The Other Half

On November 24th, 2009, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon announced the launch of the Network of Men Leaders. This Network comprises 14 influential male thought leaders—from politics to the arts—who agreed to use their influence to motivate other men to take up the fight against violence against women.

The formation of The Network of Men Leaders represents a formal, international assertion that men must be involved in the struggle to end gender-based violence—that real equality will require a shift in attitude among men.

I've seen what can happen when you bring men into the conversation about women’s rights and health—just as I’ve seen what happens when you don’t. During the course of my career, I’ve become increasingly convinced that men must be part of the equation.

Growing up and living for many years in Latin America, I was always aware of the glaring inequities between those who can and cannot access health care—social distinctions rooted in gender and economic status. Determined to do something about this, I trained as a pediatrician and neonatologist and practiced medicine in impoverished communities. I quickly realized that to have healthy children we must have healthy mothers: Ensuring that women everywhere can make decisions about their own health and lives thus became my life’s mission.

I was in Mexico as a young activist in the late 1970s, and for 20 years I collaborated on initiatives to improve women’s health and save lives. At the time, abortion was illegal in Mexico, and women—especially rural, poor women—were often isolated from the health care system. Maternal mortality rates were high, domestic violence was the norm, and unsafe abortion common.

Why? There are many reasons. In Mexico, as in much of the world, the reality was—and is—that men hold the balance of power in most intimate relationships. And their decision making greatly impacts women’s health (among other aspects of their lives)—decisions like when to seek medical attention during pregnancy, or whether or not to use a condom or other contraception. We realized that progressive policy changes and better health care wouldn’t be enough unless men’s attitudes began to change, too.

In 1998, my organization piloted a program called Men As Partners® (MAP) in South Africa. There, where the twin epidemics of HIV and violence against women are intertwined, we recognized that HIV prevention programs targeting women would have limited impact unless accompanied by changes in men’s attitudes and behaviors. So we began engaging men through grassroots efforts that challenge traditional gender stereotypes, mobilize them to forswear violence, and enable them to become advocates of reproductive health for themselves and their partners.

Part of our approach includes holding a series of interactive workshops for men in a variety of settings: their workplaces, religious spaces, community halls, prisons, military bases, and youth clubs. Sometimes, women and girls are also included in these workshops in which participants explore through role plays and other activities their own perspectives on gender and power dynamics. Also critical to the program’s success are local and national public education campaigns that promote positive male involvement in reproductive health, using murals, street theater, rallies, and mass media.

Since its origins, this program has been adopted in more than 20 countries. By no means is the work done, but the seeds of change are being sown.

I’ve encountered both women and men whose lives have been transformed by the program. From India to Tanzania, I’ve heard stories of women who say that after attending a MAP workshop, their husbands agreed to wear a condom for the first time, or be tested for HIV, or who now accompany them on visits to the doctor for prenatal care.

And there are men like Nyambu Albert—a serviceman with the National Youth Service of Kenya, who used to have numerous sexual partners and “never thought my girlfriend had any sexual rights…since I assumed that she should comply with my demands.” Albert became a transformed man and expressed relief after participating in MAP workshops. He told us that his life changed; he completely reversed his attitude toward relationships, made a personal commitment to one partner, proposed to her, and agreed to be tested for HIV. Stories like these speak volumes about how men can—and must—be advocates for equality. Many men want to change, if given the chance to see a different vision of masculinity.

Others are taking up the charge. Earlier this spring, the first-ever global symposium devoted exclusively to engaging men in achieving gender equality was held in Rio de Janeiro, drawing 450 advocates, experts, and leaders from more than 50 countries—further evidence that the movement is growing.

Building on this momentum, we must be bold. Change in men’s attitudes and behavior toward women and a new understanding of what it means to be a man are possible and can make a difference. And we must mobilize women, too—to safeguard their own health, to be educators in their own community, and to continue leading the way to equality.

Good news came out of United Nations last month. Let’s hope it’s just the beginning.