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How Effective is Engaging Men and Boys On Harmful Masculinities to Improve Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights?

7 October 2019 Posted by No Comment

Monday, 7th October 2019

The first ever systematic review of evidence on the effectiveness of gender-transformative interventions that engage men and boys has been published in BMJ Global Health. The review, undertaken by the UNDP/UNFPA/UNICEF/WHO/World Bank Special Programme of Research, Development and Research Training in Human Reproduction (HRP) and Queen’s University Belfast, presents what is known about interventions that engage men and boys, what works and what is the quality of the evidence.

The debate on gender equality has a long history and is a key topic in the global development agenda. The 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo highlighted that gender equality is a key factor in improving sexual and reproductive health and the need for men and women to participate in promoting gender equality.  The survey reveals that masculinity is a global problem, and that only 8% of programs that currently engage in male-based programs challenge the privileges of male equality or inequality. The paper suggests that while it is desirable to have interventions engaging men and boys promote gender equality, very few interventions actually do so. Nonetheless, those that do, show promising evidence that they work in improving sexual and reproductive health related behaviours.

Harmful masculinity is also known as toxic masculintiy and is rapidly becoming a hotly debated concept. What is often the case with nay-sayers is the belife that when one idenitifies toxic masculinity, one is decrying all masculinity as problematic. So if that is not the case then what exactly is toxic or harmful masculinity?  The concept of toxic masculinity is used in psychology and media discussions of masculinity to refer to certain cultural norms that are associated with harm to society and to men themselves. Traditional stereotypes of men as socially dominant, along with related traits such as misogyny and homophobia, can be considered “toxic” due in part to their promotion of violence, including sexual assault and domestic violence. The socialization of boys often normalizes violence, such as in the saying “boys will be boys” with regard to bullying and aggression. Self-reliance and emotional repression are correlated with increased psychological problems in men such as depression, increased stress, and substance abuse.

In Sri Lanka those working with engaging men and boys have idenified harmful masculinities as a significant issue that must be engaged with in order for gender equality and equity to be achieved, Activist Kapila Rasnayake speaking to bakamoono said, “Even in our country, men decide on the children of a family. Men decide the time they want to have sex. Even men decide how they want to have sex. These behaviors have a direct bearing on women’s sexual and reproductive health. By engaging men, we hope to balance the unequal power relations that exist everywhere, including the family, the community, the organizations, the state

This approach is not without its difficulties. For example in January 2019 Gillette released an ad – “The Best Men Can Be” addressing the concept of toxic masculinity and asking men to do better. While there was immense praise for the brand who traditionally had failed back on masculine stereotypes, it also sparked outrage from those who felt that the ad was de-crying men as a problem and all masculinity as toxic. In fact Gillette’s parent company reported a $8-billion cash write-down in the quarter after airing the ad. Gillette has given a number of explanations for its heavy losses, including currency fluctuations and “more competition over the past three years and a shrinking market for blades and razors as consumers in developed markets shave less frequently.” The razor industry, Reuters noted, has declined by 11% over the last 5 years. But critics say Gillette is leaving out a key factor: alienating a large percentage of its potential consumer base.

Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala (Gender Consultant) speaking to bakamoono reflected on the study published by CARE International Sri Lanka in 2013 “Why Masculinities Matter” which showed that interventions with men and boys was very much needed if one looked at the data the study yielded. One of the findings she highlighted was how early men recorded their first acts of GBV (between the ages of 15 and 29 primarily) and the lack of consequences they faced which led them to believe that they were not doing anything wrong. Jayanthi cautioned however that it is imperative that when designing interventions that engage men and boys, it is vital that feminist politics are at the heart of it and it is done with caution that the interventions in turn do not mimic patriarchal ideals of men needing to protect women, men as the ones having power to change things alone etc. It is important she said that the end goal is equality for all and dismantling of patriarchal systems.

The battle may be uphill in the long-run. But it seems to be one we need to fight none the less.

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