Women cannot achieve gender equality and sexual and reproductive health without the cooperation and participation of men. It is men who usually decide on the number and variety of sexual relationships, timing and frequency of sexual activity and use of contraceptives, sometimes through coercion or violence. The 'feminization' of the AIDS pandemic is a sad reminder that in many places women do not have the power to protect their own health.
Men – as community, political or religious leaders – often control access to reproductive health information and services, finances, transportation and other resources. As heads of state and government ministers, as leaders of religious and faith-based institutions, as judges, as heads of armies and other agencies of force, as village heads, or indeed as husbands and fathers, men often wield enormous power over many aspects of women’s lives.
Clearly, men need to be involved if gender equality is to be achieved and reproductive health programmes are to succeed. Some research shows that men also 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, when presented with relevant data, can become valuable allies in addressing reproductive health issues, from maternal mortality to violence against women.
Towards this end, many UNFPA programmes seek to increase men’s sense of ownership over 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.
Effective programmes also recognize that gender roles and relations are dependent on social contexts in which cultural, religious, economic, political and social circumstances are intertwined. 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 grow up 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. These stereotypes result in harm to both women and men, and erode possibilities of establishing satisfying, mutually respectful relationships. Ideally boys and young men can be encouraged to reflect upon and discuss issues surrounding masculinity, relationships and sexuality. This can contribute to the deconstruction of negative, high-risk and sometimes harmful attitudes.
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:
In many countries UNFPA is involved with working with boys, male adolescents and youth on sexuality, family life and life skills education to question current stereotypes about masculinity, male risk-taking behaviour (especially sexual behaviour) and to promote their understanding of and support for women’s rights and gender equality.
In the Dominican Republic, barbers were the conduit for getting messages about prevention of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections to almost half a million men.
A project in the Philippines targeted an educational campaign about reproductive health issues to men, who are often the gatekeepers to their wives’ access to health services. Seminars and workshops gave men a chance to talk more openly about sensitive issues with their partners.
In Uganda, UNFPA has successfully partnered with male opinion leader leaders in the country’s complex culture – including elders, kings, bishops and imams – to promote healthier behaviours and end harmful traditional practices.
For decades, UNFPA has worked with the military sector to reach out to 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/AIDS prevention and reduction of gender-based violence.