The Missing Part In The Empowerment Project: Men's Empowerment - SACAP
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The Missing Part in The Empowerment Project: Men’s Empowerment

Jun 29, 2023 | By Erick Kabongo
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Current debates on Empowerment tend to be one-sided, mostly only focusing on women empowerment. Without doubt, women empowerment is important. However, empowerment without men empowerment is incomplete. The following article will cover:

  • Men’s problems and their impact on men, women and children.
  • Men need empowerment just as much as women do.
  • Men’s and women’s empowerment are not mutually exclusive.
  • What is meant by men’s empowerment?
  • Men’s empowerment benefits everyone.

Two important dates are celebrated in South Africa this month: Father’s Day and Youth Day. Father’s Day often symbolizes a celebration of heroic fathers whereas Youth Day is linked to the struggle for freedom by the Youth during the 1976 youth uprising. When it comes to Fatherhood, this term carries different meanings for different people. These meanings also inform how many people celebrate Father’s Day. For some, Father’s Day means going in and out of shops to choose a gift that will symbolize their affection and expression of love toward their fathers. However, for many in South Africa, Father’s Day is a reminder of memories we wish to forget or feelings we wish we did not experience because the idea of a father has become associated with abuse and abandonment. This shows that not everyone who grew up with either a biological or social father figure has experienced them as positive role models.

Fatherhood and the Youth in South Africa

For both biological and social fathers (e.g., uncles, older brothers, and members of the extended family) who function as role models to young children, being called a father is sometimes too much of a burden to carry that they constantly question their fitness to be called fathers (Langa, 2020). Despite the presence of social fathers, the absence or lack of involvement of a biological figure often leaves us with wounds and unresolved feelings of what it could have been like to grow up with a biological father. It is evident that the legacy of apartheid has impacted many people’s experiences with their biological fathers. Some of these challenges include not having a present, active and positive father as most fathers had to travel far away from home to work in the mines, leaving the responsibility of raising children to mothers and other family members. Recent studies have shown that fathers, even though labelled as absent, often take their role as fathers seriously (Morrell, Dunkle, Ibragimov & Jewkes, 2016). They often try to be present in their children’s life. However, more work still needs to be done to involve more fathers and help them overcome financial, cultural and structural barriers that make their involvement challenging.

Regarding the youth, the challenge for our younger generation is twofold in that not only are we running the risk of perpetuating the legacy of biological absent fatherhood, but also that of exposing our children to negative role models. The numerous challenges faced by young men in society today often place them at risk of giving up and falling into the trap of perpetuating a cycle of absent and uninvolved fatherhood. This is especially so considering the increase in confusing, contradictory and demeaning messages about what it means to be a man and a father today (Garcia, 2008). We are grateful for the struggles our fathers and mothers went through and the sacrifices they made to earn us the freedom that we are enjoying today in the democratic South Africa. However, despite being born free, many young people today still feel chained and oppressed by various social issues such as unemployment, drugs, violence, and identity crisis, among many issues. All these challenges, and those that will be discussed below, point to the need for boys and men’s empowerment. As a professional, I work with boys in a school setting in South Africa. This is in line with my passion for researching and working with boys and men. Without doubt, challenges faced by our youth today do not only affect boys but girls too. However, in this article I would like to focus on boys and men and their vulnerability in the face of challenges related to the threat of fatherlessness, negative role modelling and the state of men and the youth today both in South African and globally. In this article I argue that Empowerment is incomplete without boys and men’s empowerment. I will show how failing to empower boys and men harms our society as a whole, and what I mean by empowerment, specifically men’s empowerment. In the last section of this article, I will tentatively suggest broad areas that might be considered as part of empowering men. To be brief, I will use the term men to refer to both boys and men and their empowerment.

Men’s Problems and Their Impact on Men, Women, And Children.

Boys and men have been overrepresented in a variety of psychological and social problems which affect not only boys themselves by girls, women, children and the broader society. These include an overrepresentation of boys among children with learning difficulties (e.g., lower standardized test scores), and behaviour problems (e.g., bullying, school suspensions, and aggression). There are more men in prisons compared to women. In addition, men are more likely to commit violent crimes, and are at greater risk of being victims of a violent crime (e.g., homicide, and aggravated assault). Furthermore, pressure to conform to certain norms and notions of being a man have contributed to boys and men’s reluctance to seek psychological help and mental health treatment even when it is needed. This has contributed to a high suicide rate among men, with men being four times more likely than women to die of suicide worldwide (DeLeo et al., 2013, as cited in APA, 2018). In South Africa, of the approximately 13, 774 reported cases of people who died from suicide in 2019, 10,861 (about 78.8%) were men (Ngwenya & Sumbane, 2022). These are often linked to mental health issues. Other risk factors include alcohol use, substance use, unsafe sexual practices, diet, lack of physical exercises, violence and stressful events (Ngwenya & Sumbane, 2022). These issues may have also bee exarcebated by Covid-19 due to the lockdown and loss of jobs that resulted from it. Stigma around help-seeking has also contributed to men not seeking help even when they need it. Overall, a global decline in mental health among the youth has also been reported and South Africa is not exempt from this reality (World Health Organisation, 2021). Despite these reports, there is limited data on the mental health of men in South Africa, with most statistics being either outdated, or framing the prevalence of mental health issues in generic terms. Moreover, in South Africa, just as in other countries, mental health services are often not adequate in catering to men’s needs (Herman et al., 2009; Ngwenya & Sumbane, 2022).

