By Sunniva Haberg, AAYMCA Youth Advisor
The African YMCAs have a long history of working with Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) issues affecting young people on the continent. Different YMCAs have worked on the subjects of Violence Against Women (VAW), HIV/AIDS, STIs, pregnancy, family planning, youth-friendly services, stigmatization, Ebola, and similar topics for over 20 years. With a reach of around seven million people located in 17 African countries, the YMCA is one of the best equipped organizations on the continent to provide knowledge and services on SRHR to the youth. In addition to providing the youth with the tools they need to protect their SRHR, the YMCA also focuses on research as a means of understanding the needs of the youth, thereby being able to provide services in the areas most crucial.
In 2012, a study was carried out by the YMCAs of Togo, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Senegal, Madagascar and Liberia. The goal was to better understand health issues amongst the youth, and the results showed that SRH was the most neglected health issue amongst the 2,625 respondents of the study. More specifically, issues related to HIV/AIDS, stigmatization, low levels of information on SRH and access to medication were documented. The research was part of the health advocacy initiative ACT2LIVE, building a pool of over 400 young advocates giving attention to these health issues through peer-education and advocacy amongst local and national leaders.
Although the YMCA recognizes the importance of working with young women when it comes to SRHR related issues, our focus lies with young men. The YMCA takes the stand that the promotion of SRHR will not be fully effective without efforts to directly engage young men and boys as partners in these processes. First of all, the involvement of men makes sure to promote good health for the men and boys themselves. To tackle the often neglected issues of men’s SRHR, there is a need of male engagement in advocacy and civic action to promote SRHR. Further, the behaviors and attitudes of men and boys are also affecting women and girls health. Working with young men has a proven effect of direct benefits for other men, women and children. This is especially the case when it comes to issues of HIV/AIDS and STIs, family planning and violence against women. By leaving young men out of efforts to improve SRHR for women, one may fail to effectively challenge the circumstances that often control and limit women’s SRHR behavior and their access to services. Further, as many women empowerment programs previously have left men feeling disempowered and left behind, a focus on masculinity is necessary to promote male participation in wider gender debates as it makes gender relevant to men, making them partners, rather than opponents in the fight for equality.
To involve men in SRHR the YMCA use their Subject2Citizen (S2C) change philosophy, providing the youth with voice, space and the ability to influence for positive change, enabling them to change themselves, others and their communities. In many African countries masculinity is commonly associated with, and provided through dominance and control of women. This hegemonic view of masculinity is something which YMCAs around Africa is trying to change through Transformative Masculinity, an approach that targets young men and the dominant structures in which they live that disempower women and distort masculinity, intentionally working to re-define, re-order and re-orient youth masculinity. By engaging young men as the custodians of social and cultural norms the YMCA seeks to transform the hegemonic conception of manliness, making the young men better partners, friends and community members who take responsibility to stop VAW, and promote SRHR for themselves and their female counterparts. When it comes to VAW the perpetrators of such acts are mostly men. A transformed masculinity will enable men to better handle the social and economic challenges they face, and will at the same time make them better partners, friends and community members who take responsibility to stop VAW.
Through the project A Real Man Is, Africa Alliance of YMCAs seek to build transformative participation of men to prevent domestic violence, violence in the communities and harmful practices. To build a generation which will not be accustomed to violent behavior, there is a need for promoting and showing men how to become positive role-models for their children, which in turn decreases the chances that men become perpetrators of violence in the home themselves. It is necessary to look at what being a man entails, and how this is linked to the current state of gender equality. By challenging the hegemonic masculinity through dialogue, campaigning and role modelling, men can reflect on what it means being masculine and what their manliness consists of. Allowing room for more than one understanding of masculinity also gives space for men to be better partners, friends and community members in terms of working towards gender equality and to balance out the power structures in relations between men and women.
Men have a huge role to play in the family. As many previous interventions on family planning have focused on women, they have ignored the true reality behind family planning notably that the spacing and numbering of children rarely is up to the woman alone. Gender-related power dynamics have often meant that men have greater say in whether and when sex occurs and if a family planning method is used. They might make decisions on their partner’s behalf without taking into account the woman’s need, or take decisions based on a lack of or wrong information about reproductive health. Transformative Masculinity is challenging these gender relations, working for equity between the genders in such decision-making. The communication between genders will improve trough positive male engagement. Further, by including men in the process of family planning as positive contributors to the topic, one can dispel myths men might have about contraception, deepen their knowledge and as a consequence change their attitudes towards use of family planning. The concept SexManenoz, developed by AAYMCA and their SRHR exchange professionals, is a space where youth can come and learn about different SRHR aspects such as family planning in a non-judgmental way.
Results from the Africa Youth Trends in 2018 show that the biggest health concern among young people is consequences of early and unprotected sex, unwanted pregnancies, HIV/AIDS and STIs. Including men and boys in the prevention work on HIV/AIDS is important, as a growing body of evidence shows that it’s not only girls who lack access to information and testing when it comes to HIV, boys are also severely disadvantaged. Included in the expectation of being masculine, we find risk-taking such as having unprotected sex and several sex partners, which shows why it’s important to challenge gender norms concerning masculinity as well as reaching out to men and boys with information on how to protect yourself against HIV. By using the Power Spaces, YMCAs across Africa can provide safe spaces for young men and boys to come and get access to information on HIV/AIDS and what can be done to reduce the risk.
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a harmful practice where the external female genitalia is partially or totally removed, and it can also be other injuries to the genital organs of a girl or woman. Even though we know that the procedure has no known health benefits, and that it can be very harmful to the girl or woman who undergoes it, FGM is still practiced in 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East as well as in some communities in Asia, Eastern Europe and Central and South America. At least 200 million girls and women worldwide have been subjected to this practice. Although women are the ones undergoing the practice and undeniably the ones suffering the most, men are also affected by FGM. Men in relationships with cut women experience infections, challenges with vaginal penetration and also psychosexual problems. Men can play an active role in abandoning FGM by refusing to have their daughters undergo FGM and express their disapproval of the practice when looking for a partner. Often, men are the one making the decision on whether FGM should be practiced in their families or not. This underlines the importance of including men and boys when communities are sensitized on the harms of FGM and why the practice should be abandoned. When changing culturally rooted practices, one should adopt sensitive approaches. Advocacy by men from within the communities would be empowering and is an important step in changing attitudes on FGM.
We have a long way to go before everyone has full access to and control over their own SRHR, but by involving both young men and women in the process, we are taking steps in the right direction. Through the various programs on SRHR led by the African YMCAs, we give youth access to information and knowledge about their rights, so that they are enabled to change their realities and be safe and confident in their lives.