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By: Martine Letarte

They are white, red, yellow, variegated: roses are the bread and butter of the town of Naivasha, Kenya. In the farms where the flowers are grown for cutting and exported to Europe, women workers are hard at work. Conditions are poor and wages are low. The road that leads them there is not paved with roses.   

Naivasha and its surroundings are infamous for their high rate of rape of women and children. The NGO African Woman and Child Feature Service says that rape is common on the road, where women are often given money in exchange for their silence, but also at work, where they avoid reporting their attackers for fear of losing their jobs.   

Things could change gradually, as many players seek levers of intervention. Their main target is not women, but men. For example, the Africa Alliance of YMCAs has created a power space, a place where young men can express themselves and gain knowledge on all sorts of difficult topics: violence against women, contraception and female genital mutilation. “We invite the youth to come and play a game of basketball or soccer, and then we serve refreshments and have them talk freely about different issues among their peers, or we invite a mentor to join them for the discussion,” explains Lloyd Muriuki Wamai, project manager at the Africa Alliance of YMCAs.   

This initiative is part of a larger project called #SexManenoz, which aims to cultivate positive masculinity in Kenya and Zambia. Canada is supporting this project financially through the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). The goal is for young men to adopt behaviours that promote gender equality and the protection of women’s rights and well-being, including sexual and reproductive health. 

These various interventions are part of a larger movement that fights against the flip side of positive masculinity: toxic masculinity. The term has been used in the West for the past 30 years or so and refers to stereotypes of masculinity that lead men to act like tough guys. Clichés are perpetuated through boys’ education: they are taught to be strong, not to cry, not to express their emotions, not to be afraid, to fight if necessary, etc. This leads to sexist, even misogynistic, and homophobic behaviours that have negative consequences for society as a whole, from domestic violence and sexual harassment to early motherhood, suicide and sexually transmitted infections. In the wake of this, a number of programs have been set up, in the United States and Australia in particular, to encourage the emergence of positive masculinity.   

Some of these programs have been implemented in recent years in Africa, including in Nigeria, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). But do they work? “Their results have never really been measured on the ground,” says Chimaraoke Izugbara, director of global health, youth and development at the Washington-based International Center for Research on Women. In another IDRC-supported project, teams in these three countries are currently collecting data to evaluate the effects of the programs. 

Picking flowers
Niti Marcelle Mueth / Québec Science

The background of the story 

To intervene effectively, we must first understand how these gender dynamics have developed over time, says Marie Fall, a professor at the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi and head of the Laboratoire d’études et de recherches appliquées sur l’Afrique. The continent “experienced the Arab trade, which brought Islam to the territory, and then there was the Western trade with Christianity in its wake,” she recalls. “Most African societies were matriarchal before the arrival of these religions, which have greatly destabilized the continent by establishing patriarchy.” 

Economic and political issues are also part of the problem. “In a context where there is a lot of conflict and where men are often unemployed and therefore unable to act as providers, they can become very aggressive because they feel they are not able to play the role expected of them,” says Professor Fall.  

Chimaraoke Izugbara, who is also an adjunct professor at the schools of public health at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa and the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, agrees. “It’s important to show men more positive ways of expressing their masculinity. But to have a real effect, you have to simultaneously provide them with a peaceful living environment and address their economic situation so they can work to meet the needs of their families,” he says.  

He takes as an example the DRC, a country with a history marked by the atrocities of slavery, dictatorship and a succession of wars and bloody conflicts. All this with one constant: a population living in poverty. For many men, fighting is a part of everyday life and rape is a weapon of war. Good jobs are scarce and men compete for them. While the male breadwinner model is ubiquitous, many fathers simply cannot feed their families. Very frustrated, they often resort to violence, the only way to show that they are men. “They are going through so many difficult things that you can’t start by just talking to them about violence,” insists Chimaraoke Izugbara.

Woman upset
Niti Marcelle Mueth / Québec Science

Whether it is the DRC, Nigeria, Rwanda, Kenya or Zambia, the situation is repeated over and over again. All these countries are at the bottom of the Human Development Index (HDI). In the DRC, people spend, on average, just over six years in school and the gross national income per capita is 1,063 Intl$ (or international dollars, a hypothetical currency that has the same purchasing power in a given country as the US dollar has in the United States at a given time). By way of comparison, Canada ranks 16th on the HDI, with an average of more than 13 years of schooling and a gross national income per capita of almost 48,527 Intl$. Also, in Canada, 2% of women who have ever been in a relationship reported being physically or sexually abused by their partner, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Gender, Institutions and Development 2019 database. In Rwanda, this proportion is 16%, in Kenya 39%, in Zambia 43% and in the DRC over 50%.   

