To the frontpage
spacer spacer spacer

Men make a difference


Male lack of self-esteem plays an important role in the spread of AIDS in Africa. Anthropologist Margrethe Silberschmidt's research in Southern Africa shows that many men no longer feel that they are heads of their families and therefore try to boost their masculinity by having sex with many partners. FORUM talks to the researcher who believes that it's high time efforts are made to understand men and involve them in the fight against AIDS.

FORUM/June 2001 The masculinity of many especially poor men in Kenya and Tanzania is under pressure. Many have lost their land and their cattle; they are unemployed or have low or insufficient salaries and cannot fulfill their role as providers for their families. They have lost their social value and women do not respect them. In other words, their masculinity is under threat. What then, do they do?

- They compensate by increased, often aggressive sexual activity and casual sex. They have unprotected sex and the result is that sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) including HIV/AIDS are spreading at an alarming rate, says Margrethe Silberschmidt, social anthropologist at the Department of Women and Gender in Medicine at the University of Copenhagen.

The most recent statistics from UNAIDS show that more than 25 million people in Southern Africa are infected with HIV. This is a veritable bomb beneath all development initiatives and at the moment more than 24, million children in Africa are growing up without their parents. Men are not solely to blame, but they bear a great responsibility for this development.

- We can't just call them culprits. They are active agents, just like women. However, at the same they are victims. Just like women. Victims of the massive socio-economic upheavals brought about by colonialism says Margrethe Silberschmidt, who has worked with the role of men in African society for more than 10 years, based on field studies in Tanzania and Kenya.

Margrethe Silberschmidt is one of the first social anthropologists who has undertaken research into how the situation for men in Kenya and Tanzania has changed during the 20th century and interpreted the consequences of these changes in the way in which they express their masculinity. She has been given the name "groundbreaker" and is often quoted internationally because she already started emphasising the paradoxical situation of men in the early 1990s:

- On one hand men are acknowledged heads of households with absolute authority over their wives and children. On the other hand they cannot live up to the expectations connected with this role at all, says Margrethe Silberschmidt.
- For many years poor women have been helped by many necessary and good projects that aim to empower them. On one hand women often do not have any rights. On the other they often have sole responsibility for their children and household because their husbands have distanced themselves from bearing any economic responsibility for their families. If other projects were initiated to improve the lot of poor men, men would not be the only beneficiaries. Women would benefit as well.

It is, in Margrethe Silberschmidts opinion, at least worth a try, because based on her research no man in Africa has as his conscious wish to become what he is often described as, namely lazy, drunk and irresponsible.

Her message is that is important to bear the changing role of men in mind when you want to create development. It is essential to acknowledge the mechanisms behind the way men act, or do not act, in order to influence men in a constructive manner.

These are not ideas conjured up within the confines of her office at the University of Copenhagen's Panum Institute, where most of her desk and floor space is covered with reports, statistics and articles. In the beginning of the 1980s she undertook a research project on women and family planning in the Kisii District in western Kenya and it was as early as that she starting thinking about how in involve men. She had just received her degree from the Institute of Ethnography and Social Anthropology from University of Århus but had worked with 3rd World issues for several years prior to that.

In 1964 she completed her training as trilingual secretary and got a job as a secretary with a Danish Red Cross hospital in the former Congo. The job was almost taken when she applied for it but she was so insistent that she eventually got it. She simply had to experience the country she had heard so much about from stories passed down in her family by her paternal grandfather, who had been on an expedition down the River Congo.

While in the Congo, Margrethe Silberschmidt met a Swiss doctor. They married, lived in the USA for a while, travelled around the world and eventually settled in Geneva and had children. In 1970 her husband received a research fellowship at Aarhus University and the whole family moved to Denmark, where she started studying anthropology, inspired by her many travels.

- My grandfather was an adventure-seeking young man who most probably did not question the consequences of his expedition in the Congo. I am quite analytical myself and very conscious of the disparity between the industrialised world and developing world and the part that our part of the world plays in that. As a researcher I don't think that I am perceived of as a new kind of colonial master. I think that this is rather a categorisation that development workers risk. One might say that development aid approaches a new kind of imperialism. We want to determine what is good for them, even though nowadays there is much talk about partnership.

