Feminism has achieved a lot a good things for girls. It’s gone far beyond just getting the vote and property rights. Women now outnumber men in the UK in almost two-thirds of degree subjects, and, according to university admissions service UCAS, the gender gap in British universities has almost doubled in size since 2007.
There are more women in formal paid work today than at any point in history, making up 40% of the global formal labour force. While wage parity is still an issue, it is nothing like what it used to be.
Equality and feminism has meant more awareness and sympathy for the difficulties of just being female. Issues like FGM are up on the radar, along with patriarchal injustices such as child marriage and honour killing.
But why did we want all this in the first place? Just to earn more money, to be independent or get acknowledgement for the part we have played and will play in scientific research? No. We wanted it because we believed that a woman possesses a compassionate, conflict-avoiding nature which serves to counterbalance the “yang” male energies. We needed feminism because of human decency, and the belief that raising women from a position of inequality to one of equality with men would allow a fresh evaluation of what is right and proper between the genders.
So what about boys? While sexual harassment of women receives media validation, when it is against men it is often not taken that seriously. The same applies to domestic violence. While self esteem issues like anorexia and bulimia are now being addressed, less is known about male eating disorders.
The rate of male suicides in the UK has increased in 2013, with the level among males its highest since 2001. Suicide remains the leading cause of death for men between 20 and 34 in England and Wales, representing 24% of all deaths in 2013, and for men aged 35-49, at 13% of deaths.
Where girls suffer from body image anxiety and expectations of perfection, so do boys agonise over late physical development, and the need to be accepted by their peer group or into their chosen “community”. When they don’t make the cut, buck the system or complain, they too get marginalised. If boys are not macho enough (football, rugby, sales, knock-on bullying) then they feel there is no one to turn to.
Prof Louis Appleby, the chair of the National Suicide Prevention Advisory Group in England, said: “Men are more at risk of suicide because they are more likely to drink heavily, use self-harm methods that are more often fatal and are reluctant to seek help.”
If we are talking about equality between the sexes then surely we have to acknowledge our responsibility to vulnerable males as well as females. The recent high profile cases such as the suicide of political activist Elliott Johnson and the four young people from Deepcut Army Barracks in the 1990s are examples of how much pressure they are under when they first leave school or university. As someone who set up an anti-bullying charity sixteen years ago I have had sufficient experience to know the following: Girls get bullied by other girls, and harassed and intimidated by boys, but boys too get bullied by other boys and harassed and intimidated by the opposite sex.
Has the feminism movement now become so focused on the victimisation of women that we cannot conceive of needing to take positive action to secure some help too for boys?