Today, I’d like to talk with you about male engagement. This valuable aspect of gender equality isn’t always featured in conversations about empowering women. Sexual and reproductive health, for example, is often treated as a women’s issue and women’s sole responsibility. In too many places around the world, socio-cultural norms and beliefs support the practice of male partners and husbands’ having decision-making authority about health-seeking behavior for the women and children in their households. But these norms and beliefs also constrict men’s health-seeking behavior, often resulting in vulnerabilities and poor health outcomes.
As we at EnCompass and our colleagues at organizations like Promundo know, however, engaging men and boys is central in “getting to equal.” I’ve advocated for this a lot in my career, looking at gender-based violence issues like child marriage and intimate partner violence. A focus on women’s and girls’ empowerment is important, of course, but you can’t just focus on how unequal gender norms and dynamics disempower women and girls without thinking about how they also negatively affect men and boys. We need a synchronized approach. Male engagement is a pathway to gender transformation, holistic feminism, and ultimately, gender equality.
So many of my feminist colleagues have sons. We laugh together about this sometimes: Is this Karma? But, raising gender-equitable boys—boys who value and promote equality for girls and boys—is essential for the realization of inclusive and gender-transformative development. Our primary responsibility, as gender integration specialists and as parents, is to create a new generation that embraces gender equality. This is how we build a better world.
In the spirit of strengthening capacity to build a more equitable world, I’m glad to be able to share two new resources:
- Do’s and Don’ts for Engaging Men and Boys from the USAID Interagency Gender Working Group (IGWG)
- A technical brief, Engaging Men for Positive Maternal and Reproductive Health Outcomes in Ethiopia, from EnCompass’ work with the USAID Transform: Primary Health Care project
The IGWG’s “Do’s and Don’ts” for Male Engagement across Health Areas
I’ve been working with the IGWG for 20 years, and I was glad to see the reinvigoration of the Male Engagement Task Force over the past couple of years. I’ve been privileged to collaborate with people like Margaret Greene, Manisha Mehta, and Julie Pulerwitz, who classified the three roles central to men’s and boys’ engagement in the promotion of gender equality—as clients, as partners, and as allies.
Development of the Do’s and Don’ts tool was a collaborative process. I was part of a technical consultation meeting of male engagement experts and champions convened by the IGWG. We gave input on the draft tool, which was then shared at the Women Deliver conference in June 2019. We got excellent feedback from that gathering and released the final version earlier this year.
The Do’s and Don’ts tool points to how male engagement, when done right, can benefit everyone. Donors, implementing partners, and researchers, by following the do’s and don’ts, can support and stand up effective health sector programs and conduct research that provides lessons and best practices. The tool can also guide decision making on programs, policy, media coverage, research, and funding priorities.
In addition to the Do’s and Don’ts, we (the IGWG) have made many other male engagement resources available, from infographics to advocacy toolkits.
Male Engagement in Ethiopia’s Healthcare System
At EnCompass, we had an immediate opportunity to integrate the thinking from the IGWG Do’s and Don’ts in a health systems context in Ethiopia. The new technical brief, Engaging Men for Positive Maternal and Reproductive Health Outcomes, synthesizes our team’s gender analysis findings for the USAID Transform: Primary Health Care project. Given the findings on the role men play in family planning and antenatal care, we decided (with the prime partner, Pathfinder, and the Federal Ministry of Health) to compile the information and data about men’s engagement into a technical brief.
The brief draws on the IGWG Do’s and Don’ts, especially the section on family planning and antenatal care. It recommends a careful balance to ensure that engaging men in maternal and reproductive health benefits everyone and does not exacerbate harmful gender norms or put women at risk. This consideration is essential for supporting men’s needs as clients, partners, and agents of change in transformative ways.
The brief presents key findings that increase male support for contraceptive use and improved shared decision making:
- Providing men with information and counseling
- Training male and female community health workers to engage men during routine household visits
- Conducting men only education and behavior change communication sessions
- Deploying male role models as gender equality champions to carry out peer-to-peer outreach
To address the findings from our gender analysis, the project is adapting promising interventions and community-level work for Ethiopia’s health system. One intervention we are building from is Promundo’s Program P, which provides “concrete strategies to engage men in active fatherhood from prenatal care through delivery, childbirth, and their children’s early years.” Program P has been applied in multiple country contexts. It demonstrated strong impact and results in a 2018 randomized controlled trial in Rwanda. We have adapted the approach for Ethiopia and plan to begin a series of community dialogues once the global COVID-19 crisis is behind us.
I encourage you to read the technical brief for more ideas on how to engage men and boys as clients, partners, and agents of change.
Let’s start a dialogue: How is your organization engaging men and boys in health programs?
We are in a moment of renewed focus on women’s empowerment in global development. We have the chance to learn from the past and from best practices for engaging men and boys to ensure the work we do helps build a better world for all. As someone who has seen the transformative effects of male engagement firsthand, I want to make sure these lessons are shared widely. That’s the goal—to make sure we are addressing unequal norms and dynamics that affect the lives of all people. Men and boys can be supportive partners and effective allies in the larger social change we are working toward.
I invite all of you who are reading this article to let us know how you are applying the Do’s and Don’ts in your work. Tell us how you might apply ideas from the Transform: Primary Health Care project’s Male Engagement Technical Brief in your own programs, in Ethiopia or elsewhere. Please tweet us at @EnCompass_World or comment on the IGWG’s Facebook page and tag EnCompass LLC in your post.
Photo c/o Heran Demissie, USAID Transform: Primary Health Care project