This Father’s Day, PSI wants to go beyond thanking all the dads out there and offer a challenge: what would it mean to really value men when it comes to their health?
We’re known as an organization that champions gender equality, and for many people that means fighting for women and girls. And fight we do! PSI leads efforts to increase access to high quality sexual and reproductive healthcare for women all over the world and we’re rightly proud of that work. We know that women’s true freedom rests on our ability to control our reproductive destinies and we’re all-in to make that happen.
But we’re not all-in when it comes to seeing gender equality as a zero-sum game, one that pits men against women and only engages men for the sake of improving women’s health. Male is a gender too, and men need and deserve good health just as much as women do.
Perhaps even more importantly, PSI’s work in sexual and reproductive health and rights, and particularly in HIV, shows us every day that men’s and women’s health cannot be separated because men and women live and love and make families together. Supporting men’s health does not have to come at the expense of women’s wellbeing; on the contrary, it can improve it.
Any household, any community, any country is only as healthy as its sickest member. And while it’s true that patriarchy continuously asserts that men are more valuable than women, it also insists that men be invincible, that they demonstrate their manliness by never needing help, and that they power through any health problems and keep working no matter what. When we stand back and ignore these attitudes, men get sick and die, and the women they love and the families who count on them suffer.
In our work to increase men’s uptake of HIV services, we have seen again and again that while men may appear tough and indifferent, with just a little empathetic attention, they open up and show a different side.
Among the men we have talked to, most are scared of HIV, anxious about going to the clinic, and desperate for a source of support and solidarity, particularly from other men who know what they’re going through. Many are fathers who worry every day about how they will provide for their families, and many of those who do seek out HIV testing and treatment are motivated by the desire to survive so that they can be there for their partners and children.
We often hear that it’s just too hard to get men to accept health services, but our experience says otherwise. We’re rolling out a new program, Coach Mpilo, that connects men who are struggling with an HIV diagnosis with other men who are living well with HIV. Nine out of ten men have eagerly accepted the offer of support from a coach, and nearly all of those men have started and stayed on treatment. When we reach out to men with real caring, and particularly when we engage men in providing support to other men, men do show up.
So, this Father’s Day, let’s go beyond the lip service of celebrating dads and recognize that traditional gender norms are also harmful to men. Let’s do the work to understand how those norms keep men out of healthcare and then make the changes that help them come in.