The symposium will be structured around short presentations and

‘Politicising Masculinities: Beyond the Personal’
An international symposium linking lessons from HIV, sexuality and reproductive health with
other areas for rethinking AIDS, gender and development; 15-18th October, 2007, Dakar
Margrethe Silberschmidt
Institute of Public Health, University of Copenhagen
A central premise of the gender and development discourse since the 1970’s has been the
way in which men exercise power over and dominate women, resulting in inequities,
discrimination, and the subordination of women. This has been documented over and over
in thousands of researches, reports and conferences etc. during the last three decades (cf.
Moghadam, 2005)1. Following this, and according to gender advocates, men have been the
main beneficiaries of development. This has led to stereotyped notions crystallised in the
general notion of men as the problem and women as the victim. While, virtually all the main
actors in international development subscribe to this basic premise (Correia and Bannon,
2007) – it has so far mainly been reflected in the gender and development discourse - in
particular in relation to the HIV/AIDS epidemic - and not in mainstream development.
However, while it is recognised that many men and boys are changing how they view
women, nonetheless, this change goes hand in hand with traditional gender hierarchies.
Many men – particularly young men – are accepting change – paradoxically, though - at the
same time hanging on to traditional views (ibid: 255).
Consequently, the time for men-streaming development has come whether it happens
directly within the gender and development model or through more indirect channels’ (ibid:
259). But, as also argued, if gender is to be reflected in mainstream development – it better be
without stereotyped notions of gender, and not by sidestepping the uncomfortable and
complex issues associated with changing gender relations between women and men. This
raises a number of questions. How to men-stream development? How to move men from
obstacles to collaborators? In short, how to motivate men for gender justice and broader
social change?
According to the above authors ‘The impetus to address men’s gender issues in development
is unlikely to come from the gender community. The political capital invested in gender in
terms of women and the mistrust and fear over male dominance will likely be too much to
overcome. And while interest in men’s issues will continue in specialised areas such as
HIV/AIDS and reproductive health, actions are likely to remain marginal and tentative.
‘although the claim that the majority of the world’s poor are women cannot be substantiated, the disadvantaged
position of women is incontestable …. ‘(Moghadam, 2005:32).
Rather, the interest, drive, and energy to address men as men will likely come from the
broader-based social development community with its focus on social exclusion and conflict
and violence prevention – or even the security sector in its quest to understand the root
causes of conflict, violence , and terrorism’ (ibid:259). That remains to be seen.
According to the IDS symposium rationale (2007), as work on men and masculinities in
development has failed to engage with efforts to change the institutions that sustain
inequitable gender and sex orders, there is a need ‘to generate new thinking, new alliances
and new possibilities for informing and inspiring a greater engagement by men in the
struggle for gender justice and broader social change’. This raises another set of questions,
first of all: are men interested in engaging in the struggle for gender justice and broader
social change? If not – what is needed then to motivate men? What about gender training
and gender balanced, men-inclusive approaches as suggested by Chant and Guttmann
(2000)? Or will men rather be motivated f. ex. through media campaigns, initiatives
addressing men’s needs and creative programmes (mostly in the fields of HIV/AIDS) along
with more men-friendly policies as suggested by Barker (2007) and Barker and Ricardo
(2005)2? However, such approaches, campaigns and programmes by international actors
seem to address individual behaviour change and are based on moralistic principles – as has
been seen in unsuccessful attempts to make halt to the HIV/AIDS epidemic (cf. Heald, 2002
and many more)3. Or will the answer be ‘gender mainstreaming funds’ which target men as
suggested by Correia and Bannon (2007:257)?
Based on my own research over the past 20 years I seriously doubt that poor, frustrated men
with no access to income generating activities, who are not respected by their wives because
of lack of financial support, who are blamed for their extramarital activities, and whose selfesteem and masculinity are at stake, would be interested in engaging in the struggle for
gender justice and broader social change. This would require profound personal
transformation. But what would really interest them is getting access to income generating
activities that would enable them to provide for their families (Silberschmidt, 2005, 2004,
2001). That requires much more than individual change, or institutional changes for that
matter. It is not enough only to address the ‘superstructures’. There is a need to address and
stabilise the economic base which, I shall argue (along with good old Marx4), is a
The following principles to promote gender equality are suggested by Barker and Ricardo (2005): 1. High degree
of self-reflection and spaces to rehearse new behaviour; 2. Constructing positive lessons out of the experience of
having witnessed or carried out violence; 3. Tapping into men’s sense of responsibility and positive engagement
as fathers; 4. Incorporating new information and ideals into rites of passage processes and traditions that
historically served as positive forms of social control; 5. Engaging families, peer groups and social networks to
promote more gender-equitable and non-violent versions of manhood; 6. Creating employment and
opportunities for schooling to reduce violence and conflict; 7. Mobilising communities around the immediate
vulnerabilities of young men.
