriarchy, and would benefit from gender equality, to be free to engage in parts of human life that society designates to women such as expressing emotion or fulfilling the carer role in a family. The second reason is that gender equality is a fight that needs to be fought from both sides – when one group is in a position of domination, they need to recognise and regulate that power, and become part of the solution.
The danger of only educating girls on gender issues is that we encourage victim blaming. Victim blaming is a situation in which the victim is held accountable or responsible for what happened to them. We encourage this mindset when we teach girls what to wear to discourage sexual assault, without teaching men and boys not to sexually assault women and girls. Or, when we teach women and girls how not to anger an abusive man in the family, without teaching men and boys that their actions are abusive and how to manage their emotional reactions.
Good gender equality education for boys can encompass so many areas of life, from bringing attention to dangerous language to defining the boundaries of sexual harassment. Education providers can encourage respect for women and girls where it is not encouraged in a boy’s social circle. Strong female role models such as teachers or other women in the community are a really helpful tool to pave the way towards respect for women more generally, but the burden of the gender equality fight should not be placed on women to spend energy trying to be strong and respectable simply to gain the respect of men and boys.