These statistics reflect an explosive cocktail of rampant poverty, alcoholism, crime and lack of positive male role models. This is why it is necessary to tailor positive-masculinity programmes to take into account not only brutal living conditions, but also cultural norms and values. For example, in the DRC and Rwanda, homosexuality is stigmatized; it is even prohibited in Nigeria. “In these countries, masculinity cannot go hand in hand with homosexuality,” observes Chimaraoke Izugbara. Of course, we want to talk to them about discrimination and sexual health, but we have to be careful and go about it strategically. Because if you go at it head-on, men will get their back up: they will say that we want to impose white values on them, and they will no longer be open to hearing anything.”  

Other issues must also be approached with caution, such as forced marriages of young girls and abortion, which is permitted only in special cases, such as when the woman’s life is in danger. “These are all issues where men often impose their decisions and that are directly related to women’s rights,” says Marie-Gloriose Ingabire, an IDRC officer who works closely with Chimaraoke Izugbara. 


“At the moment, religions prescribe the legitimacy — to a varying degree depending on faith, ethnicity, culture, age, social class — of violence against women.”

Marie Fall, professor at the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi and head of the Laboratoire d’études et de recherches appliquées sur l’Afrique

A time for assessment   

Teams measuring the impact of various positive-masculinity workshops have been at work since 2019, primarily in slums, where problems associated with toxic masculinity are exacerbated. They reconnect with the men who participated in these programs. Data collection had to stop at some point because of COVID‑19, but during this time, the researchers were able to begin their analysis and produce preliminary results.   

The preliminary results are hopeful. After participating in awareness-raising efforts, men “find, for example, that it is important to have a good attitude and that it is possible that the role of provider in the family does not fall solely to the man,” says Marie-Gloriose Ingabire. “But we have yet to evaluate concrete changes in behaviour.” To do this, the researchers also talk to women to see if they feel the effects in their daily lives. Ultimately, they hope to draw lessons from it to build new positive-masculinity programs, more adapted to the realities of each country.  

Lloyd Muriuki Wamai of the Africa Alliance of YMCAs is also collecting data on power spaces, including in Kitwe, Zambia. It soon became apparent that men had very little knowledge of family planning. A certain vicious circle has set in. Many women become pregnant and are abandoned by their partner. These single mothers do not want their daughters to suffer the same fate and they make it their duty to take them to the clinic so that they can have access to contraception. Family planning has thus become a “women’s issue.” “Men think that everything is decided in advance and they are not used to discussing it,” he says. “Moreover, religion, which is very present in Rwanda and Zambia, does not encourage them to learn about these issues.”

“So, we came up with the idea of creating a little educational video game where young adults can learn the basics of the topic,” says Lloyd Muriuki Wamai. “We believe that this strategy could be particularly effective in getting them to take responsibility, and we intend to measure the impact.”

Toxic masculinity doesn’t serve men either. “In patriarchy, only men are assigned roles and qualities that are valued and esteemed in society. Even though they seem to represent an advantageous position for men, these privileges have deprived men of a better knowledge of what the women around them are thinking and proposing; they have been forced not to show their feelings and skills; to deny the possibilities of seeking help; and to always present themselves as strong and capable even if they don’t feel that way inside,” reads a training book created for Mali by the Centre for International Studies and Cooperation, a Montreal-based organization.

Created in 2018, this training advocates a win-win approach to equality, where men can take care of their families, express their feelings, ask for help and acknowledge their weaknesses while being men, but better men.

For the betterment of everyone, man must find a new place in society and, to achieve this, it will be necessary to act on religion, according to Marie Fall. “Africa has experienced a lot of tragedy and religion, seen as a refuge, becomes more important when societies are in crisis,” she explains. “There is a great deal of religious fervour in Africa, and it has a huge influence on people’s behaviour.”  

Chimaraoke Izugbara makes the same point: “Religious institutions play a big role in society and they reinforce the traditional role of the man as head of the family and provider, while the woman is seen as a subordinate. When you add this to poverty and unemployment, you realize that the possibilities of changing men’s behaviour are limited if you don’t act elsewhere as well.”    

Marie Fall believes that a less violent and more constructive interpretation of religious texts is needed to revise social norms. “At the moment, religions prescribe the legitimacy — to a varying degree depending on faith, ethnicity, culture, age, social class — of violence against women,” she laments.   

The researcher also stresses the importance of not falling into the other extreme: giving all power to women. “It is really in equality between men and women that a society truly wins. And of course, in order to do this, the major conflicts that plague African societies must be resolved, allowing people to finally live in peace and earn a living so that they can meet their basic needs and those of their families. You can’t make real progress if people are still in a survival situation,” she says.  

The original French version of this article was published in the September 2021 issue of Québec Science. 

Top image: Niti Marcelle Mueth / Québec Science