3 ‘This increasing feminization of HIV/AIDS also stresses the need for policies and interventions to focus on
transforming gender roles and relations between males and females to support the deep-rooted behaviour change
necessary to stem the spread of HIV/AIDS. Males can become part of the solution to the pandemic by focusing on
their roles and responsibilities and actions they can take to reduce their own and their partners’ and families’ risk
of HIV/AIDS’ (World Bank, 2004).
4 According to Marx, inequalities between genders work to the disadvantage of both genders. However, he did
not believe in legislative measures to bring about equality. For Marx, economics are what constitute the base of all
of human life and history – generating division of labour, class struggle, and all the social institutions which are
supposed to maintain the status quo. Those social institutions constitute a superstructure built upon the base of
determinant in the last instance. And this is a much bigger and much more difficult issue –
which neither the international and donor community nor the broader-based social
development community with its focus on social exclusion and conflict and violence
prevention or even the security sector (cf. above) may be ready to embark on. Gender
equality will create development.5 Gender inequality, it is agreed, is a serious obstacle to
sustainable poverty reduction and socio-economic development. But perhaps it is the other
way around: the obstacle to gender equality is poverty and lack of socio-economic
Socio-economic transformation is difficult to achieve – it requires that ‘we break with
business as usual’ – (cf. Kofi Annan, 2005). Who is interested? On the other hand, what other
alternatives are there, when it is increasingly agreed that ‘The first prerequisite for being a
man is the ability to work and achieve financial independence’ (Correa and Bannon,
2007:246)? ‘Men’s social recognition, and their sense of manhood, suffers when they lack
work’ (Barker and Ricardo, 2005). And ‘economically unviable’ husbands feel emasculated
and are belittled by their wives (Cornwall, 2003). Work and access to income generating
activities give social value – and self esteem. No work and no cash result in lack of social
value, no self esteem – not to mention - no sex (Silberschmidt, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2007). While
the centrality of men’s income earning power in constructions of masculinity cannot be
emphasised enough –it should not be neglected that most notions of masculinity are closely
associated with virility, sexuality, potency, fertility and male honour. Consequently, and as
argued below, when men’s income earning powers are undermined, male sexuality, potency
and control over women seem to become central for masculinity (ibid). This offers new and
crucial insights into issues of gender and sexuality, and has extensive theoretical and policy
implications in terms of the HIV/AIDS epidemic (Silberschmidt, 2005).
In the following I shall first draw on research which attempts to understand men and
masculinities in Africa. Second, I shall draw on my own findings from East Africa (rural
Kenya, urban Tanzania (Dar es Salaam), and urban Uganda (Kampala)) which clearly
demonstrate the impact of poverty and lack of access to income generating activities on
masculinity and sexuality. It also demonstrates that personal transformation – even if it
could lead to personal benefits – is not a primary interest among men – whereas socioeconomic change and access to income generating activities is.
Reflections on Men, Masculinities, Gender and Poverty in Rural and Urban East Africa
In order to understand masculinities in Africa, Lahouchine and Morrell (2005) suggest three
steps: first, a geopolitical step which does not assume homogeneity or uniformity but in spite
of vast differences, diversity and inequality does recognise particular experiences of
colonialism and development that have had profound effect on the continent’s people; a
second step that involves theories of masculinities, identifies power inequalities among men,
economics, totally dependent upon material and economic realities but nothing else. All of the institutions which
are prominent in our daily lives – marriage, church, government, arts, etc. – can only be truly understood when
examined in relation to economic forces. The mismatch between the economic base and the superstructure is a
major source of social disruption and conflict.
5 Action for gender equality beyond the health sector is vital to meet not only MDG 3 (empowerment of women)
and 5 (improve maternal health) but all the MDGs (Simwaka et al. 2005).
and recognises that all men do not have the same amount of power, opportunities or life
trajectories; a third step that discusses and analyses gender in Africa.
