MenEngage Africa Explores Masculinities

Wednesday, 4 November, 2009 - 09:14

"I am a young man with a dream, a dream of a future, a prosperous future, where men, women, boys, and girls, young and old are equal and enjoy gender equitable lives; where men and women are regarded equally and not treated differently based on their faces and sex; where boy and girl children have equal opportunities, at home, at school and in public places. Yes, I am a real young man working for that future. And that future is now"

“As men, we are the ones implicated in health and human rights crises across the globe, we as men are therefore essential for a successful resolution - whether it be stopping sexual violence; preventing new HIV infections; expanding treatment and reducing the burden of AIDS care borne by women and girls; increasing men’s active involvement in the lives of their children; strengthening health systems or promoting a more active sense of citizenship aimed at holding government to account for their commitments.” Sandi Mbatsha, on behalf of Noluthando Mayende-Sibiya, Minister for Women, Children and Persons with Disabilities, at the opening of the MenEngage Africa Symposium, 5 October 2009.

In his opening address at the MenEngage Africa Symposium, held in Johannesburg in early October 2009, Mbatsha, Special Advisor for the Department for Women, Children and Persons with Disabilities succinctly summarised the importance of engaging men in gender justice: men are perpetrators of violence, men are key transmitters of HIV, and consequently, men can be powerful agents of change. It is this final point which participants at the symposium rallied around. The delegates, more than half of whom were men, discussed men’s role in gender-based violence and HIV, looking at ways in which to work with men, change attitudes, present new role models, and mobilise men against gender-based violence and HIV.

Participants at the event were reminded of the scope of the problem: worldwide an estimated 30 percent of women suffer physical violence at least once from a male partner, and nearly 20 percent of women say that their first sexual experience was forced. Additionally, women worldwide only earn 80 percent of what their male counterparts earn, while spending three to four times more time in caring for children and other domestic activities. Women also bear the brunt of the HIV epidemic, with women being more vulnerable to HIV (biologically and socially) and carrying the burden of care for those ill with AIDS. The link between gender-based violence and HIV was also emphasised - violence against women increases women’s vulnerability to HIV, and their HIV status sometimes results in violence.

Throughout the event, speakers emphasised how women’s inequality and violence against women affects all members of society. Foremost, it threatens the health, well-being and lives of women and girls. It violates inherent rights to dignity, equality and freedom. It places women and girls at greater risk of contracting HIV and it undermines women’s self-sufficiency.

Gender inequality and gender-based violence also affect children (boys and girls), destroying feelings of security, raising barriers to education and establishing negative role models for future behaviour. Pascal Akimana, a delegate from Burundi, noted in his personal testimony, “Before I started doing this work, I was a dangerous young boy. I think this is because of the violence that I experienced in my growing up time. I remember I used to be very angry at any child or person. Many times I would fight and this led me to join a bad group of people who were abusing women and girls.” Now Pascal works for EngenderHealth and is committed to honouring his mother’s experience by working with men and boys to end gender-based violence.

Francois Venter, president of the Southern Africa HIV Clinician’s Society noted how stereotypical notions of masculinity and men’s roles negatively impact on men, placing men in mortal danger from violence (through homicide, car accidents, war and other men-on-men violence) and untreated disease (especially HIV). Traditional male stereotypes also limit men’s ability to become actively involved as fathers and caregivers in their communities. Co-chair of the MenEngage global alliance, Gary Barker, recited an extensive list of statistics detailing why it is important for men to be actively involved in raising their children, “According to global research, the impact of involved fatherhood includes lower incidences of substance abuse, better performance at school, delayed sexual debut, and reduced participation in criminal activities, and yet a review of 156 cultures, shows that only 20 percent promote close relationships between fathers and infants.”

Barker’s work to advocate for paternity leave was one of the many projects that the 240 delegates - representing 25 countries - heard about. Other campaigns and projects that were showcased include campaigns for reducing multiple concurrent partnerships, programmes for working with refugees and initiatives to address violence against sexual minorities. Delegates also heard about the impacts that these projects are starting to have. Researcher Chris Colvin reported that 27 percent of participants in Sonke’s One Man Can workshops go for an HIV test soon after the workshop, while two-thirds of participants report increasing their use of condoms after the workshop.

Panels also discussed the roles and responsibilities of various groups in relation to transforming gender stereotypes. Religious leaders and media spokespersons debated the roles that they could and should play in changing attitudes, promoting new notions of masculinity and challenging sexist and violent behaviour. Women’s rights organisations shared their knowledge and experience and proposed ways for stakeholders working towards gender justice to work together. Throughout, youth participants reminded delegates of the importance of including young people in all phases of programme development, demonstrating the powerful role that the youth can play in changing attitudes and promoting new role models.

As one of the delegates put it: "I am a young man with a dream, a dream of a future, a prosperous future, where men, women, boys, and girls, young and old are equal and enjoy gender equitable lives; where men and women are regarded equally and not treated differently based on their faces and sex; where boy and girl children have equal opportunities, at home, at school and in public places. Yes, I am a real young man working for that future. And that future is now."

Researchers also shared their latest findings, highlighting the intersection between gender inequality and HIV. Research conducted by the Perinatal HIV Research Unit and Emory Global Health Initiative, for example, gave insight into the role that perceptions of masculinity play in spreading HIV and in dealing with an HIV positive diagnosis. Their research found that although HIV challenges ideals of sexual prowess and threatens ideals of male strength, some men have managed to reconcile their HIV positive status and masculinity by proactively taking on advocacy, leadership and peer-education roles in their communities, and also through supporting others. These findings have exciting implications for organisations working with men to prevent the transmission of HIV and reduce the stigma surrounding the disease.

Although this event marks an important step in getting recognition for the critical need to work with men and boys to end gender-based violence and prevent HIV, there is still an enormous amount of work that needs to be done: national and international policies and treaties need to include specific provisions around working with men; funders need to make additional funds available to support this work, without reducing the funding made available to women’s rights organisations; additional research needs to be implemented documenting the impact that working with men and boys has on attitudes and behaviours; and programmes need to be developed and strengthened to target specific groups of men and boys, such as armies, police forces and prison populations.

These challenges have been documented in the Johannesburg Declaration and Call to Action which highlights areas in which specific action can be taken to strengthen work with men and boys. In addition to setting out specific actions that various stakeholders can take, the Call to Action generally calls on “individual men and women, youth, media, civil society, donors, private sector, governments and UN agencies to support the MenEngage Alliance and reaffirm their commitment to preventing gender-based violence and HIV by committing to working with men and boys.”

Anyone interested in joining the MenEngage Alliance or finding out more about the Symposium or the Johannesburg Declaration and Call to Action can visit the MenEngage and Sonke websites: and

Helen Alexander is the Communication and Information Manager at the Sonke Gender Justice Network

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