The month of June has come and gone – and I am left with some reflections. June is a month specially dedicated to educating men about the health risks they may face, how to prevent them, what symptoms to look out for, and where to get medical assistance. While this month normally, and very importantly, focuses on prostate and testicular cancer, other medical conditions also need to be highlighted.
As an example, we currently live with two dangerous pandemics – COVID-19 and HIV – which affect several millions of people globally. These two pandemics cannot be separated from gender dynamics, for obvious reasons. Whenever men get infected it becomes a burden on women’s and girls’ shoulders. It is a woman who is expected to provide care and support because of socialisation around care-giving responsibilities between men and women. Men are also socialised to be fearless and strong, leaving them vulnerable to these two pandemics.
Male behaviour during the pandemic also could be increasing their exposure to the novel Corona-virus. A Gallup poll taken between March 2 and 13 found that women were more concerned about COVID-19 than men were (by a 62 to 58 percent margin). “It’s possible that men are more at risk because they tend to expose themselves more to larger crowds and social exchanges, including things like handshaking and sporting events,” according to the poll. For other men, the issue is so much about attitude, as they are simply conditioned to think of health as not their concern. There is a need to send a message to all men and boys, that “it’s not about you only, but do it for those who love you,” the poll makers recommended. “Even if they feel like they’re in good shape and can fight it off, they can still be a carrier and can cause the death of their spouse or daughter or their dad.”
Men are notorious for not seeking health care when they ought to. A survey conducted in the UK in 2005 suggested that men develop attitudes that do not help safeguard and improve their health. They give priority to work and have a self image that encourages denial of illness. They do not like to discuss their health and fear the consequences of illness more than women do. In this day and age, the notion that it’s better to be ‘safe rather than sorry’ has never been more relevant and men need to be aware of the different tests and check lists they need to keep an eye on.
In 2013 a study was conducted on Masculinity and Men’s Health-Seeking Behaviours amongst Black/African men in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. This study presents a case of male health-seeking behaviour in the informal settlements of W Section Umlazi Township. The study demonstrates vital health related behaviours shaped by the dominant masculine identities that are socially constructed and support men to engage in heavy drinking, drug use and unprotected sexual activities with multiple concurrent partners. It indicates that how men view manhood in relation to the masculine dominant discourse has an implication on health care and facilitates delayed health-seeking tendencies or, even worse, not seeking health care until the very late stages of illness.
This awareness has left me deeply challenged in the work we do in promoting gender equality amongst men and boys and the transformation of masculinities. While working hard in achieving this goal, do we really do justice to our own bodies by living healthy life-styles? Do we educate men and boys or provide enough education to encourage them to take care of their bodies so that in turn they can be able to care for their children and partners? Do we really listen to men’s frustrations and provide support? I am having these questions simply because I believe that “you cannot pour from an empty vessel”. It is very difficult to expect men and boys to love and care for their loved ones if they have never experienced that feeling. I am not condoning any form of violence perpetrated by men and boys against women and children, but I am challenging us to evaluate some issues that may be neglected, and yet they are causing so much damage.
I have noticed male gender activists working so hard engaging community members through dialogues, workshops or seminars, but very seldom do you find them discussing their own personal challenges. Even if one of the male gender activists cries out for help we hardly listen and help the person find solutions. Male gender activists spend a lot of time travelling to reach every corner of society and, thus, compromise family time and proper rest. Do men challenge themselves to take care of their health and support each other if one of them is drowning? The answer is simply, No!
As men and boys we need to take care of our own health very seriously. As male gender activists we need not only establish support groups in communities. We need to also look inward and support one another within our little spaces as many of us go through a lot and we hardly have the time and space to reflect on our own challenges. Policies within our work environments exist, but policy without ongoing education and tangible support for its beneficiaries is insufficient.
Honouring one of our fallen heroes
In closing, let me take this opportunity to send my last respects to one of our own fallen heroes in this work – a former colleague, Mzwakhe Khumalo aka MK – whom we laid to rest at the beginning of July. MK played a huge role in fighting for justice at every opportunity he got. The love for his family was always evident as he would always mention his wife and son’s names most times we spent together. He was always vocal in raising his opinion without fear, while he was a voice for those who couldn’t speak up. Like all of us, he was not perfect, but he strived for perfection. I thank God for having given me time to share with the late MK, and I am proud of the contributions he made to various communities he served and the contributions he made to us as his colleagues.
May his soul rest in peace. The struggle continues. Go well brother Mtungwa, Mzilikazi kaMashobane!
Written by Vusi Cebekhulu
Social and Structural Drivers (SSD) Coordinator, Regional Programmes Unit
Edited by Khopotso Bodibe
Communications and Media Specialist, Regional Programmes Unit