Is International Men’s Day about Men’s Rights or Men’s Issues?

Every year on International Men’s Day (IMD) the topic of “men’s rights” arises in the public debate writes Glen Poole, Co-ordinator for IMD UK. 

Last year, for example, when the University of York withdrew plans to mark International Men’s Day, after facing opposition from women’s rights activists, some students complained that this sent out a message that “men’s rights are not important”.

I made a similar point myself here and here, choosing not to talk about “men’s rights” and speaking about “men’s issues” instead.

And yet the pull of those two words—“men’s rights”—is so powerful, that even when I wrote an article for The Daily Telegraph that used the word “issues” sixteen times but didn’t use the world “rights” at all, the sub-editors chose to run the article with the headline  “What’s so funny about a men’s rights debate?

The fact remains, that International Men’s Day is about a much broader range of issues than just “men’s rights” and while most people who celebrate the day would consider themselves to be concerned with and interested in “men’s issues”, only a few would frame that concern in terms of “men’s rights”.

So, between now and International Men’s Day, we will be talking about many different “men’s issues” in lots of different ways because the single, unifying thing that International Men’s Day is all about, is men’s issues. And as one of those issues is “men’s rights”, in this post I am going to focus on the extent to which International Men’s Day is about “men’s rights”.

Men’s Rights or Men’s Rights Activism?

To have a conversation about “men’s rights” we first need to define what we mean by men’s rights. There are two primary ways to define “men’s rights”:

Firstly we can use the phrase “men’s rights” to simply mean human rights as they apply to men, or males, or men and boys. We could look at the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDNR) and consider how this applies specifically to men and boys all over the world.

Secondly, the phrase “men’s rights” is used in relation to “men’s rights activists” or MRAs for short. The term MRA is a gender political label, with most people who call themselves an MRA, also defining their beliefs as “anti-feminist”.

So, to be absolutely clear, when we talk of International Men’s Day being about a range of men’s issues including men’s rights, we are talking about men’s human rights, such as those outlined in the UDHR. We are not talking about anti-feminist men’s rights activists.

International Men’s Day and Gender Equality

International Men’s Day is also about gender equality. Some people with a gender political view of the world claim that feminism is all about gender equality, and so IMD should be feminist or pro-feminist. Yet there are many different ways to measure and define gender equality and people hold very different views about what gender equality looks like. A recent poll by the Fawcett Society, found that while the majority of people “believe in equality for women and men”, only 7% of people identify as feminist and 4% as anti-feminists.

So as one commentator said: “It is worth remembering that public debates between a self-described feminist and anti-feminist will only represent about 11% of the adult population.”

It’s also worth remembering that feminism is just one way to think about gender equality, just as anti-feminism is just one way to think about men’s rights. It is often said, by those who study gender, that there are many different feminisms and as 93% of the population don’t define their beliefs about gender as being feminist, then it must also be true that there are lots of different “non-feminisms”.

International Men’s Day is for everyone, regardless of their gender politics, not just the 11% of the population who are feminist women’s rights activists or anti-feminist men’s rights activists. In the UK, our approach to IMD has always been about making the day a platform for everyone to get involved in celebrating the men and boys in their lives and talking about men’s issues, whether they are in the majority (non feminists) or in the minority (feminists and anti-feminists).

The founder of the day in its current format, Dr Jerome Teelucksingh from Trinidad & Tobago, sees International Men’s Day as “a gift to humanity” that crosses “geographical, religious, ideological, political, cultural, and ethnic and language barriers”

“It is to be shared,” he says. “Anyone can observe IMD without seeking permission.”

Men’s Rights and International Men’s Day

The explicit positioning of “men’s rights” as a topic of concern on International Men’s Day was first formalised in 2009, when a team of international co-ordinators agreed on six objectives, known as “The Six Pillars” of IMD. These are:

  1. To promote positive male role models; not just movie stars and sports men but everyday, working class men who are living decent, honest lives.
  2. To celebrate men’s positive contributions to society, community, family, marriage, child care, and to the environment.
  3. To focus on men’s health and well being; social, emotional, physical and spiritual.
  4. To highlight discrimination against men; in areas of social services, social attitudes and expectations, and law
  5. To improve gender relations and promote gender equality
  6. To create a safer, better world; where people can be safe and grow to reach their full potential.

While the world “rights” isn’t used (or indeed the word “issues”) matters such as discrimination, heath and equality are all shaped by men’s human’s rights, as outlined in the UDHR.

However, when the IMD UK team formed in 2010, we were concerned that these six pillars didn’t address the ideological inclusivity that is central to Dr Teelucksingh’s inclusive global vision for IMD.

As a result, the UK proposed a preamble to these six pillars which was endorsed by the day’s founder. This preamble to the “six pillars” of “six objectives” reads:

DIVERSITY AND EQUALITY STATEMENT

“We encourage every man, woman, girl and boy in the world to join us in celebrating men and boys in all their diversity on International Men’s Day (November 19th).

“We recognize that there are a broad variety of laws, values and viewpoints around the world that affect different men, in different countries in different ways. There is also a diversity of opinions about those laws, values and viewpoints which are held by the many different men, women, girls and boys throughout the world.

“As a day of observance we place our focus on that which unites humanity- giving everyone who wants to celebrate International Men’s Day the opportunity to help work towards our shared objectives which we apply equally to men and boys irrespective of their age, ability, social background, ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity, religious belief and relationship status. Those objectives are……..”

Again, there is no mention of “rights” but we do mention “laws”. In particular, this preamble recognizes that around the world, men and boys are affected by different laws in different countries in different ways. What we also recognize is that there is a diversity of opinions about whether such laws need to be reformed and if so, how?

If we take the issue of paternity leave, for example, a country’s laws about how much paternity leave a father has the right to take, can have a significant impact on men’s relationship with their children and the role that fathers play in families.

International Men’s Day doesn’t take a position on a man’s right to paternity leave, but it is entirely compatible with the objectives of the day for people with different views and ideological beliefs, to promote discussions about what rights men have in relation to parental leave and how those rights should or shouldn’t be expanded and strengthened.

The same is true of every other conceivable men’s rights issue that anyone can imagine. If you take time to read through the UDHR, there are many items that are relevant to men which could be topics of discussion on IMD anyone concerned with men’s rights could focus on. These included (but are not limited to):

  • Education: men and boys have the right to education [and] education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
  • Family Law: Men are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution. The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.
  • Freedom of Speech: Men and boys have the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association; the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the right to freedom of thought.
  • Culture: Men and boys have the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community
  • Public Services: Men and boys have the right of equal access to public service in his country
  • Health: Men and boys health and wellbeing is a human right
  • Parenting: Motherhood is entitled to special care and assistance (but fatherhood isn’t)
  • Work: Men have the right to work and to protection against unemployment
  • Housing: Men and boys have a right to housing
  • Justice: Men and boys have a right to a fair trial

Anyone who is concerned about men’s rights can use International Men’s Day to place a spotlight on those issues and it doesn’t matter if you are a non-feminists, like the majority of people in the UK, or whether they belong to the minority of people who identify as feminist or anti-feminist.

Of course, you don’t have to talk about or focus on men’s rights to mark International Men’s Day. International Men’s Day is about celebrating men and boys and highlighting some of the issues they face. It is NOT a day that is solely about men’s rights, nor does the day belong to men’s rights activists or any other group of people with a particular view of gender politics.

International Men’s Day is for everyone and whatever your gender politics you are welcome to take part and get involved in the day.

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