The geopolitical step
Very few attempts have been made to analyse in gendered terms how the legacy of
colonialisation, globalisation and race have impacted on men’s lives, and produced complex
forms of male identity. As a result of the European colonisation of Africa, men and women
were confronted with collapsing traditional structures, the emergence of new unstable
situations, new social roles, contradicting norms and values, and economic hardship. While
research on women since the 1970s accumulated deep insights into the implications of socioeconomic change, poverty and increasing workloads for African women, similar insights on
men were not documented. In attempts to make African women’s work visible some
analyses slipped into representing African rural men as not doing very much at all
(Whitehead, 2000). Important observations, though, by Boserup (1980) that the change in
women's work has been less radical than that in men's work were never pursued.
Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, missionaries and labour recruiters were catalysts for
transforming men’s gendered relationships and identities. Missionaries and administrators
worked through churches, schools, and workplaces, propagating their own ideal of
domesticity and men’s place in households and marriages. As they intervened in politics,
religion, legal systems, agricultural regimes, and labour markets, European actors worked to
remake men. Of particular importance was when colonial administrators encouraged cash
cropping and labour migration. This had profound implications for gendered identities and
relationships, and men became less able to control their wives than previously (Cornwall,
2005; Lindsey and Miescher, 2003; Silberschmidt, 2001). The shaping of different colonial
subjectivities and the creation of the male breadwinner with men as financial providers in
their families overlooked the fact that when men were forced to migrate, when men’s areas
of responsibility were eliminated by the colonial powers, or when men’s economic
opportunities diminished, women became heads of household and earned money as well.
Men’s changed role – or lack of role - had strong impact on their masculinity, sexuality and
the relations between genders.
Theories of masculinities
Masculinity is composed of elements, identities and behaviours that are not always coherent.
They may be competing, contradictory, and mutually undermining, and may have multiple
and ambiguous meanings according to context, culture and time (Connell, 1995). Ideologies
of masculinity like those of femininity are culturally and historically constructed, their
meanings continually contested and always in the process of being renegotiated in the
context of existing power relations. While Western gender theories should be handled with
care and perhaps revised in order to understand gender relations and categories of men and
masculinity in Africa, all men do have access to the ‘patriarchal dividend’ i.e. the power that
being a man gives them to choose and exercise power over women and sometimes over
other men as well. Connell’s distinction (ibid) between hegemonic and subordinate
masculinities opens up for the possibility of examining subordinate masculinities and the
ways in which some men may experience stigmatisation and marginalisation. While in the
West, this examination has mainly focused on men stigmatised because of their sexual
orientation, in Africa the psychological and economic effects of colonialisation on men and
masculinity have occupied the centre stage. This has revealed that while men are the
beneficiaries where gender inequities exist, not all men benefit to the same degree – indeed
some men do not benefit at all. Many pay heavy costs for the general supremacy of men in a
patriarchal gender order and ignore their own vulnerability. Consequently, theories of
patriarchy - which tend to consign men to stereotypical gender roles (as victimisers and
exploiters of women) - ignore men as gendered subjects and are neither sensitive nor
appropriate tools for analysis. From a feminist point of view, and as mentioned above, the
assertion that men are also victims is accused of muting the power of the analysis of
women’s oppression.
Gender in present Africa
While colonialism had gendered implications and has been perceived as an assault on
African masculinity, African women and men were not simply subjects created by colonial
gender discourse. They were actively engaged in reconfiguring their own identities.
However, the contradictions that emerged during the colonial era between the realities of
women’s contributions to household provisioning and the inability of most men to sustain
dependent wives still continues today. Therefore, defining gender roles and relations in
terms of notions of patriarchy or the different functions that men and women fulfil in
response to gender norms and expectations, fails to recognise the complexity, constant
changing and negotiated nature of contemporary gender roles and relations.
As my own research reveals, poverty in most rural and urban contexts is massive and has
caused economic hardship for both men and women. Both the rural and urban settings – in
spite of fundamental differences – were characterised by the same main features: poverty,
social instability, unemployment, lack of access to income – not to mention deteriorating
sexual and reproductive health. The majority of the inhabitants in the urban areas lived in
low income/slum areas, cramped conditions and little privacy, and with inadequate access to
basic facilities. Men were expected to be the providers of the needs of the household,
however only a few had regular income, and even if they had, all complained that it was far
from enough to support their family. The majority of women referred to themselves as
housewives with no income – though many were involved in petty trade.