Furthermore, the pervasiveness of violence in our society, especially Gender-based violence committed for the most part by men against women and children has had a devastating impact on families, communities and society at large (Graaff & Heinecken, 2017). For example, studies on violence in South Africa have highlighted the role of socialization in contributing to a culture and normalization of violence (Graff & Heineken, 2017; Ratele, 2016). Moreover, boys and men often have a higher death rate than women and girls, which is 40% higher for men than women (Hoyart & Xu, 2012, as cited in APA, 2018; Ngwenya & Sumbane, 2022). This is despite men having higher socioeconomic advantages than women. Debates on issues faced by men have also highlighted how men are legging behind in terms of their achievement in school, overall education, and their work participation (Garcia, 2009; Kahloon, 2023). In South Africa young people between the ages of 15 and 34 experience underemployment at higher rates than older people (Stats SA, 2023). All these challenges cannot be left unattended and require us to take decisive actions in empowering boys and men for the sake of all. The interactions between men’s multiple identities and complex diverse economic, biological, developmental, psychological and sociocultural factors impact on men’s health and wellbeing and require immediate action that should form part of initiatives toward men’s empowerment.

What is Meant by Men’s Empowerment?

The Oxford dictionary defines the term to “empower” as to encourage and support the ability to do something, or give someone more control over their own life or the situation they are in (Oxford University Press, 2023). The different issues faced by boys and men today can often strip them off of the power and control over their life. Rappaport (1987) understands empowerment as a process of becoming able or allowed to do something. Both definitions above highlight the importance and process of creating an enabling environment that will facilitate a sense of ownership, accountability, and empowerment. Therefore, creating an environment where men take back control over their lives and use this to improve their relationship with themselves, other women, children and the broader society is crucial.

Men Need Empowerment Just as Much as Women Do

As mentioned above, challenges faced by men in today’s society clearly point to the need for men’s empowerment. The idea of empowering men might not fit in with current debates on gender that often focus on women empowerment. Women and girls’ empowerment are very important as studies have pointed out how our societal systems have contributed to the marginalization of women in society (Spicer, Flood, Gardiner, Pease, & Pringle, 2007). However, men need empowerment just as much as women do. Studies on masculinities have shown how men are positioned differently as either marginalized, complicit, or as part of the hegemony (popular and dominant ideas about being a man) at different times and in different contexts (Ratele, 2016). The positions occupied by men are often influenced by their race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, level of education, religion and sexual orientation just to mention a few. As a result, men’s positionality, and the intersectionality of the different aspects of their identities often lead to either marginalization or privilege. Moreover, the prevalent narratives around absent fathers and negative versions of manhood also run the risk of further contributing to the marginalization of a group or groups of individuals (men) often perceived as powerful or dominant in society.

Men’s Empowerment Benefits Everyone

Empowering both women and men is crucial as our common humanity makes us relational beings. We relate to ourselves, others and our environment and changes in one aspect of the relationship (e.g., women empowerment) impact how men and women relate to each other. Issues faced by men both in South Africa and around the world, discussed above, such as violence perpetrated by men, fatherlessness, high rates of suicide, depression, trauma, unemployment and death through accidents and other violent ways have affected both women, children and communities where affected men live (APA, 2018; Graff & Heinecken, 2017, Ngwenya & Sumbane, 2022; Richter & Morrell, 2006). Empowering men has the potential to reverse these issues and improve both the lives of men and other people with whom they are related. However, neglecting the needs of our men and boys based on the assumption that they are beneficiary of patriarchy runs the risk of leaving them behind, perpetuating some of the issues we are currently facing, and further contributing to their disempowerment.