When she received her degree she got involved with a research project at the Centre for Development Research (CDR) in Copenhagen. This was the project in Kenya's Kisii district and Margrethe Silberschmidt travelled to various villages and talked to women about contraception, sex habits and health.

In order to get women to talk, she always asked the men to leave, but time and again she experienced that the men inundated her with questions before she left the village. What did she ask the women about? Why didn't she arrange meetings with them?

- Which I then proceeded to do. They were very interested but not very well informed. Women are generally much more informed about health and reproductive health matters. Since they have the babies, they are the ones that go to the health clinics, where they receive information, says Margrethe Silberschmidt.

Many men in Kisii District expressed that they could see that it was sensible to use contraception:
- Particularly for their neighbours. They did not approve of their own women using contraception, because then they could go to bed with whom ever they liked and have loose morals.

In the opinion of village women, men were very dominating and with very few exceptions social structures were patriarchal. However, Margrethe Silberschmidt concluded in her CDR report that men were not just dominant they were also disempowered. During colonialism many men had migrated to areas where the colonial powers needed a work force, for instance in conjunction with mining or railway building. For 30 or 40 years men worked far way from home and only come back to visit once a year, just time enough to get their wives pregnant. The population grew. When the men returned after independence no industry had developed like in South East Asia, which could absorb their labour. And women were used to taking care of the household - and tended their plot of land, which had become smaller and smaller as the population expanded.

- Women didn't have any rights, but in fact they were in control of everything, says Margrethe Silberschmidt.

Her research in Kisii stimulated her interest in how men perceived of themselves and their masculinity and she received funding for at new research project in Kisii, which focussed on men.

- Up until than point most research and development aid had been directed at the situation of women. This was in keeping with the spirit of the 80s. In Denmark and the rest of the Western world women were in revolt and the Danish economist Esther Boserup, for instance, became world famous when she wrote a book on how the burden of work for women in the third world had increased enormously. Women had become more and more impoverished, while men held on to their land rights.

According to Margrethe Silberschmidt, however, Kisii women were in the paradoxical situation of being oppressed while at the same time being in control.
- The men just sat around and became more and more insecure. They called themselves the head of the household, but one had to question how much say they had in anything at all.

The results of her research were published in 1990-91 and she summed up her research report in an article entitled "Have men become the weaker sex?" Her research resounded in international circles and because no one else had focussed their attention on the problematic situation of men, she was given the name of "groundbreaker".

She summarised all her previous research into a Ph.D. and then received financial support for yet another research project on the role of African men. She wanted to study whether the results of her research in a rural area of Kenya could be applied to an urban area of another country. She chose Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.

- Countless times we have been told how the role of men changes when they are deprived of their original, identity-giving work. Look at Greenland for instance and at the situation of unemployed men in Denmark today. Then imagine what it is like in Africa where massive socio-economic upheaval has taken place. There is more and more unemployment and overwhelming poverty.

In the slums of Dar es Salaam Margrethe Silberschmidt saw these changes for herself. A majority of men shirked their family responsibilities; many drank and did not have permanent work. Instead they did a little buying and selling here and there and the money they made was not adequate to provide for their families. Instead they used their meagre income on more or less permanent "girlfriends".

- And this is where HIV/AIDS enters into the picture. From the "girlfriend's" point of view sex is a service and perhaps her only source of income. Men pay for sex and certainly shouldn’t have to bother with condoms. On top of that the men are very fatalistic. Even though they see friends and neighbours get sick and die of AIDS, they reckon that they might as well die of something else. They could get run over by a car for instance. And if they got infected with AIDS, then they wouldn't die tomorrow but in a few years, says Margrethe Silberschmidt summing up, what many men have told her.

Their attitude cannot be attributed to lack of information about AIDS, because information on how to avoid AIDS is provided both in newspapers and on the radio: Use condoms and limit yourself to one partner.
- The one partner message is very controversial to a Tanzanian man. Polygamy was prevalent in earlier times also in Kisii district. It was a practical arrangement caused by the death of many men in warfare with other tribes. Women could not inherit land but they could be married as 1, 2nd, 3rd or 4th wife and thus gain access to land and a means by which to provide for their children.

In the 20th century this practical arrangement gradually developed into the belief that men need more than one woman.
- Today both men and women accept that men have a greater sexual need than women, says Margrethe Silberschmidt.

