Current efforts to get men to sincerely support women’s empowerment are guided by distrustful, if not wrong-headed suppositions, about men being less gendered than women, about practices of masculinity universally benefiting all men and harming women and children, and about the ‘dividends of patriarchy’ being bestowed equally and universally on all men. The idea of men as gendered people, who occupy differential positions in the structures of benefits which masculinity marshals, has yet to truly inform programmatic efforts. The focus of interventions has been on shielding women and children from, and empowering them against, the perceived excesses and harmful activities of men – irresponsible risk-taking, drunkenness, devil-may-care attitude, sexual irresponsibility and promiscuity, poor fathering practices, and masculine violence, in contexts ranging from the home to bureaucratic organisations, and even war. The glaring rarity across most of Africa of policies to directly help men to deal with the impact of social constructions of manhood, and of agencies dedicated to men’s welfare, championing the cause of men, or specifically working to help men recognise the implications of culture in their lives, has its bridgehead in the lack of understanding of men as gendered people.
But the truth remains that African men are frequently victims of practices of manliness celebrated by their societies and cultures. While culturally approved scripts of masculinity in most parts of the continent hurt women, they are also the greatest gravediggers for men. And because socialisation makes men see culturally-sanctioned masculinity practices as natural, few men in Africa are able to realise the dangers to which their socialisation exposes them. African men do not, in reality, choose to live the way they do. Culture condemns them to the dangerous lives they live. The key problem is that there is very little effort to help men in African realise how this socialisation path is a death knell.
Throughout Africa, as in many parts of the globe, men die younger than women and usually from preventable causes. Many deaths among men result from ‘doing gender’, or doing what is culturally considered to be ‘men’s things’ e.g., fighting in wars, street fighting, social drinking, smoking, speeding, refusing to show pain or appear vulnerable etc. The desire to redeem one’s identity as a true male has been, for years, a key driver of criminal and other anti-social acts including cult and gang membership, robbery, drug trafficking, and murder among African men and boys. African men’s proverbial reluctance to seek health care, financial help and professional counselling is also largely culturally-inspired. Rather than go through seemingly unmanning, nay humiliating medical procedures, several African men prefer to die in silence.
For other men on the continent, the cultural pressure to live up to social expectations of men as leader, breadwinner, defender, and provider for their households, force them into lifestyles that hurt or kill them and the people around them. Many African men resort to suicide or abandon their families when they fail to cater for or protect their families, keep their wives from leaving them, or find themselves outshone or humiliated by peers. This has been exacerbated in the last two decades by decreasing employment/educational opportunities due to an unprecedented economic meltdown across Africa, perpetuated by grand corruption and mismanagement of public resources, rapid population growth, and dwindling resources. Where masculinity is associated with the capacity to provide and fend for families and households, men and boys are increasingly suffering an identity crisis. Many of them cope by resorting to risky and violent activities which revalidate them as males. To understand the rapid emergence of violent and self-destructive masculinities among poor men in Africa, one must therefore recognise the unmanning and victimising implications of poverty in the face of the unremitting construction of manliness in terms of power and the ability to provide for and defend ones’ family.
African men require help in myriad fronts. To me, the most critical help to offer to African men is to support them to clearly realise and accept that they are victims of cultural norms and need help. This realisation will empower them to resist the pressures to take risks, act violently towards women and their fellow men, abuse alcohol and other substances, neglect their health, repress homosexual feelings, conduct clandestine homosexual relationships, act uncivilly, engage in risky sexual behaviour, and kill themselves for failing to meet certain ideals of manliness. Currently, no or few programs exist in the continent to directly help men to understand how their gendered behaviours are at the heart of the harms they suffer. Helping men to know themselves and be able to engage with and peel through their own behaviours in the light of gendered cultural constructions is a logical complement to women’s health and children’s health, and an essential component of building a complete and inclusive health care system, achieving optimal overall health in the continent, and getting men to be true allies in the global struggle for gender equality. The world has everything to gain when men recognise the dynamics of, and lose the cultural chains that have confused and held them down for several millennia.
African Population and Health Research Centre