Abortion & contraceptives use Sites of struggle for African men
In examining men’s perspectives of contraceptive use and abortion, JEREMIAH CHIKOVORE identifies contradictions and multiplicities within gender relations and dynamics that are influenced by, among other factors, colonial-era labour mobilisation practices and socio-political dynamics.
Dynamics feeding men's perspectives
Men’s ties to women and girls as sexual partners and guardians, and their connection to their families as providers seem to have a major influence on how they perceive and attempt to deal with contraceptive use, abortion, and sexuality in women related to them. How they regard these roles, in turn, depends on the effect of past and current processes and events in shaping expectations of men, their ability to meet the expectations, and how they deal with failure to measure up.
Sexuality became increasingly visible as a vehicle for pleasure and economic survival rather than simply for procreation. For both married and unmarried women, the dynamics and emerging forms of sexuality presented a motive to control and prevent childbirth.
The critical question, therefore, is: What affects the ways men experience their sense of self as well as their ability to execute role expectations on themselves? In turn, in what ways does this link to the sexuality of both men and women today, and to insights on interventions seeking to promote sexual and reproductive health and contraceptive use?
The domino effect
Colonial-era labour mobilisation strategies in southern Africa gave rise to, and in some instances made more pronounced, the male provider role. The resulting labour migration separated men from their families for long periods of time, in many cases with few economic benefits. The entire set of processes created conditions that favoured not only extramarital but also premarital sexual activity. Unmarried women lost economic security and were encouraged or forced to provide prostitution services on mines and farms, and in cities, partly for their survival but also, in principle, to stabilise male labour. At the same time many married women felt abandoned by their husbands both sexually and economically, leaving room for them to engage sexually outside of marriage. Sexuality became increasingly visible as a vehicle for pleasure and economic survival rather than simply for procreation. For both married and unmarried women, the dynamics and emerging forms of sexuality presented a motive to control and prevent childbirth.
Men weren’t only driven to commercial sex workers by desire necessarily, but possibly also to compensate for feelings of emasculation in their work settings, where they were frequently treated as ‘boys’ irrespective of whether they were married or had fathered children. Paradoxically men, who now related sexually with widowed and previously unmarried women, would perennially worry about their own wives’ and daughters’ sexuality in their absence. Men felt compelled to control – or at least imply they had such control over – their families despite their lack of proximity.
Their struggles in both home and work settings, and the emasculation they may experience seem to manifest in sometimes violent and destructive in the behaviour towards themselves and their families.
Today, most men in Africa have to deal with a sense of inadequacy, exacerbated by fewer employment opportunities and role switches as more women start to earn. Their struggles in both home and work settings, and the emasculation they may experience seem to manifest in sometimes violent and destructive behaviour towards themselves and their families.
The voices of the men
Data from rural Zimbabwe highlighted an additional factor that may influence men’s perception of contraception and women’s sexuality: the commercialised bride price. Bride price not only has become a source of income for many families; it is now a prestige symbol amid changing tastes and rising needs for luxury and accumulation.
‘She has destroyed my chances of enjoying lobola [bride price] …’
As one elderly man said in reaction to a daughter falling pregnant before marriage, thus threatening her chances of getting married and securing bride price: ‘She has destroyed my chances of enjoying lobola [bride price] … I supported her when she grew up. Whenever she got ill, I used to run around with her… And then she does the unthinkable!’
On contraception before wedlock, a young man was unambiguous: ‘You get hold of her and beat her up – so much so that she won’t touch those pills before marriage. Why should she use them? Without a husband!’
Perhaps, therefore, and contrary to what is often expected, men’s behaviour and perspectives may be a symptom of feeling, and dealing with, a sense of being powerless.
On wives using birth control, considered a strategy for preventing pregnancy from illicit sexual activity even when the husband is migrating for work, another man stated: ‘A woman is a woman. Even when you are around she can engage in those bad activities. As a man, you may go to work even for a period of, say, two weeks, and your wife then decides she also should do as you do ...’
Looking at these contradictions and the clearly disproportionate anger expressed over premarital pregnancy, sexuality and contraception through a gender/masculinity lens, against a broader socio-historical analytical frame, the evidence points to men a) desiring to be recognised; b) struggling with a split existence between home and work; c) experiencing a deep sense of exclusion and attempting to reclaim lost space and prestige; and d) simply failing to meet the male grade and struggling to cope with such failure.
In ways that may have served to alienate men further, family planning programmes were until recently driven by bio-medical assumptions. The programmes focused only on women, who were considered as biologically the ones for whom fertility regulation was necessary, but also as subjects of abuse by men. Perhaps, therefore, and contrary to what is often expected, men’s behaviour and perspectives may be a symptom of feeling, and dealing with, a sense of being powerless.
Summary of a presentation at the Men, Masculinities and Family Planning in Africa conference, Los Angeles, October 2010.
Jeremiah Chikovore, senior research specialist, HSRC.