After repeated interviews with the men in Dar es Salaam they became more and more forthcoming and it gradually became clear that the reason for their extensive sexual activities was to bolster their ego. At home he could not live up to the role as provider or the role as lover. Often he was worn out
from drink and had already had sex with his "girlfriend". And his wife, who worked non-stop from 5 in the morning till 10 at night, didn't have the patience or the energy to wait for him to be able to perform sexually.

- They felt inadequate and became more and more insecure about their masculinity. And a vicious circle would begin. They didn't feel like being in their family where they were yelled at all the time and instead sought to manifest their masculinity by asserting themselves amongst other men by having sexual relations with "girlfriends". Masculinity and sexuality are very closely linked, says Margrethe Silberschmidt.

She stresses that men do not exactly have a workshop they can retreat to as an alternative to the bars. In the slums of Dar es Salaam a family of 5 typically lives in just one dark room with no electricity, with perhaps just a crack in the wall to let in a sliver of light.

Margrethe Silberschmidt is not out to say that women are not victims, or that men are worse off than women.

- But women aren't just victims and men can also be disempowered. It is more legitimate to say that women are oppressed, which of course is not in doubt also on the legal level but in practice this is not always the case. Necessity has taught them not only how to be manipulative but also to be extremely active. It's high time that we start taking a look at the role of men. Women are able to reinforce their female identity through motherhood for instance. Masculinity, however, is not always to be had for free. You have to fight to become a man and my research has shown that men in Africa do this by having sex.

The latest statistics show that more African women have HIV/AIDS than men. It is important to see this in light of health clinics being visited more frequently by women than men. Margrethe Silberschmidt nevertheless agrees with many health experts than it is highly probable that more women are infected than men because they a more vulnerable to lesions and abrasions during intercourse.

This is not however enough to justify the words on posters Margrethe Silberschmidt has seen throughout Africa or heard on the radio: "Women must unite in the struggle against AIDS." She is thoroughly irritated by this message because it exempts men from their responsibility. Women for example are not able to control the use of condoms. Many attempts at "empowering women" by getting them to insist on male condom use often resulted in women risking being violently abused.

- AIDS is a common problem and men should not be allowed to just free wheel along. They have a great responsibility.

Margrethe Silberschmidt is currently planning a new research project that she hopes to get funding for. She wants to study how involve men in becoming more responsible partners on a practical level.
- Simply addressing one half of the population with slogans to unite is useless. Nor is it particularly constructive just to admonish men by saying "It's your fault. You are bad. You must learn to behave".

She is encouraged by the direction of DANIDA's (The Danish Development Aid Agency) development policy.
- In their most recent development strategy "Partnership 2000" the word men is mentioned half as often as the word women, but this is many times more than in their previous strategy, she says. And the role of men is acknowledged in the UNAIDS campaign "Men make a difference".
- But there are no easy solutions or recipes for how to tackle the problem, because HIV/AIDS is also a poverty issue.

In her new research project Margrethe Silberschmidt hopes to be able to recommend ways in which to utilise and exploit all that potential labour amongst unemployed men and shift it into the household.
- It would ease the workload of women but it is essential to point out the masculinity means many things and it must be made clear to men that taking responsibility for one's children is an expresseion of masculinity. African men love their children and desperately want as many as possible so that they can continue their line.

The African men that Margrethe Silberschmidt interviewed did not know very much about the consequences of unprotected sex.
- They knew about the HIV/AIDS risk but had no idea about the effects of various STDs on their fertility.

In her opinion the focus on women's sexual and reproductive health and rights since the 1994 UN Cairo Conference on Population and Development has overshadowed the need for information directed at men - despite the fact that informing men works. At least in Kisii district.
- I have no idea whether men kept away from having several sex partners, but as a result of the meetings I held with them, they got interested in learning more and started accompanying their wives and children to the health clinics, says Margrethe Silberschmidt.

Translation: Annette Nielsen, FORUM Editor
Foto: Jette Lykke.

Printer ikonspacerPrint

KVINFO · Christians Brygge 3 · DK 1219 København K Tel: +45 33 13 50 88 · Fax: +45 33 14 11 56 · E-mail: