The Men and Boys Coalition, the largest lobbying and campaigning group for men’s and boy’s issues in the UK, launched last month. With representatives from the EHRC and the Government Equalities Office in attendance, it had parliamentary blessing – possibly the first coalition representing male interests to get political blessing anywhere in the world.
While the launch signals a new and ambitious stage in the struggle to tackle suffering experienced by men and boys, it is also the culmination of many years of hard work. Needs-based groups such as the Mankind Initiative, CALM, Survivors UK and many others, have been working at the coalface of human difficulty and pain. The Co-founders Dan Bell, Mark Brooks, Martin Daubney, Ally Fogg, Dr Ben Hine, and Glen Poole have been tirelessly advocating to raise awareness in their wake. For them, such a coalition with social and political legitimacy must feel long overdue.
They will focus on areas where men’s needs are unmet. Domestic violence, rape and sexual abuse, these are all male problems but arguably women are more likely to be victims and this can eclipse the problems suffered by men. There are other areas of serious concern that are more male specific, such as education, suicide, and men’s shorter life expectancy. These issues are gaining public awareness but they have not yet started to receive policy attention or financial support. Then there are problems of the most marginalised groups in society such as those in care, the homeless and those in custody, these people tend to go under the radar; the fact they are more likely to be men isn’t recognised and they receive very little support.
The coalition will also draw attention to structural inequalities. Men have a less direct relationship with reproduction because they don’t get pregnant. This sets up patterns of path dependency where the female’s relationship with children is protected and promoted while the male role in reproduction is all but ignored. Fathers don’t automatically appear on birth certificates, they have no say with regard to abortion, no right to DNA testing without the consent of the mother, very few de facto rights in custody arrangements and inhuman levels of discrimination in family courts. The assumption that men are somewhat peripheral to reproduction affects the way men’s relationship to children is structured beyond the family – there are very few men in teaching and they tend to be all but invisible in the majority of childcare roles.
A vital role of the coalition is to address what is perceived to be the silence of men. We know that men are less likely to talk about their problems, they are less likely to seek help and less likely to complain. This means there is an absence of the male perspective from public consciousness, a lack of knowledge of men and masculinity; what men feel and what causes them pain. If the coalition can act as a vehicle for the full range of male voices, men’s problems will no longer be invisible and the unmediated voice of men and boys can be heard.
More importantly, the coalition creates the opportunity for dialogue between women and men. Underpinning their whole ethos, is an insistence on gender inclusivity, a respect for the needs and problems of women and an emphasis on co-operation rather than competition between women and men. This is reiterated on their website, by their participating members, and by those who spoke at the launch. There is an assumption that those who are concerned about males do not recognise and respect women’s problems. This is a completely misguided assumption, but a frequent line of attack. The gender inclusive stance has been clear from the beginning. But the approach is much more than a political skin.
By emphasising co-operation rather than competition, a space will be created in public consciousness that will allow for the interdependent nature of women and men to emerge. Understanding and dealing with men’s problems will help to alleviate women’s difficulties. As feminists have pointed out, it works both ways. The man who is in employment rather than in prison could mean one more father at home. Protecting boys from being used as drugs mules may mean one sex trafficker less, further down the line. One father able to take paternity leave creates space for the more career-focused mother who wants to prioritise her work.
Feminism on its own has not produced happier women. A space that allows for the full range of male perspectives to be publicly articulated, and that encourages dialogue and understanding between men and women, could be one of the most important things that the Men and Boys Coalition could do.