Men and Development: Why gender should not just be about women

Last week I was asked to review a new book on gender and development. Since these things are usually turgid affairs, full of abstruse jargon (“registers of governmentality”, “idioms of sexualness” and “body reflexive practices” are just a few of the assaults on English perpetrated in this one) and nostalgia for the marxist utopias of yore, I was apprehensive. I envisaged long days of ploughing laboriously through paragraphs, trying heroically to decipher “essentially hetero-normative constructions”, “emergent rubrics”, and “positionalities”, and then having to pretend in my review that I’d both mastered this tangled tongue and maintained sufficient will to live to pass constructive comment on it.

But once you have hacked your way through the impenetrable forest of the introduction (which counts “decentring the traditionally unmarked male” and “normatively naturalizing potencies” among its most egregious language crimes), you emerge into a glade of sunny clarity. For Men and Development: Politicizing Masculinities is no ordinary gender book – reading it will give you a new perspective on the social problems of the developing world.

The idea that gender equality is important to development is not new – efforts to educate women and girls are among foreign aid’s few relatively uncontested success stories, and microfinance programs, the development fad du jour, also mostly target women. Men, however, have largely been overlooked by practitioners and policy-makers; reading Men and Development, you begin to see what catastrophic effects this has had.

The problem lies in the expectations society has of men. In West Africa, for example, men are expected to set up a home, marry at least one wife, and accumulate and provide for children and other dependents. Those who fail to perform these duties forfeit the respect of their elders, women and their peers; they cannot become “real men”.

When the breadwinner role becomes impossible to fulfil – as it did for millions of men across Africa during the economic crises of the 1980s and 1990s – men have other facets of masculinity on which to draw in order to recover their self-esteem. Some of these alternative masculinities are positive – think of the black South Africans who responded to economic emasculation by adopting the role of fighter against oppression and joining the liberation struggle.

But many traditional expressions of manliness are socially destructive. Physical violence is the most obvious of these. Economic insecurity, as one of the Men and Development authors Gary Barker notes in an earlier paper, can prompt men to turn to violence to reaffirm their power – many South African men have joined criminal gangs, for example, while domestic violence becomes more common as unemployment rises.

Alcohol and sex are other appurtenances of maleness whose allure increases when men are faced with threats to their masculinity. Sex is unproblematic by itself, but if manhood must be proven by sexual voracity or by demonstrating dominance through sexual violence, the effects on both men’s and women’s health can be severe. Linked to this is the man-as-risk-taker paradigm. Chimaraoke Izugbara and Jerry Okal’s chapter on Malawi shows how fear-mongering HIV prevention campaigns urging abstention from sex have often led to an increase in risky sexual behaviour (such as sex with multiple partners and without condoms), as men react to the challenge to their sexual potency – a marker of manliness in Malawi as elsewhere – by demonstrating their fearlessness (another important marker).

There is a danger when given a new hammer, of course, of treating everything you see as a nail – at the cinema last weekend I couldn’t help viewing The Artist as an extended meditation on masculinity, for instance – but Men and Development makes a convincing case for viewing social phenomena through a gender-tinted lens. In Africa alone, the spread of HIV, the Rwandan genocide, Sierra Leone’s seemingly pointless civil war, the rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria, and no doubt many other events and trends can at least in part be attributed to threatened masculinities; as men are disempowered economically, politically or socially, they resort to harmful expressions of maleness to restore their pride and reassert their power.

Masculinities are constructed and sustained at all levels of society, from the family to the state. To date, most work to engage men in confronting harmful gender norms has focused on individuals and communities on the ground. Workshops held by groups such as Promundo in Brazil and Sonke Gender Justice in South Africa, for example, have helped reduce domestic violence, dissuade boys and men from engaging in risky sexual practices, and encourage men to question the patriarchal assumptions in which their attitudes to women are rooted. These programs endeavour to provide participants with positive alternative masculinities – to value their role as carers for family members, or as active community members, or as advocates for social justice (including gender equality) – so that when they feel that one aspect of their manhood is menaced, they have constructive outlets to turn to in order to restore their equilibrium.

But the state has a responsibility, too. Legal and institutional changes can embed or trigger cultural shifts, but in many cases the latter exacerbate gender inequality by entrenching harmful masculinity norms. As Andrea Cornwall notes in Men and Development, for example, laws that oblige divorced men to pay alimony without also obliging them to provide child care cement the notion that men should be breadwinners above all else, and that women should take responsibility for caring. Microfinance programs’ targeting of women reinforces the idea of the reckless, irresponsible man who cannot be trusted to invest in his family. And the criminalisation of sex workers’ clients, itself based on a misleading perception that all such men are perverted or violent, perpetuates the stereotype of men as aggressors and women as helpless victims.

The UK’s recent threat to withhold aid from Ghana if the latter continues to trample on the rights of gay men stands out as a rare example of a government challenging a gender norm (accepting homosexuality requires an admission that not all men conform to the heterosexual stereotype). In the book’s closing chapter, Alan Greig argues that such measures must become widespread, and that institutions at national and international levels should be consistently held to account for how their actions legitimise male dominance and sustain gender inequality. As Men and Development eloquently shows, however, it is not just all levels of society that must be engaged, but all genders. Half of the developing world’s population has been neglected in gender policy; this book is a timely call for a rethink.