It Takes Two to Tango: Men as Partners in Sexual and Reproductive Health
It can be tempting to see sexual and reproductive health (SRH) as a “women’s issue”. After all, women go through pregnancy, not men. Women are typically seen as being responsible for family planning. And since caring for children is still viewed as women’s traditional domain, they often shoulder a heavier burden in the event of contraceptive failure. However, the impact of men on reproductive health is now seen as a critical factor in improving health for everyone.
Women’s (Almost) Equality
Globally, issues of women’s rights continue to be discussed and debated. A total of 185 countries – more than 90% of UN membership – are party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). It is the most recognized international treaty on gender discrimination; however, many countries have not ratified critical articles of the Convention, or have failed to enforce laws which, at least in theory, put men and women on equal footing.
"States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the field of health care in order to ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women, access to health care services, including those related to family planning."
- Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)
The troubling fact remains – in many places, women still struggle for gender equality. The result is that many women are not free to control and protect their own sexual and reproductive health. In these places, even small steps, such as asking a partner to use condoms or asking a doctor for an STI test, can have serious consequences for women. In some situations, the mere act of taking responsibility for one’s sexual and reproductive health can result in a woman being seen as unfaithful or too sexually available, putting her at risk of ostracism or even abuse. When men control women’s access to sexual and reproductive health services, even women who want to take advantage of them may be unable to do so.
Traditional Ideals of Masculinity
In situations where women’s rights are not a consideration, assertions of traditional masculine ideals can quickly become abuses of power. In some countries, women may be unable to access life-saving medical care if their husbands refuse to let them go to the hospital, infringing on women’s basic rights to mobility and health. During conflicts, women are often specifically targeted and subjected to sexual violence.
The United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) has found that at least one in three women has been “beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused” in her lifetime, most often by someone she knows. In its State of the World Population 2005 report, the United Nations Population Fund found that “[a]bout one in four women is abused during pregnancy, which endangers both mother and child.” These actions do not merely represent infringements on women’s basic rights. They demonstrate that when women’s rights are threatened, so too are women’s lives.
"Men play a key role in bringing about gender equality since, in most societies, men exercise preponderant power in nearly every sphere of life, ranging from personal decisions regarding the size of families to the policy and programme decisions taken at all levels of Government. It is essential to improve communication between men and women on issues of sexuality and reproductive health, and the understanding of their joint responsibilities, so that men and women are equal partners in public and private life."
- ICPD Programme of Action
Rigid conceptions of masculinity are dangerous for the women who exist alongside them, and are little better for the men pushed to conform to them. When men are encouraged to seek out sex with multiple partners, while women are discouraged from developing an understanding of sexual and reproductive health, the penalty is high for everyone. Lost productivity and unnecessary healthcare expenses from preventable problems are only the beginning of the social costs incurred. While women’s empowerment remains a vital tool for development, the reality is that men have equal motivation and responsibility to promote sexual and reproductive health – and gender equality. More choices mean greater freedom for women and for men. Luckily, recent steps to integrate men as partners in sexual and reproductive health have proven highly effective.
A Healthy Alternative
When men are involved in sexual and reproductive health decisions and education, the results are both stronger and more sustainable. When men are involved in prenatal education, prenatal care visits increase and perinatal mortality rates decrease significantly. Those men are also more knowledgeable about family planning, and have a better understanding of their partner’s nutritional needs during pregnancy. Men’s knowledge of reproductive health issues and of the process of labour also makes it easier for women to access emergency obstetric care, if needed; men who are aware of potential problems are more likely to ensure that their partners receive necessary care. As a result, the health of women – and of their newborn children – improves.
Engaging men as partners can also have a significant impact on the spread of STIs and HIV/AIDS. In developing countries, high-mobility jobs, such as truck drivers, are largely filled by men. Those drivers who pay for sex en route can facilitate the spread of HIV/AIDS between communities along trucking routes. Safer sex programs designed to reduce the spread of disease by targeting female sex workers may fail if women are not in a position to negotiate for safer sex. However, safer sex programs that aim to help male truck drivers recognize the health risks of unprotected sex – both to themselves and others – can have a substantial impact in reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS.
A New Conversation
"Gender equality, and the social transformation it implies, is most likely to be achieved when men recognize that the lives of men and women are interdependent and that the empowerment of women benefits everyone."
- UNFPA State of the World Population 2005
In the end, the most important tool may be engaging men in the discourse on gender equality. An understanding of women as equals who deserve to be healthy, safe and independent is critical to promoting reproductive rights. Experiences from some Latin American countries, where education on reproductive health and gender equality has been instituted in the military, have also shown that engaging men can have benefits for everyone, and can even spill over into wider civilian society. Programs that aim to involve men in dialogue on gender equality and reproductive rights have demonstrated results in the form of increased respect for female co-workers, changes in gender stereotypes, improved relationships between fathers and adolescent children, greater support for women’s reproductive rights, and increased demand for condoms.
While the needs of women should never be disregarded in favour of bringing men into the fold, reproductive health problems cannot be solved by addressing half of the equation. Recognizing the responsibilities men have in safeguarding the health of themselves and their partners is crucial to ensure that everyone's reproductive health needs are met.