Monday, July 20, 2009

The high price that men pay

THE achievement of fairer and more equal relations between men and women, boys and girls is still largely considered a women's issue in Nigeria as it is often assumed that women and girls stand to gain far more from gender equality. For sure, women and girls benefit tremendously from greater access to education, employment opportunities, and leadership positions and from freedom from physical violence and emotional abuse by their intimate partners. But it has now been well-established that children in particular and society as a whole benefit significantly from more equal gender relations in terms of general reduction of poverty, illness, premature death, and poor educational outcomes.

Moreover, it is becoming clearer that men can play a critical role in challenging and changing unequal gender power relations. And that they are more likely to do so when they fully realise the high price that they also pay when the rights of women and girls to equal opportunity, bodily integrity, and decision-making are not as affirmed, respected and protected as those of men and boys. In other words, there is a strong case for helping men to better appreciate the benefits that would accrue to them from avoiding and not contributing to the oppression and exploitation of women and girls. Three examples may be used to shed further light on this matter for the benefit of change-resistant men.

First, there are several economic and social costs to men when the culturally defined and enforced 'scripts' for females and males perpetuate men's domination and female subordination in the running of the home. These include poorer quality of decision-making around resource allocation that often results in larger holes in the man's pocket, needless waste from non-pooling of resources, and greater likelihood of passive or active resistance by the female partner to the man's income-earning or asset acquisition efforts. It is also the case that men's productivity is adversely affected by associated marital discord.

When men's domination of the domestic space extends to the emotional and physical abuse of their spouses, one immediate cost to them is often unhappy, resentful and educationally underperforming children. There is appreciable research evidence which shows that such children often turn out to be emotionally unbalanced and socially deformed young adults that regularly bring their fathers' highly cherished family names into disrepute.

Second, in the sphere of intimacy, the dominant gender ideologies in our society that support excessive male freedom and recklessness alongside extremely constrained female autonomy in sexual and reproductive matters also harm men. They do so by making men engage in disease-bearing and economically wasteful extramarital sexual activities as well as life-threatening delays in seeking sexual health care. They also increase the likelihood of men being at the receiving end of their spouses' hurt or fear-induced surreptitious activities like retaliatory infidelity and secretive use of contraceptives. These are acts that can be socially and psychologically costly to men.

Furthermore, when infertility is an issue within a marriage, the male superiority ideology tends to propel men into costly reactions such as outright refusal or irrational reluctance to seek and follow through with medical interventions. The undue pressure that is often put on women in such situations, when in fact the men are as likely as the women to be the source of the problem, means that a number of such women will secretly seek an 'external donor' solution to protect their emotional health and their spouses' bloated but fragile egos. What cost could be higher than this to the affected men when the truth invariably finds its way out?

Third, men also pay a high price for the persistence of the sharp contrast between the experiences of widows and widowers in Nigeria whereby the latter rarely go through trial by ordeal as prime suspects in the demise of their wives, or long confinement periods and physical abuse as part of mourning their deceased wives. These customary practices which no longer serve any useful purposes have been repeatedly shown to put the life chances of the children that men leave behind in great jeopardy.

Yet, a lot of men do next-to-nothing while alive to economically empower their wives, make child-specific investments, and oppose widow maltreatment. Since most men are highly concerned about their legacy, what better means could they deploy to protect this than to increase their wives' overall capacity to independently raise their children into productive and successful adulthood? It is after all, a demographic reality, due to biology and Nigerian men's tendency to marry much younger women that majority of them will die before their spouses.

Achieving gender equality is thus a societal responsibility that should fully command the attention of men and women. For the men who still do not see gender equality as being good for its own sake, they should remember that there are many avoidable costs to them from the continuing lack of progress towards this goal in Nigeria.