These are portions of the mission statements of four of the largest and most important actors within the international sexual and reproductive health and rights movement:
UK Department for International Development (DFID): “We believe we should give girls and women the ability to choose whether and when to have children and how many children to have, and we need to make sure pregnancy and child birth are safe.”
FP2020: “Family Planning 2020 (FP2020) is a global partnership that supports the rights of women and girls to decide, freely, and for themselves, whether, when, and how many children they want to have.”
United States Agency for International Development (USAID): “Enabling couples to determine whether, when and how often to have children is vital to safe motherhood and healthy families.”
International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF): “IPPF strives for a world in which all women, men and young people have access to the sexual and reproductive health information and services they need.”
I’ve included these statements to illustrate an important but often overlooked key population—men and boys. USAID’s is the first to mention the idea of needing to address the reproductive health needs of the couple. But only IPPF specifically addresses the fact that men (and boys) have sexual and reproductive health needs of their own.
Recently, MenEngage hosted a stakeholder meeting to discuss the state of the sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) field and where engaging men and boys fits into current and future work. One of the most compelling points made at that meeting was the fact that working with men and boys is largely considered an add-on to current programming. There continues to be resistance to investing in comprehensive SRHR programming that includes men and boys.
There is no question that women and girls around the world are still at a disadvantage, particularly when it comes to decision-making around fertility. No one is calling for less attention or focus on the SRHR needs of women and girls. However, we cannot ignore the reality that men and boys have sexual and reproductive health needs of their own. In addition, we cannot ignore the fact that an individual’s sexual and reproductive health is influenced and affected by that of their partner. By leaving men and boys out of the equation, we are not only detracting from their reproductive health, but also that of their female partners.
Programs and policies surrounding reproductive health should strive to fulfill the health and rights of men and women, individually and as couples. This also means incorporating gender transformative approaches—approaches that seek to change gender relations and promote equity as a way to achieve good health outcomes—that enable men and boys to be supportive partners.
In order to effectively address issues of interpersonal communication, healthy relationships, knowledge of sexual and reproductive health, and positive gender norms, we need to reach young adolescents. There is currently limited information about the health and knowledge of young adolescents (ages 10-14). However, evidence from the United States and Europe demonstrates the critical nature of this stage of life in determining future health outcomes.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Cameroon, I tried to tackle some of these issues by hosting a summer camp for youth (ages 8-19) in my village specifically related to sexual and reproductive health. One of the most eye-opening experiences was separating the boys and girls to teach about reproductive anatomy. Most of these adolescents, especially the girls, had no idea about their own bodies, how they change during puberty, or the biology of how sex leads to pregnancy. After the boys and girls had learned about their own anatomy separately, we brought them back together to share what they had learned and ask questions.
I often think back to my experiences teaching during that summer camp—especially when I consistently only hear references to the SRHR needs of women and girls. Had I simply organized a summer camp for girls around sexual and reproductive health, the lives of those girls might have changed marginally. I knew I needed the boys in the room as well to give them more knowledge and the open space to discuss what it means for men and women to be partners in sex, in their families, and in their communities.
The conversation of engaging men and boys needs to continue at the global, country, and village level. As discussions around the post-2015 development agenda continue, now is the perfect time to begin thinking through what we mean by universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights. It cannot be about women and girls alone, and we cannot continue to leave men and boys at the margins.