Engaging men & boys

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Overview

Gender equality cannot be achieved without the involvement of men and boys. But change is slowly taking place, and men are increasingly working alongside women to support gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.

Today, it is widely recognized that improving women’s status and advancing their rights yields benefits for whole societies, not just women and girls. Ensuring access to sexual and reproductive health services and protection from gender-based violence, among other important measures, improves the health of families and the economic well-being of entire communities.

UNFPA works with men and boys around the world to advance gender equality – with benefits for all. These programmes are encouraging men and boys to abandon harmful stereotypes, embrace respectful, healthy relationships, and support the human rights of all people, everywhere.

Partnerships are a must

Gender equality requires partnership between women and men. Men often wield enormous power over many aspects of women’s lives, as heads of state and government ministers, as leaders of religious and faith-based institutions, as judges, as heads of militaries and militias, as village leaders, or indeed as husbands and fathers.

It is also often men who control access to reproductive health information and services, finances, transportation and other resources. And too often, it is men alone who make decisions about sexual relationships, the timing and frequency of sexual activity, and the use of contraceptives. Some men even impose these choices through coercion or violence.

At the same time, young men and boys are future partners, community members and leaders – reaching them with programmes that promote gender-equitable attitudes and behaviours is key to ensuring the future is free of gender-based discrimination.

Men advocate for girls' rights at a rally in Liberia. ©UN Photo/Emmanuel Tobey

Growing interest in gender equality

Clearly, men need to be involved if gender equality is to be achieved and reproductive health programmes are to succeed. Research also shows that men want to be involved, and that many welcome the idea of mutually satisfying relationships built on trust and communication. UNFPA’s work in the field also shows that male leaders can become valuable allies in addressing reproductive health issues, from maternal mortality to violence against women. Evidence also shows that young men are more receptive than their older counterparts to greater equality. 

To this end, many UNFPA programmes seek to increase men and boys’ involvement in new initiatives that promote gender equity, equality and women’s empowerment. They aim to increase men’s comfort with seeing themselves as responsible, caring, and non-violent partners. They also recognize the diversity of men’s reproductive and sexual health needs, including those of young men, and those who are economically deprived or displaced.

Getting to the root of the problem

Effective programmes also recognize that gender roles and relations are intertwined with cultural, religious, economic, political and social circumstances. They are based on the idea that gender relations are not static and can be changed. 

Ideas about manhood are deeply ingrained. From an early age, boys may be socialized into gender roles designed to keep men in power and in control. Many are conditioned to believe that dominant behaviour towards girls and women is part of being a man.

Risk-taking and aggressive sexual behaviour on the part of young men are often applauded by peers and condoned by society on some level. These stereotypes result in harm to both women and men, and erode possibilities of establishing satisfying, mutually respectful relationships. Boys and young men can be encouraged to reflect upon and discuss issues surrounding masculinity, relationships and sexuality, which can contribute to the deconstruction of negative, high-risk and sometimes harmful attitudes.

What UNFPA is doing

Many UNFPA-supported projects emphasize men’s role in reproductive health. Various projects target different groups of men – from soldiers to religious leaders – to achieve different goals, from HIV prevention to greater male involvement in family life. For instance, UNFPA is working with male adolescents and youth to question current stereotypes about masculinity and risk-taking behaviour (especially sexual behaviour) and to promote their understanding of and support for women’s rights and gender equality.

UNFPA also engages men and boys on the issue of gender-based violence. In 2013, UNFPA worked with religious leaders and civil society partners in Afghanistan on preventing gender-based violence. In Belize, UNFPA supported the training of police officers to better respond to the issue. UNFPA also supported a travelling campaign of men against gender-based violence in Malawi. Also in 2013, UNFPA supported comprehensive sexuality education for boys in Samoa and the Solomon Islands, aiming to promote respectful relationships and healthy choices based on principles of gender equality and reproductive rights.

UNFPA offices around the world, including in Cambodia, Liberia and Niger, are also engaging men to support sexual and reproductive health and rights, including safe motherhood initiatives, family planning and HIV prevention. In Albania, for example, UNFPA and partners supported the development of a National Plan for the Involvement of Men of Boys, which will be used in promoting gender equality issues.

And for decades, UNFPA has worked with the military sector to reach out to large numbers of men with information, education and services on family life and family planning. This experience is now being applied to a wider spectrum of reproductive and sexual health concerns, including maternal health, HIV prevention and the reduction of gender-based violence.