Male gender norms, which are in simple terms, the social expectations and roles assigned to men and boys in relation to or in contrast to women and girls do play a significant role in confronting gender equality challenges today. Whilst it is almost impossible to ignore the presence of masculinity and femininity, it is prudent to also reflect on the challenges that come with such traits and how these can be transformed to opportunities for gender equality.

Economic inequality as a source of negative masculinity

Uneven economic distribution and/or economic dependency of women on men continue to perpetuate traits of negative masculinity. In as much as men are still being regarded as the family providers, in certain and multiple instances this expected role can come with toxic elements that are oppressive and manipulative. While traditional values and history are essential in defining peoples lives and how they interact with their surroundings, critical questions need to be asked on how these can positively shape and foster healthy relationships or negatively used as leverage towards inequality and mistreatment of the vulnerable or less powerful.

Norms about manhood for example are constructed against the backdrop of other power hierarchies and differences in income that give greater power to some men (such as middle class, professional men from certain ethnic groups or older men) and exclude or dominate others (such as younger boys, men from minority or disempowered ethnic groups and men with lower income). Therefore, it is not a male problem applicable to all men within a society, but shaped by various other factors as well.

With the deteriorating economic state of countries such as Zimbabwe, intimate relationships have often been women’s escape route from poverty on one side and a controlling or manipulating tool by mostly financially stable men on the other. This is fundamentally important to reflect and relook how disparity in economic independence between women and men can risk toxic masculine tendencies which potentially leads to verbal, emotional, sexual and physical abuse against women.

Health Risks of Negative Masculinity

Several researches suggest that both men and women especially in relationships are placed at risk by specific norms related to masculinity. For example, in a traditional Zimbabwean setting, being a man means being tough, brave, risk-taking, aggressive and not caring for one’s body. Men and boys’ engagement in some risk-taking behavior, including substance use, reckless sex and unsafe driving, may be regarded as ways to affirm their manhood. This skewed understanding of masculinity today puts women at a precarious position and vulnerable to health hazards and sexual exploitation. Sexual harassment thus remains one of the unresolved gender based violence component in the modern day society. Women in workplaces and leadership positions are not evaluated or treated according to their policy positions or contribution to the work but often in times according to how they look, who they have sexual relationships with or how many kids they have. This is a sad reality in Zimbabwe where cases of harassment of female leaders within academic spaces, workplaces, and political organizations are increasingly recurring.

Positive Masculinity as a way of family cohesion and socialization of boys

Early childhood socialization and education is important in pushing the hope for gender violence free society. Families, being one of the primary spaces for socialization and education to shape both boys and girls to be each other’s keeper remain relevant leeway of sustaining positive masculinity. For instance, previous researchers acknowledges that the exposure to and involvement with violence during childhood, war, and genocide has a significant impact on the use of violence by adult men against their female partners. This line of thinking in other words entails that the children learn and act according to how they are raised and if fathers are abusive or unfair to their partners, kids can easily learn the bad way and resultantly seed negative masculinity that risks gender-based violence. In this instance, laws alone will not be enough to curb gender-based violence but the ability of societies (from a family level) to socialize themselves on using masculinity and femininity in a complementary way.

While gender based violence is a recurring problem, its equally progressive to reflect on how to turn obstacles into opportunities, ask critical questions about the economic structures, social settings and cultural values and how those can be used to transform and socialize both boys and girls against ill social relationships.