Men and Sexual & Reproductive Health in Africa

IS it easier being a man or a woman?

DO masculine norms create challenges for men?

DOES working in male involvement mean less focus on women’s empowerment activities?

These are some of the questions that the Learning Centre Initiative (LCI) asked participants in recent workshops run by Sonke and its partners Planned Parenthood Association of Zambia (PPAZ) and Reproductive Health Uganda (RHU). The workshops served as capacity building and refresher trainings for staff at both organisations, which work on sexual and reproductive health (SRH) in their respective countries.

The overall objective of the Learning Centre Initiative is to increase male involvement in sexual and reproductive health and rights, and is a project run by the MenEngage Africa network, of which Sonke is a chair.

The first workshop took place at Lilayi Lodge, in Lusaka, Zambia from 20-22 February 2012 and the second at the Kolping Hotel in Hoima, Uganda from 28 February – 1 March 2012.

Each workshop consisted of about 30 participants of implementing staff, program managers, supervisors of the Learning Centre Initiative and partners of the Initiative.

The objectives of the workshops were as follows:

  • Ensure and deepen knowledge and understanding about Male Involvement and SRH, particularly in children and young people;
  • Strengthen understanding and support among key implementers and stakeholders;
  • Facilitate opportunities for participants to explore personal change on gender beliefs and behaviours;
  • Share experiences and emerging lessons on Male Involvement programming; and
  • Learn more about the LCI project and framework and integrate it into Male Involvement.

The facilitators took the participants on a journey through understanding and challenging their own ideas and values around gender, as related to women specifically and men specifically.

Questions, like the ones above, set the scene for the participants to start engaging critically with the work they do and to begin to interrogate how they work and why they do the work they do.

The workshop then progressed to looking at what we mean by male involvement in sexual and reproductive health and rights, and what are the difference between sexual rights and reproductive rights? We looked closely at why we should involve men and if there are any benefits for women when involving men in sexual and reproductive health.

What evolved was that men have their own particular gendered vulnerabilities which prevent them from accessing their own health care around sexual and reproductive health. This has a bearing on their own health and also on the health of their female partners.

Men taking responsibility for their own health has an effect on the health of their families as well. When men are empowered with knowledge instead of harmful notions of masculinity, they can provide more care, support and understanding to their families and develop more gender equitable relationships.

Participants were asked to think of a situation in their own lives when they were told to behave like a woman or a man and to share how they felt about this situation and what it was like for them. This exercise unearthed experiences of how both men and women are socialized and the different kinds of pressures and challenges that women and men experience due to these socializations and expectations.

The rest of the workshop focused on the Learning Centre Initiative conceptual framework which is based on three pillars: 1) men as users of sexual and reproductive health services; 2) men as equal partners; and 3) men as change agents. We first identified what we meant by each concept – users, equal partners and change agents. We interrogated these definitions and what they mean in the context of Zambia and Uganda and the work that PPAZ and RHU do.

We then looked at the specific challenges of getting men to use SRHR services, working with men to become more equitable partners and getting men to be change agents. Once we mapped out the challenges we were able to look at strategies to address these challenges and select key priorities to address them in the programmatic work.

Overall the workshops were a great success and participants expressed a deep appreciation for having an opportunity to sit together as an organisation and to reflect and interrogate the work they do. They were also happy to get more information on how they can further improve their work. Both workshops generated many ideas and challenges, but also, and most importantly, they generated strategies to move forward in engaging men and boys in sexual and reproductive health.

A special thank you goes to both organisations, Planned Parenthood Association of Zambia and Reproductive Health Uganda for organising and arranging such successful and positive spaces to engage with these issues.