If this 5-foot high schooler could create anything, it would be a machine. “The machine would remove the sexist attitudes of boys,” Sophie tells me. Males walk in one end and come out the other free of macho thoughts. She laughs.
That was after years of crying. Sophie had a tough childhood. She was the daughter that her parents gave away. Now the 14-year-old fights for gender equality, recently helping a friend with a 32-year-old man who was making advances.
Sophie is part of Plan International’s “Because I am a Girl” campaign to empower and educate girls about their equal rights to education, health care, and violence-free environments. One of the campaign's lessons is that the solution is not only in Sophie's or other girls’ hands. Men and boys have a crucial leadership role in the fight for gender equality. One half of it. A half that is widely untapped.
Noah, a high school graduate, is one exception. "I am part of society," he says. "If I change, I change society." Noah started a group for high school guys to speak out against gender violence. He believes the problem and solution starts with him -- that stopping gender violence means stopping boys and men.
Understanding gender inequality also means understanding political and economic power dynamics that favor men. Men control 81% of Congress. Men hold 95% of Fortune 500 CEO titles. Men occupy 70% of state judge seats. It’s men and boys (soon to be men) in the driver’s seat. It's men who are obligated to help create change.
This isn’t a gender war. Gender equality is not about women fighting men, about women taking from men, or men losing parts of themselves. When men speak out against gender inequality brought on by disadvantageous economic, cultural or legal contexts, it’s a declaration that equality must be the result of a joint -- not antagonistic -- leadership effort.
Back to Noah. His school program grew by almost a dozen guys, despite the negative stigma that came with joining. In his country of El Salvador, Plan International found 45% of male youth believe violence is part of being a man. Noah raised his voice to say "no." And his peers followed.
Noah was one of the cool kids—he used to bully girls. What changed? His girlfriend got pregnant. He noticed the difference between the stigma stunting her future as a teen mom and the less negative perception of him as a teen father.
Noah’s message is this: your mom, your sister, your wife, your daughter … in no situation would you want them treated as third or fourth class citizens. Beaten because she is female, unable to get the best job because she is female, kept from school because she is female. You would not stand for this. But many men remain silent by not addressing their half of equality.
One way forward starts with changing the language we choose. Educator Jackson Katz says to look at an example of assault. Often, we blame the victim, or focus on the victim, not the offender. Katz gives examples:
John beat Mary. Mary was beaten by John. Mary was beaten.
Notice the last two sentences. The subjects are the victim, not the offender. The last statement does not even mention the offender. That’s the language we use. We remove the offender as the focus of the problem, sometimes going as far as, “What was she wearing? Why was she talking to them?”
When I think about it, Sophie with her machine had it right. So did her friend Isabella, who wants to create a magic wand that removes sexist attitudes: “One, two, three, abracadabra.” Though it may not be as fast or as easy, those girls’ solutions are already among us. We are it. Women and men.
The names in this article have been changed to protect at-risk youth. Richard Lui is a news anchor for MSNBC and NBC’s Early Today, and an ambassador for Plan International USA. Follow him on Twitter at @RichardLui.