“Women point their fingers at men and say, ‘We are willing to use family planning, but these people prevent us from doing so.” Emmanuel Sabakati has heard this lament often while counseling couples on family planning. Sabakati is a project director of a program in Malawi, designed to address the critical role of men in family planning.
Family planning and reproductive health programs around the world are increasingly recognizing that men are an important audience for their services. Not only do men have reproductive health concerns of their own, but their behaviors affect women’s reproductive health. This issue was brought to the attention globally when The Programs of Action of both the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo and the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing recognized the role of men in reproductive health and highlighted the need to develop more programs that reach men with reproductive health information and services.
While far-reaching in scope, the core of the ICPD was recognition that a sustainable world was not about numbers, but about people, and that all people, particularly women, must have access to reproductive health. This worldwide consensus recognized that achieving universal access to reproductive health is critical for individual health, family well-being, economic development and a healthy planet.
What has Changed
According to the State of World Population 2007 report by the UNFPA it shows that men are concerned for women’s reproductive health, and are willing to participate in making decisions. The problem may be the communication: husband and wife may want the same thing, but they don’t tell each other. The result can be a bigger family than either really wanted. Husband and wife communication about reproductive health, including family planning, has been improving over the past few decades, the report notes. However, a large minority of men still consider sexual and reproductive health to be exclusively women’s concern – so they don’t discuss it.
Worse, men often impede women’s efforts at family planning, as the women in Sabakati’s program charge. Dr Everald Hosein co-ordinates the University of the West Indies’ Caribbean Population and Family Health Programming in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. He says that almost every method of contraception a woman might choose can be opposed by her partner for one reason or another. For example, some men complain that condoms and intra-uterine devices interfere with their sexual pleasure. In many cultures, misunderstandings and myths about female sexuality and reproductive systems persist – though there are indications that male attitudes towards a range of taboos (including concerns about menstruation and ‘cleanliness’) are changing.
Boys and men should be taught about responsible sexuality and the importance of their involvement. Well one way is a “Male participation policy” which is the articulation of principles acknowledging gender inequities and stating the need to involve men in overcoming them to improve health. A high level commitment of this kind can be implemented across various sectors.