Lack of husbands’ economic support, extramarital partners (by women and men), mistrust,
and conflicts, lack of respect as well as lack of dialogue between genders were common
features. Communication was mainly through quarrelling because of men’s lack of economic
support: ’Men do not support their families’, ‘men do not care about their children’, ‘men
cannot be trusted’, ‘all men have two heads, when one of them is working the other is
switched off’. Men were constantly confronted with their inability to provide for the
household. They were bitter and would in turn argue ‘women marry money – not a person’.
Thus, structurally subordinate, women have aggressively responded to the challenges of
economic hardship. In this process, they have started to challenge men, their social value,
and their position as heads of household. This is a serious threat to a man’s honour,
reputation and masculinity, and conflicts of interests embedded in gender relations become
more visible. Although the main axis of patriarchal power is still the overall subordination of
women, the material conditions have often undermined the normative order of patriarchy.
With a majority of men being left with a patriarchal ideology bereft of its legitimising
activities, men’s authority has come under threat and so have their identity, and sense of
self-esteem. For patriarchy does not mean that men have only privileges. Men also have
many responsibilities. The key and the irony of the patriarchal system reside precisely in the
fact that male authority has a material base while male responsibility is normatively
constituted. This has made men’s roles and identities confusing and contradictory
(Silberschmidt, 2001).
However, persisting patriarchal structures and stereotyped notions of gender hide the
increasing disempowerment of many men in both rural and urban contexts (ibid). Caught
between discursive domains that create variant images of masculinity, from responsible
provider to insatiable lover, becoming a man is fraught with complications. Accused by
wives of being useless and passed over by girlfriends for lacking the economic potency to
satisfy them, men find themselves in a position of diminishing control (Silberschmidt, 2005;
Lindsey and Miescher, 2003; Silberschmidt, 2001). With the close link between masculinity
and sexuality, male identity and self-esteem seem to have become increasingly linked to
sexuality and sexual manifestations – often acted out in violence and sexual aggressiveness.
Consequently, multi partnered/extra-marital and casual sexual relations often seem to
become fundamental to a process of restoring male self-esteem (Silberschmidt, 2005, 2001).
My interviews with both young as well as older men indicate that a man's need for
sexual/extramarital partners is particularly urgent 'when a man has lost control over his
household and is humiliated by his wife', and 'when a man's ego has been hurt'. Then 'he
needs peace on his mind'; 'he needs to be comforted'. An extramarital partner is like a spare
tire, men argue. Alcohol consumption has become a major activity and also a major problem.
Men increasingly seek psychiatric help. Advertisements in the local newspapers offer to
assist men not only with problems of depressions but also with problems of impotence.
Drawing on Kopytoff’s distinction (1990) between existential and role-based identities sheds
light on the link between different types of male identities. According to Kopytoff, some
identities are based on what a person is (= existential identity), others are based on what a
person does (farmer/craftsman = role-based identity). Some of these identities are negotiable –
others are not (ibid, 1990:80). The existentially based identity is composed of features that are
intrinsic, or ‘immanent’ in a cultural definition of what it is to be male or female- and not
negotiable. The existential identity indicates a state of being rather than of doing. It is
difficult to renegotiate, relatively immutable, and surrounded by strong sanctions that
punish deviant behaviour. In contrast, features of role-based identity may be negotiated and
the identities themselves relinquished with no sanctions. Following these distinctions, a
man’s identity is closely linked to his (culturally defined) sexuality: it is an immanent
(inherent) feature of his existential identity that cannot be negotiated.
Keeping in mind the above arguments that first, the first prerequisite for being a man is the
ability to work and achieve financial independence, and second, men’s social recognition,
and their sense of manhood suffer when they lack work my research findings strongly point
to the fact than when men are not able to develop new role-based identities and with male
sexual activity generating categories of masculinity the need for men to pursue their
existential identities seems to have become essential to their self-esteem. Kopytoff’s
distinction between role-based and existential identities provides an operational tool that
permits one to identify change and the impact of change on role-based and existential
identities. It also clarifies why male sexual activity is so important, and why greater
emphasis is placed on sexual relations and even risky behaviour.
Thus the fact that many men experience an undermining of their social roles does not
necessarily undermine existing hegemonic forms of masculinity or power relations. When
men’s material base is eroded (as argued above) many men resort to other measures to
establish their authority. For instance by developing masculinist discourses that reject
alternative potentially egalitarian understandings of masculinity (Morrell, 2001:126). Thus,
by developing masculinist discourses, by being sexually aggressive and violent may
represent a way to regain control of women – and to regain a kind of authority. This attempt
to regain control of women seems to run counter to the promotion of gender equality and
women’s empowerment – in fact, it seems to constitute a serious barrier. Men draw on their
‘traditional’ privileges to attempt to perpetuate their dominance over women or to
compensate for their loss of authority by engaging in multiple sexual relationships. Will
these men be interested in more gender justice? Or rather, what would it take to motivate
disempowered men for gender justice?
