Woman at a radio station (Photo by Jeroen van Loon)
| Author: Rachel Ploem | Function: Technical Advisor Women’s Health, Gender & MenCare+

BLOG: What have MEN got to do with it?

Girls are so foolish and silly, that they have to be beaten so they can get some good ideas in their brains. That’s what an 8 year old boy from India learned from his father and older brothers. He added that he was confused because his mother and sisters had told him: ‘All men beat their wives, one day you will do the same, and it’s what men do to be manly’.

 If these are the kind of messages to young boys, we shouldn't be surprised by the epidemics of gendered violence, discrimination and harassment of women committed by men.

How can we address gender violence by involving men and questioning masculinity, and how does this lead to better health and less HIV-infections for all?

"We have to change together, because if you only change one half of the equation, won't you get half the result?”

Two men

Gender norms affect health and well-being

Gender refers to society’s widely shared norms and expectations about men and women’s appropriate behavior, roles and characteristics. Heterosexuality is the norm, male superiority prevails and women’s sexuality is often ignored. Male gender norms include ideas that men should have multiple sexual partners to prove they are “real men”. 

These social norms directly affect attitudes and behaviour related to sex, HIV, contraceptives, gender based violence, men’s participation in child, newborn and maternal health, etc. Men with more traditional views of masculinity and who believe that they are superior to women are more likely to practice unsafe sex, treat women violently and abuse substances. For instance, in Southern and Eastern Africa people engaged in a relationship often differ substantially in age and power, which contributes to a higher HIV prevalence among young women. 

Women face barriers in accessing HIV prevention, treatment and care services due to limited decision-making power, lack of control over financial resources, and restricted mobility. At the same time, gender norms also affect men’s health and wellbeing. Many men are reluctant to seek help or to get tested. ‘Going to a clinic is regarded as a sign of weakness, of being ‘not man enough’, says Patric Godana of South Africa NGO Sonke for Gender Justice. As a result in many countries more women than men are now accessing ART. For example, in South Africa, in 2011 60%  of women were treated compared to 41%  to men, and men are at a more advanced stage of the disease when they start treatment. 

Advancing the gender equality agenda

If we are serious about advancing the gender equality agenda, it helps to realise, not always easy though, that a number of men  perceive themselves as victims as well. Victims of poverty,  violence (during their childhood), failed manhood, and in some cases victims of the international donor community.  For instance, in DRC many donors are investing in projects supporting women, victims of sexual violence. These projects pay little attention to the needs and interest of men. Men feel frustrated and as a result they reject projects focusing on gender equality.

Good news about engagement of men

The International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES) – found that younger men, men with some years of secondary education, and urban-based men believe in gender equality and like to live it or practice it in their daily lives. An increasing number of men consider themselves as agents of change: "I talk to my customers and give them condoms. When they ask ‘What for‘, I tell them, don’t you know this is the style of the New Man? Real men use condoms. They keep you safe  and make you last longer." Engaging men in an open, non-judgemental and positive way, creates space for critical reflection on manhood and identity issues, the so-called rights based gender transformative approach. 

For many men, becoming a father is a crucial moment in their lives, as many become care-givers. Stories of men who care, who are involved in care, have the power to transform men. When they become more caring, it is likely that domestic violence goes down, sexual and reproductive health of men and women improve, and children develop better. The MenCare+ program engages young men and fathers in SRHR, maternal and child health and stopping intimate partner violence.

We have to change together

Transformation of masculinities is intrinsically linked with the improvement in the quality of life of millions of girls and women. New partnerships are needed, combined with a fundamental mind –shift. Men,  like women, have to be looked at as human beings with the potential for change. On the other hand, any intervention with boys and men, has to fully embrace and support girls’ and women’s rights and empowerment. As another young guy from India is saying: "We have to change together, because if you only change one half of the equation, won't you get half the result?”. There is much wisdom in his words, not easy to realize but definitively worth trying.

This blog was previously published at StopAidsNow!

Rachel Ploem
Rachel Ploem Technical Advisor Women’s Health, Gender & MenCare+ To bio