The emerging identity crisis of men and boys

The Chronicle

Andile Tshuma, Correspondent
THE loss of traditional masculine traits and lack of new models of masculinity has been identified by some as a growing concern in society and has brought multiple mental health challenges that many men are dealing with silently.

Zimbabwe hasn’t been spared. Lately, we have a whole community that has rejected a female chief because it is unnatural, however, a whole Chiefs’ Council has endorsed the installation of a female chief, yet traditional leadership has always been associated with patriarchy. This endorsement by the chiefs’ council is a step towards the right direction on achieving gender equality.

However, as we expect men to embrace equality and the new ways of doing things, what efforts are being made to ensure that men are taken on a journey of unlearning the old and negative traits that they have been passed down across generations as the handbook of being a man 101? What still happens at all those initiation ceremonies? Are men being taught differently now in their new place in this fast changing world that is becoming more equal?

Some studies are suggesting that some men are increasingly facing mental health challenges as they are struggling with identity issues and the need to redefine their purpose in life, at home and elsewhere, where the typical image of the man as a provider, a breadwinner, a protector, is being phased out.

Gender equality is still often considered a “women’s issue” as in the past, gender issues and gender equality policies have been contextualised mainly as a women’s issue.

Gender equality, however, is the responsibility of all individuals and it has increasingly been acknowledged that men and boys are also inextricably involved with gender issues and that they have an important role in efforts to achieve equality. Moreover, it is widely believed that progress towards gender equality will stimulate positive transformations in the lives of both women and men resulting in a better society.

Behavioural prescriptions on men are double-edged. On one hand, they are expected to be strong, and firm, but they are also expected to be gentle and sensitive.

When we challenge and overcome all stereotypes that oppress the girl child, we create an environment where both the girl and the boy child thrive. Society should not have to do a whole men and boys empowerment journey in the next 50 or so years.

There are always going to be two sides of any gender empowerment effort. We should not only challenge the systems, norms and practices that constrain women, we must also challenge any system or norm that prescribes men to certain codes of conduct and behaviour in which they don’t thrive, slowing down the overall gender equality progress.

Unfortunately, there is still a long way to go to achieve full equality of rights and opportunities between men and women, according to UN Women. Therefore, it is of paramount importance to end the multiple forms of gender violence and secure equal access to quality education and health, economic resources and participation in political life for both women and girls and men and boys. It is also essential to achieve equal opportunities in access to employment and to positions of leadership and decision-making at all levels.

While focus on women has been very important, some of the representations of men in the media, including in Zimbabwe, have been grossly negative and inaccurate. (Monsters do exist, yes, but we should celebrate the good men too).

The United Nations and African Union

Continuous negative portrayal of men in the media, along with the feminisation of men and loss of fatherhood in society, has caused confusion and frustration in younger generation males as they do not have a specific role model and are less able to define their role in society.

The issue of the male identity is of crucial importance because males are falling behind in school, committing more suicides and crimes, dying younger and being treated for mental health conditions more than females.

Equality should not translate to weakening the other. Feminism should not just be inspiring to men, it should be active and necessary. In this matter, men have not and cannot be left behind — women are waiting for all men to decide to arrive.

The socialisation of boys to embrace a narrow set of ideas and behaviours restricts their ability to experience the fullness of humanity. The “weak” characteristics identified with females are stifled in boys, and those emotions and behaviours are the best of being human: gentle, loving, compassionate, empathic and interdependent. Our society teaches boys that their value is when they are in control, have power and engage with the world in an aggressive way.

The unprepared boy child will grow to become one of the many men who fall prey to the false idea that they should be “tough enough” to fix all their problems on their own. This toxic masculinity is associated with a lot of mental health stigma towards men. Also, the macho attitude, where men see depression or sadness as a sign of weakness, and a lack of personal fortitude, doesn’t make it any better.

Clearly, this is an outdated way of thinking, as we live in a dynamic and challenging social world where men are no more equipped to deal with the challenges than women are. We need each other!

This means that empowering the girl child and not leaving the boy child behind requires the participation of both men as individuals and of society at large. Men must welcome a shift in their thinking so that they can coexist and thrive with the empowered girl child.

In a post-industrial era of economic, technological and social change, research shows mass media are projecting and propagating new images of male identity from Atlas Syndrome workaholics and “deadbeat dads” to “metrosexuals” and men with “a feminine side”, with potentially significant social implications.

With calls for gender equality, it seems as though many men are failing to claim their place in the home, and everywhere else. Spaces are being created for women to excel but no one is bothering to help men to be ready to flourish in an equal world. As we choose to challenge gender stereotypes against women every day, we must also choose to challenge practices that do not equip the boy-child with the right thinking for thriving in the world where the girl-child thrives.

Article Source: The Chronicle

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