"Gender Equality Isn't Just A Women's Issue": Interview With Elizabeth Nyamayaro, UN HeForShe Founder

It's been promoted by Emma Watson in an impassioned speech and supported by the likes of President Obama, Matt Damon, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. So far, more than 200,000 have signed its pledge, and leaders of countries around the world are holding special events to advance its cause.

But for Elizabeth Nyamayaro, it began as a relatively simple idea: Engage men in the fight for gender equality.

Nyamayaro—senior advisor to the Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women—launched the HeForShe campaign in September as a means to promote solidarity among both genders to enhance the rights of women around the world. The initiative has since become something of a juggernaut, warranting 1.2 billion Twitter impressions within its first two weeks; eliciting the backing of diplomats, politicians, and celebrities across the globe; and, most importantly, inspiring action in places as far-flung as Brooklyn and a remote African village.

We chatted with Nyamayaro, who has also been involved with WHO, UNAIDS, and the World Bank, and has worked at the forefront of Africa's development agenda for more than a decade—about why solidarity is key to progress, how men benefit from feminism . . . and the most inspiring stories she's heard so far.

Why was the HeForShe campaign launched?

HeForShe is part of UN Women's new agenda to address gender inequality as a human rights and societal issue that requires the full participation of both women and men. For the first time in the women's rights movement, we really want to engage men as our allies and partners to address the inequalities that affect women and girls globally. In terms of our bigger goal, we are hoping to mobilize one billion men between now and September 2015 as advocates and agents of change for gender equality.

What's your personal story in coming up with the idea and getting it off the ground?

I come from a humble upbringing and grew up in an impoverished African village, where there was always this interesting dynamic where village leaders who were mostly male would make all the bigger decisions.

Several decades later, I would find myself working for the United Nations, and recently joined UN Women as Senior Advisor to Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, newly appointed Head of UN Women and just a phenomenal individual. She is a former freedom fighter from South Africa who was involved in the anti-apartheid movement, and was also the first woman to be deputy president of South Africa.

Within my first month of orientation and in understanding Phumzile's vision for the organization, it became apparent that we had a real opportunity to engage men as advocates for the achievement of gender equality. So we engaged PubliciHawkeye as a creative partner in helping us develop the concept behind the HeForShe campaign.

What do you mean by solidarity in the context of what you're trying to do?

It's about bringing together one half of humanity—which is men—in support of the other half of humanity—which is women—for the benefit of all. Historically, humanity has progressed tremendously by working together. Take for example the civil rights movement in the U.S.; it was about African-Americans working together with non-African-Americans, so white Americans could address the issue of racism in the U.S. Another good reference point is the gay movement. Gay rights and gay marriage were not won by just gay people working alone. It was about gay men getting straight people as allies and supporters.

How has the campaign unfolded so far?

The campaign has strong online and offline components. Online, we are mobilizing men through the interactive map at HeForShe.org, where we have close to 200,000 men globally who have signed up to be advocates for gender equality. We are also engaging with men and boys via social media platforms, especially Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Within the first week of the campaign, we generated, on Twitter alone, 1.2 billion impressions.

But the big part of our activation is offline. We are implementing the campaign across our global country offices in 90 countries and engaging heads of states. Recently, the Prime Minister of Sweden declared himself a HeForShe advocate and also went on to declare his government was, too. The Head of State in Finland held a national event for HeForShe, officially launching it in that country. During the same time, the former Prime Minister of Finland, her name is [Tarja] Halonen, identified herself as the godmother of the HeForShe campaign. She's committing to mobilizing 1 million men for us within her country.

Recently, the president of Kenya—Uhuru Kenyatta—held a national event as well, where he launched HeForShe at the national level. There's a lot of exciting things that are happening offline. That's part of our next stage, too, for additional strategy getting into 2015. We are going to be able to share with people these kinds of stories, and all the impact that has been created offline.

What are some of these inspiring stories? How have men engaged with the campaign?

It's been humbling experience to realize how much men want to do more and have inundated with emails, "I just signed on. Now, what more can I do?"

One of the stories is from a man in Zimbabwe who after having self-identified with the campaign created a husband school to teach abusive husbands in his village how to be better husband and fathers.

There's also an emerging story out of Brooklyn from a man who decided that he wants to create HeForShe coffee places to support gender equality where women and girls can feel safe. We are excited to start sharing these stories and more early next year through our website in order to inspire further and wider action.

When you say it's a men's issue also, what do you mean by that? How do men benefit from a gender equitable world?