When empowered, men are able to lead healthy lives, positively impact, and are present and active in the lives of their children, other members of their families and communities (Heartlines, 2020; Sonke Gender Justice, 2018). Empowered men also contribute to the eradication of violence against children and women by promoting positive and healthy forms of masculinity (Sonke Gender Justice, 2018; Wilkinson, n.d). Furthermore, empowering men will also help address issues such as a predominantly negative one-dimensional way of understanding men’s experiences, changes in family, marriage, work partly due to technological advancements and home (e.g., migration and globalization), and gender relations (between men and women).

Men’s and Women’s Empowerment Are Not Mutually Exclusive

Furthermore, men and women empowerment should not be mutually exclusive as empowering both men and women based on challenges they are faced with, will ultimately benefit everyone in society. For example, women empowerment will benefit men in that it allows women to have a voice and power to actively participate in society and their uniqueness be acknowledged (Spicer et al., 2007). Recognizing women as equal to men, promoting and facilitating their participation in various spheres of society is important in contributing to the wellbeing of all members of society. On the other hand, men empowerment will benefit women in that it will reduce the pressure that men often experience in terms of gender roles performance, create a space where men are able to engage with wounds from the past that are still negatively impacting their relationship with themselves and others, current stresses and pressures of daily living and allow each man’s uniqueness to be acknowledged and celebrated as part of their identity in the modern world. This might ultimately contribute to creating a society with more healthier men who will contribute to the building of a healthier society.

However, even though men’s empowerment is just as necessary as women empowerment and requires our immediate attention, men empowerment might not look the same as women empowerment. In addition, because of the diversity in experiences and challenges faced by men across different contexts, not all men will present with the same challenges.

What Men’s Empowerment Might Look Like

Various aspects can be considered in efforts to facilitate the empowerment of boys and men. To identity these we need to ask: how do we nurture in boys and men positive characteristics and create an environment that is conducive to their empowerment? In other words, what would men and boys’ empowerment look like? This is a difficult question to answer. However, based on my experience as a man and my engagement with literature on boys and men and experiences working with boys, I have identified certain broad areas that can guide us in our efforts towards empowering boys and men. These include aspects of boys and men’s identities, healing and health, work, purpose and meaning, and relationships. These aspects are not mutually exclusive but rather interconnected and influence each other in how they impact men and those around them. In the section below, I comment on these aspects and why I believe they are important.

1. Identity

Numerous articles and books have been written on men. I have had the privilege to read and engage with some of these. One of the fundamental questions that most of them try to answer is “What does it mean to be a man today?”. The numerous suggestions provided in these books and academic journals often highlight important aspects to consider in understanding men’s identities. At the same time, the numerous voices also highlight contradictions that often lead to confusion about what exactly it means to be a man. There is therefore a need to reconcile these contradictions and find a way to use these voices to assist men in addressing fundamental questions related to being a man today. These efforts need to take into account the uniqueness of each man and the unique context in which men live. Whereas negative conceptualizations of one’s identity or identities pose a risk to society, positive and healthy ways of defining one’s identity can contribute meaningfully to how men relate to themselves and others such as women, children and other men (Graff & Heinecken, 2017). For example, using violence and aggression to define one’s identity places women, children and other men at risk, whereas positive and healthy ways of understanding our masculine identities such as compassion, responsibility and using strengths to build others are beneficial to all.

2. Healing and health promotion

The father wound has negatively impacted many men. Addressing past trauma and psychological issues that have risen from broken family environments is crucial to ensuring that men adopt new and health ways of engaging with the world. In addition, it is important to identify health needs that men have, study their health seeking habits and adapt and tailor health services to these needs. This is crucial to encouraging men to seek help without feeling the need to resort to destructive and unhealthy ways of addressing their problem such as violence, and using alcohol and drugs to numb their pain.

3. Work

Men’s ability to provide for their family is often central to their sense of identity, purpose and meaning in life (Heartlines, 2020). Whereas it is crucial to encourage men to break from some detrimental traditional gender roles and ideologies, it is equally important to help men adapt to the new demands of the work place. This is especially important considering the shift in the nature of work from manual to desktop and remote working. Helping men develop new skills for the 21st century workplace and adapt to the use of technology as part of work is important.

4. Interpersonal relationships

Addressing issues related to men’s healthy and a positive sense of identity, promoting their healing and health and work needs all have the potential to improve their relationships as fathers, husbands and partners, workers, colleagues and responsible citizen; their interpersonal relationships.

Finally, you might ask, why use the men empowerment concept? This concept gives us a framework to look at the work we do with men. It also allows us to have a tool to assess the interventions we implement by asking the following questions: how does what we do contribute to the empowerment of men based on the definition of empowerment provided above? What evidence do we have to establish this?

The idea of men empowerment is still just a concept under development and requires refinements and improvement. I hope this article will start a conversation on how we can empower men as we empower women to face the challenges of modern society, while at the same time addressing the negative impact of our common past.

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