Engaging Men in the Gender Equality discussion: a conversation with Dr. Benjamin Mason Meier

Benjamin Mason Meier is an Associate Professor of Global Health Policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a Scholar at Georgetown Law School’s O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, and a consultant to international organizations, national governments, and non-governmental organizations. Dr. Meier’s interdisciplinary research — at the intersection of public health, international law, and public policy — examines the development, evolution, and application of human rights in global health.

We sat down with Dr. Meier to get his thoughts on male engagement in gender equality.

WGH: In what ways have you noticed gender inequality at the leadership level during your career in global health?

BMM: The World Conference on Women occurred during my first year in college, and Hillary Clinton’s simple but moving message at the Conference inspired me to action: “Human Rights are Women’s Rights, and Women’s Rights are Human Rights.” These words drew my attention to the long struggle for women’s rights throughout the world and would frame my rapidly growing interest in advancing human rights in global health.

Throughout my career, I have seen women’s rights leaders overcome obstacles to policy participation to chart a path for human rights in global health—evolving from activism at the margins of global development debates to leadership at the center of global health governance—and women’s representation in policy debates will remain crucial to advancing gender equality in global health into the future.

In our volume on Human Rights in Global Health: Rights-Based Governance for a Globalizing World (OUP 2018), we look systematically across global public health institutions in the United Nations system, and in doing so, we find that organizational leadership is crucial to mainstreaming human rights in global health governance.

The World Health Organization has recently come to address its rights-based responsibilities to engage women’s representation in policy debates. Having worked to raise human rights and gender mainstreaming issues in last year’s campaign for WHO Director-General, it has been inspiring to see WHO redress longstanding gender inequalities in its leadership structures as a foundation to realize the right to health through universal health coverage.

If we take seriously the fundamental premise that women’s rights are human rights, it will be necessary to understand the institutional structures that facilitate human rights mainstreaming across global health organizations, recognizing where gender inequality within public health organizations is reflected in the neglect of women’s rights in global health policy.

WGH: Where do you see opportunities to narrow the inequality? Are there strategies you’ve seen implemented or used yourself that have helped?

BMM: My academic career focuses on analyzing the influence of human rights norms in global health policy, and in my scholarship, I have been honored to work with trailblazing women in non-governmental organizations, national governments, and international organizations to understand the advancement of gender, equity, and human rights. Working across the global health landscape over the past 20 years, I have seen major shifts in human rights advocacy to redress gender inequity in global health.

Initial advancements for women’s rights in public health focused on respecting women’s autonomy, emphasizing the negative rights necessary to protect women’s freedom to make choices over their own bodies. Yet, public health scholarship highlighted the incomplete picture presented by this focus on negative rights, which avoided the policies necessary to affirmatively address socioeconomic determinants of health and women’s rights-based entitlements to health services and systems. An ensuing shift toward the positive rights underlying health has allowed women’s rights implementation to address women’s health determinants holistically – beginning in reproductive health, expanding to include a wide range of women’s health needs, and now encompassing a larger focus on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Supporting women’s rights scholarship to redress inequalities in global health—analyzing the intersecting marginalizations of gender, sexual orientation, race, geography, and poverty that limit women’s health—it has been truly inspiring to work with a growing number of gender equity scholars and advocates to shift the global health debate on the health-related human rights that are central to women’s health needs: framing human rights advocacy in global breastfeeding policy, implementing women’s rights through vaginal microbicides to prevent HIV, supporting women’s environmental health through clean cookstoves, recognizing the specific health harms faced by girl child soldiers, protecting the LGBTI+ rights underlying health outcomes, and mainstreaming “Gender, Equity & Human Rights” in the World Health Organization. As an academic, I recognize that academic discourse itself can perpetuate inequalities, and I endeavor to ensure diverse representation in my research citations, panel presentations, and co-author collaborations as a means to facilitate inclusive scholarship.

WGH: What do you do to get people around you interested in working with gender equality? (i.e. in your workplace, personal life, etc.)

BMM: Outside of my work to understand the global health policy landscape, I am privileged to work with amazing students and mentees – at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and throughout the world. Teaching human rights to future global health leaders, mainstreaming gender throughout courses on Health & Human Rights and Global Health Policy, I have long sought to guide students in ways that attempt to remove roadblocks that may otherwise stifle debates on gender equity. My interdisciplinary teaching focuses on engagement with the world and empathy for others, and I have sought to create an inclusive classroom environment that allows students to question the social construction of gender binaries while recognizing the need for public policy to address gender inequities. This mentorship extends beyond the classroom. Empowering young professionals, it has been an honor to serve as a mentor for the Women in Public Service Project, providing advice to future policymakers as a basis to facilitate gender equality in policy leadership.

WGH: Solving inequality requires an ‘all hands on deck’ response, we need all genders to address and engage in the issue. Therefore, what role do you think men can play in addressing this inequality?

BMM: This is an issue of human rights, and the fight for equity implicates everyone. We all need to understand our role in perpetuating patriarchal structures that create and exacerbate gender inequalities, limiting women’s rights in global health. The #MeToo movement has provided an avenue for women to be heard, acknowledging structural impediments to women’s advancement well beyond sexual harassment in the workplace. In this larger effort to redress structural inequities, the #HeForShe solidarity campaign provides one pathway for male-identified individuals to take part in a feminist movement that centers women’s leadership in policy debates.

WGH: What advice do you have for young men regarding gender equality and moving forward?

BMM: Join this fight. Organizations like Women in Global Health are changing the way that we think about representation in global health—reshaping the global health governance landscape in the process—and it is important that male-identifying individuals engage in the development of these solutions. Men need to invest themselves in understanding the importance of healthy masculinities in global health and women’s representation in global governance. In doing so, listen to women – about their experiences, their perspectives, and their solutions. We need to be partners in this fight for human rights, amplifying women’s voices and confronting inequitable structures.

WGH: From a societal perspective, what changes and adaptations do you think are necessary to highlight this issue and address it as a community?

BMM: To address gender inequity in global health, public health advocates have argued that global health governance must look to women’s rights beyond the essential issues of sexual and reproductive health. Recognizing inequalities throughout the life course that limit the health of women and sexual and gender minorities—disaggregating data in public health research to reflect these inequities—this policy debate in global health needs to look beyond the health sector to engage multi-sectoral determinants of gender equity. UN Women has recently sought to bring together the entire United Nations system in addressing the interconnected human rights that underpin gender equity, and similar coordinating systems will be necessary at the national level to facilitate “whole of government” responses.

WGH: In your opinion, how will we reach gender equality?

BMM: Changing norms will require public policies. Even as we push to achieve gender equality in global health leadership, it will be necessary to engage these new leadership structures to advance the policies underlying health outcomes across the gender identity spectrum. This effort to develop and implement policy is not direct or straightforward, and it will be necessary to understand the role of organizational programs and practices in facilitating health outcomes.

The new Global Health 50/50 Report provides a series of paths to catalyze gender equality in global health organizations – and it will be necessary to monitor organizational practices to provide accountability for policy change. Academics play an important role in analyzing these changing dynamics, but every profession, discipline, and sector has a role in these unfolding policy debates.

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