My research in EA and in particular my recent research in Kampala and Dar es Salaam
underline the close link between male identity and male sexuality. The implications of men’s
changing roles, changing gender relations and the link between male identity and sexuality
have so far been overlooked in development approaches including efforts to control the
AIDS epidemic. Based on my research I would venture to suggest that economic
disempowerment of men seems to encourage men to prioritise sexual empowerment –
including sexual risk taking in order to gain self esteem and cement that they are real men.
Sexual achievements – increasingly assisted by potency drugs along with sexual satisfaction
strongly preside over considerations of dangers of HIV infection
Summing up, the emerging studies of men and masculinities contribute to an understanding
of how African masculinities, African male bodies, subjectivities, and experiences are
constituted in specific historical, cultural and social contexts. They also underline that
African masculinities are not uniform and monolithic, and most importantly, that masculine
behaviour in Africa is not static. Some studies even suggest the possible emergence of new,
perhaps less violent and less oppressive ways of being masculine (Lahouchine and Morrell,
2005). Other studies, though, have observed that while many men – particularly young men
– are accepting change - at the same time hanging on to traditional views (cf. above).
Conclusion: How to Break with ‘Business as Usual’?
According to Shepard (1996:14) ‘If men are not educated to recognise the key role of
homophobia and misogyny in their own socialisation, they will not have the intellectual or
emotional resources to confront the social pressures that will inevitably besiege them as they
begin to abandon traditional male sexual patterns’. This argument raises the question if men
can really be educated to change existing behaviour pattern and abandon existing privileges?
While – as mentioned above - individual transformation can empower people to take control
of their lives, their sexualities, even their identities, and this can lead to individual benefits,
such benefits are often short-lived and cannot survive the intrusion of material differences in
power, access to money etc. The longer term answers need to include socio-economic
transformation but this is difficult to achieve (Epstein et al. 2004). On the other hand, there is
a dialogic relation between the two in the sense that individual transformation is shaped by
socio-economic processes and relations of power - and socio-economic transformation can
and does take place through actions of individuals (ibid).
As suggested in this Symposium Rationale (2007) there is a need to politicise masculininties –
and to go beyond the personal. The remaining question is how to operationalise this? As
argued above - such changes will not be initiated in the gender community (which does not
have the tools nor the interest). It can rather be expected that the interest, drive, and energy
to address men as men is likely to come from the broader-based social development
community with its focus on social exclusion and conflict and violence prevention – or even
the security sector (Correia and Bannon, 2007:259). But will such interest, drive, and energy
be able to create socio-economic change?
A much more sophisticated gender analysis is suggested in order for men to be included
(ibid:xviii, my underlining). However, by using the term including I shall argue that Correia
and Bannon miss the point. The issue is not about including men – the issue is about making
men (and women) active actors in the development process. This raises the question if
gender equality and broader social and also economic change should rather be seen in the
context of economic growth and globalisation strategies? 6
According to Juma (2006), and in the case of Africa, there is a need to reinvent growth:
namely through technological innovation and economic renewal - or Africa will be
completely outside the globalisation process and outside global partnership for development
(cf. millennium goal No. 8). The promotion of science and technology and technological
learning explains the success of many countries f. ex. in Asia, and should be seen as a way to
meet human welfare needs.
Marx may be outdated – but in order to create gender equality, equal opportunities for men
and women and to let both genders take part in development - there is an urgent need to
address and stabilise the economic base in the least developed countries where lack of
income generating activities, technology, infrastructure etc. etc. abound. This, I shall argue, is
the only way to create socio-economic change, structural change and in the wake of that
gender equality. But without international and national political will and leadership this will
not happen.
The (male) workforce is there (though not interested in engaging in traditional female activities)! But how to rely
on men who are accused of being lazy (contested by Whitehead, 2000)? Men, who are, in general, faced with
much less time constraints than women? Recent studies in time use by the genders, though, give a more nuanced
picture. In Sub-Saharan Africa not only women but certainly also men do engage in a number of both productive
and reproductive activities. But time studies reveal that women spend more time than men at work particularly
when their inputs in non-productive activities, namely domestic and care work, are included (Blackden and
Wodon, 2006:18). Is this very different from the gender division of labour in the western world?
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