Understanding HeForShe

UN Women's HeForShe Campaign Special Event
UN Women's HeForShe Campaign Special Event

This week, Emma Watson kicked off the UN's new global campaign, HeForShe, that invites men to speak out about gender equality. We and the rest of the internet are obviously intrigued, so we talked with Elizabeth Nyamayaro, a senior advisor at UN Women, to learn more.

You guys have had a big week! How's the response been?

It’s been absolutely phenomenal. People like Russell Crowe, Forest Whitaker, Yoko Ono, and One Direction are all tweeting about the movement, and with their help, more than 100,000 men made a commitment to creating gender equality through our website in three days.

The celebrity involvement is great, but what’s even more humbling is that, at this point, two heads of state have contacted us and said, “We’ve noticed that a number of men have engaged with you in our country and yet the president hasn’t engaged himself. Can you please delete the numbers from your website so that the president can activate first?” It’s somewhat hilarious, but at the same time, I think it’s tapping into the competitive nature of men. That’s all really good news for us. It shows that governments want to own this process of equality, which ultimately can only help.

What does “commitment' really mean in the context of the movement?

Right now, the biggest part is that men sign the pledge on our site and start talking about the issues. People often assume that men don’t really care about gender equality, but that’s just not the case. They care enough to have this amazing worldwide response in three days.

Emma seems like such a passionate advocate for this cause—how did you come to work with her on this?

We initially identified Emma based on her intellect—we wanted to make sure that the person who would be associated with young women as a Global Goodwill Ambassador was somebody that had the brain, had the credentials, and also the passion to champion for our cause. At our first meeting with her, she said that this was something she’d wanted to do for a while. And this campaign is special—it’s the first time, really, we’re bringing together one half of humanity in support of the other half of humanity for the benefit of all. So she responded very well to that and she offered to be our co-host for the public launch so that she could really lend her voice in a serious way.

We're honored that a young person like Emma would even want to be associated with something like this. It's a little bit bold, if you can imagine, a little bit provocative, because we are pushing the boundaries on what has been done for centuries. It’s shifting the dialogue, it’s shifting the paradigm, it’s flipping the women's rights on the men’s head, and letting them know that this is a substantial issue and that men have to play their part.

So much of HeForShe is centered on online engagement. How will the campaign reach people in real life?

UN Women has offices in more than 90 countries around the world with the goal of reaching people from within their own communities. We’re aware that lots of our constituents are not sitting on the internet, so we’ve developed unique tool kits and playbooks so that they can make a tangible impact wherever they are.

For instance, if you’re a student, we’re encouraging you to set up a HeForShe student association. If you’re the head of the university, we would like you to have a mandatory orientation of all new students coming in discussing gender equality. We want people to be able to organize community events around the campaign. So really, we’ve developed all these tools to make sure that this is not a campaign, but rather a true movement—we are in this for the long haul.

How will we know when it’s working? Have you noticed any impact already?

Yes, actually! One story that I like to share is that there is a man in Zimbabwe who, after hearing about the HeForShe campaign, started a husband school—he went around his village and collected all the men who beat up their wives, and now it’s his mission to make sure that these men become advocates, that they become good husbands for their wives. So that’s a very simple thing but it’s effective.

But on a grander scale, we’ve engaged 800 CEOs using the seven Women Empowerment Principles, developed by the UN, in an effort to create economic empowerment, especially within large scale corporations. No country—not even Scandinavian countries where a lot of progress has been made—can say that they’ve been able to achieve equal pay for women. Not one country. With our corporate playbook, we are providing a reporting mechanism where CEOs can come to us and say, “This is what we’ve been able to accomplish over the years so we can report back some progress.”

There are all these ways that we are going to be measuring this impact and we’re creating tangible tools so that it’s not just the individual, like the man in Zimbabwe, but we can also pull back and say, “This year alone, Coca-Cola, JP Morgan, or whoever else, hired X number of women on their board, or they were able to address the issue of increased pay by X percent.”

Is there any way for women to get involved in this campaign or is it really solely for men?

The success of the HeForShe campaign relies on men and women both being engaged in the process. But it’s absolutely true that for a very long time this has been a woman’s struggle, so now the men have to play catch up. We would like to see a lot more men engaged overall, so that’s where the signup effort is focused for now. But there’s a call to action for women on the site too, because ultimately, they’ll play the critical roll in advocating for the issues and supporting the campaign. And you will see with the next steps, there’s going to be an engagement process for both men and women to be able to contribute equally but we need to reach critical mass first.

If we continue as we are—without men and women truly working together on these issues—it will be 75 years before women have access to equal pay. Girls in Africa won’t have access to public education until 2026, and 140 million girls will become child brides in the same amount of time. We have to be impatient for progress because we can’t address these issues without speaking to the man. You can’t talk about ending violence against women or even child marriage and not speak to the village leaders who are mostly males, right? Or the issue of economic empowerment and equal pay and not speak to the males who are CEOs.

Do you think this campaign has the potential to change the face of feminism?

As women, we’ve been very protective of this space because this has been our struggle. But we’re not trying to change the word “feminism.” as Emma said, because there’s nothing wrong with it. We were filled with trepidation that women would not understand why this new movement is important, why we need to include the rest of the population. But at its core, HeForShe is a solidarity movement—we talk about all these women’s issues, but men struggle, too. They are bound by their own gender stereotypes that keep them from equality as well. So the issue of who the campaign is really for is diffused and you really can’t argue with men and women working together for the betterment of all.

Things actually happen when people come together. The world came together in the 19th century and ended slavery. We came together in the 20th century and we ended colonialism and of course apartheid. I think we believe that this has the potential to really eliminate gender equality when both men and women are taking responsibility for their actions. So I think that was a very humbling opportunity for us to realize that people were starting to get that.

Photo courtesy of HeForShe.