by Alexander Sanger
Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the launch of State of the World’s Fathers at the United Nations. The report, produced by the global alliance MenCare, provides an excellent overview of men’s roles within families, in the home, and in the health system. Above all, the report highlights the fact that advancing gender equality not only improves women’s lives but benefits men too–even when it means giving up some of their privileges.
The Cairo Conference in 1994, at which I spoke, recognized that men and fathers needed to be involved in the sexual and reproductive health arena. At the Beijing Conference in 1995, where I also spoke, I urged that men not be forgotten as we advanced the status and equality of women and that men’s needs be recognized. Now 20 years later, The State of the World’s Fathers Report recognizes that fathers and fatherhood matters – for men, for women and for children.
Men who are equal parents with mothers are happier, will live longer and their partners and children will be happier and live longer.
In our field, attention to boys and men–and the recognition that men have their own sexual and reproductive health needs–is often forgotten. Men and boys are also exposed to harmful perceptions of what it means to be a man, perceptions that have far-reaching consequences on their health and well-being–and the well-being of girls and women.
Involving men and boys in sexual and reproductive health and rights is a process that must begin early with quality comprehensive sexuality education programs. Unraveling entrenched discrimination is what sexuality education does best: these programs not only provide boys and teens with factual information about puberty and their bodies; they help unravel long-held norms and give boys a space to openly discuss the pressures they are facing.
My colleague recently had the opportunity to sit in on a comprehensive sexuality education lesson for boys. The instructor showed a cartoon of a man sitting in an easy chair surrounded by crying children. His wife was working furiously around him, a broom in one hand, a cooking pot in another and a diaper draped over her arm. “What’s wrong with this picture?” he asked the group. “The man should be paying more attention to his children,” answered one boy. Another said that he felt sorry for the woman because she had to do all the work. One boy quietly said that the picture made him uncomfortable because that’s the way things were in his house.
These types of programs unravel generations of entrenched discrimination and help boys create a different kind of life and future for themselves. Plus, studies show that sexuality education programs that emphasize gender equality and power dynamics are five times more likely to reduce sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies than programs that do not.
Sadly, the international community has not prioritized funding for services and education for men and boys despite the fact that in many settings, it is men that make the decisions around sex, pregnancy and reproductive health in general. In many countries where we work in Latin America, for example, women have to ask their husband’s permission to see the doctor or are forbidden altogether because their bodies “belong” to their husbands.
There are innovative ways to tackle this problem and ensure that sexual and reproductive health education continues throughout an individual’s lifetime. In El Salvador, for example, our local Member Association employs male health promoters in 82 rural communities to educate men about sexually transmitted infections and stop the country’s high rate of violence against women. And in our clinics in Colombia, trained counselors help couples navigate the complicated decisions around sexual and reproductive health–both with the goal of empowering the woman to make her own decisions and encouraging men to be supportive and participatory in the health of his partner.
It is well known that men seek fewer health services than women – perhaps that is one reason they die younger. Making women and men supportive of each other’s health decisions could lead to men seeking better health care. It is in men’s interests to be an equal partner in child rearing and consultations about their and their partner and children’s health, all the while respecting their partner’s autonomy.
But we still have a long way to go in ensuring that men play an active role not only in their own health, but the health of their families. As a man in the movement for sexual and reproductive health and rights, I know it will take each and every one of us- men and women alike- to achieve gender equality in our lifetimes.