Why Male Involvement Should Be a National Priority
Gender equality promotes health and development. A growing body of research shows how working with men and boys to promote sexual and reproductive health contributes to favorable health and development outcomes. The evidence is clear that “leaving men and boys out of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) approaches is a “recipe for failure.” Unless men are actively engaged in empowering women and supporting better health and well-being for their families, progress will remain slow, use of reproductive health services will remain poor, and men will remain confined to traditional masculine norms.
Yet, even with the multitude of programs aimed at addressing gender and power dynamics, progress toward engaging men has stagnated. Men still lack sufficient knowledge about the social, economic, and health benefits of becoming involved in SRHR. While some do not consider it a priority, many barely understand their roles in promoting their own reproductive health and those of their spouses and children. A recent study in Uganda demonstrated that men will not use or encourage their spouses to use contraception because they believe their use causes side effects, increases out-of-pocket spending on health, and leads to extramarital sex.
We know what the components of successful programs for men and boys are: They should navigate through men’s fears, recognize the primacy of women’s oppression, address boys and young men through education and government policies; and use the language of responsibility rather than blame. While these are important, a huge policy and advocacy gap remains. We have recorded more successes in all aspects except ensuring that the right kind of policy and legal frameworks are developed and implemented to encourage men’s involvement in sexual and reproductive health.
With negotiations on the SDGs and ICPD+20 ongoing or recently completed, what better time than now to reflect on our strategies—especially how we invest financial, material, and human resources toward gender equity?
Currently, political backing for male involvement is demonstrated by a lack of opposition rather than by any specific support. Several government policy documents mention men, and offer opportunities for male involvement – but very few specifically address engaging men in sexual and reproductive health in a comprehensive, holistic, and sustainable manner.
Weak or absent national and subnational policies, strategies, frameworks or plans to involve men in sexual and reproductive health suggest weak country-level leadership. They also justify the absence of budgets as well as the absence of implementation, monitoring or accountability mechanisms to fund, track, and evaluate male involvement strategies. This is problematic because consensus is now emerging that to change societal gender norms, male involvement must be embedded in public policy. Countries must pass and enforce laws, and make funding for engaging men and boys in sexual and reproductive health a policy priority.
There are some signs of hope. The government of Uganda has taken an initial step in this direction with its launch of a national male involvement strategy. While it is too early to know what it will yield, it marks a key milestone in efforts to make engaging men in sexual and reproductive health a national priority.
The development and launch of a strategy is not an end in and of itself. However, with a strategy now in place, civil society has advocacy entry points to hold policymakers accountable for how the strategy will be operationalized to counteract patriarchal norms that are detrimental to women’s rights and access to sexual and reproductive health services.
We need more governments to step up. Scale-up is key to making significant and sustained progress on engaging men, and this can only be achieved through structural and policy development or changes at the national and subnational levels. With sustained advocacy at the country level combined with the cooperation of multilaterals, bilaterals, INGOs, and the private sector, the international community can constructively and intentionally support countries to create and implement targeted male involvement policies, legal frameworks and initiatives
To advance gender equity, improve national outcomes around sexual and reproductive health—and achieve the broader sustainable development agenda, policymakers must stop paying lip service to male-involvement and provide the political and financial investments needed to make it a reality.