Economically, when women benefit, society benefits. There's evidence that points to this. When a woman makes money, her money's often spent on the family. When the man makes money, sometimes it's spent otherwise. So we know that women having power affects communities and society at large. We also know, even here in the developing world, that companies with more women in leadership positions tend to have more return on investment.

Beyond this, gender inequality also impacts men because of the stereotype and expectation that the man is the breadwinner. In her speech [about the campaign], Emma Watson pointed out suicide as the biggest killer for young men is the UK. Because men are struggling with this expectation that they should be the breadwinner, that they should provide. If the man doesn't feel the need to be the breadwinner, that also makes his life a lot easier and a lot happier. Accepting that men should not cry or express their emotions also limits men from having a fuller life. Perhaps even sometimes a happier life.

In addition to the pledge signing, which I know is a key part of the campaign, what are some of the other initiatives that this encompasses?

There are three A's. The first A is "HeForShe is an Awareness platform." It's about providing a platform and a path on which men, for the first time, in a bigger way can identify with the equality agenda. It's about sensitizing men as well.

The second A of the campaign is "HeForShe is an Advocacy platform," where we hope to create impact through legislation by engaging our HeForShe local Champions as advocates for advancing local policies.

And then the final A for the campaign in the "HeForShe is an Action platform," which is where we are looking for the individual stories to share. We want men to identify issues in their own communities that must be changed and find ways to address them in a way that is meaningful to them. We are intentionally letting this be an organic movement, because again, ultimately, people create movements, and it is those movements that create impact.

The other action is around fundraising; we would like to also utilize this platform to fundraise for women and girls' programs around the world. Men can donate right now at heforshe.org.

We're launching a pilot program to address this this week.

As much as we're going to let organic solutions come from men themselves—almost a bottom-up approach—we also want to be able to look at how we can make sure that there's a top-down approach. In other words ensuring that men in power do more in shifting structural changes. How can politicians, CEOs, and University Presidents, commit to concrete actions that are impact driven in driving the agenda forward?

There are some who have argued that positioning men as the "saviors" of gender equality works against the feminism causethat we shouldn't give men such a big voice in this movement. How do you respond to that?

HeForShe is not about men speaking up for, or on behalf of women. Far from it . . . it is about creating a shared vision for humanity, that brings together in solidarity, women and men to collectively address persisting inequalities. We believe that this solidarity is critical if we are to expedite this over-due progress. I recently read a report from Oxfam that pointed out that maintaining status quo means we will have to wait until 75 years before women have access pay. Equally, a recent UN report highlighted that girls in rural African will not have access to education till 2086. Now how can we not be impatient for progress with such news? This is why we are making the argument that we need all of society to work together . . .

I know one of the other tenets of the campaign has been implementing it at colleges and universities. Why did you feel it was important to target higher education?

This is actually part of the pilot program that we're going to be announcing. We look at it from two standpoints. Number one, half of the work population is under 30. So the youth are real catalysts for change, and we need to engage them. The other thing for us is when we're progressing with universities, the issue of violence on college campuses has become a big issue, not just in the U.S., but globally where we have offices. So we also need to figure out a way that we can work with the administrators at these universities to make lasting change for women and girls.

There's a big focus on how can we leverage the learning institutions to address the issue of violence against women and girls on college campuses. But also, more specifically, the other catalyst for change is that we know a lot of the ignorance happens because people are not aware—so how can we use the platform to sensitize, so that the future generation is starting in a different place than where we are . . . where half the men simply say they don't know that this is an issue?

How is that manifesting? How are you educating college men?

We have developed a university targeted engagement framework as part of the campaign's pilot programme. One key aspect of the framework is to address issues of violence on campuses and to make gender training mandatory orientation for all students and faculty members.

How did you get Emma Watson involved in the campaign?

We engaged Emma Watson first and foremost as a Global Goodwill Ambassador for UN Women and through our dialogue, it emerged that the HeForShe campaign was something that equally spoke to her on a personal level, thus decided to lend her voice as an advocate.

What do you think boys and men can do on a regular basis to engage with gender equality?

We are hoping that the HeForShe campaign provides them with an invitation. Some men have told us that they have been disengaged from gender issues because they have not felt welcome and in some cases been blamed for the wrong doings of other men. We are hoping that the HeForShe campaign provides them with that invitation . . . an entry point for them to self-identify with and support the achievement of gender equality.

We have provided action kits on our website and as a first step, we are inviting men to stand-up and be counted at heforshe.org. Please take your HeForShe commitment and tell us want you are doing to support gender equality. We want to share your stories.

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