Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Men, Theatre and New Masculinities

“I now understand the physical, emotional, and hormonal changes my partner goes through during pregnancy. It is now easier for me to recognize a problem and jointly plan to stop having children. She has been pregnant almost each year for the past 8 years and it’s funny how I didn’t realize I could be part of the solution.”

When a man in rural Cameroon utters these words, you know change is coming.
Ferdinand and his wife Patience have six children and are expecting their seventh. Patience had heard about birth control but had never used it, nor talked with Ferdinand about using it. She knew her husband would never consent and, in her patriarchal community, she needed his approval. Children are a source of pride and wealth and the use of contraceptives could bring her family shame.
In Cameroon, family planning, pregnancy, and childbirth have long been considered exclusively a woman’s issue. Men are reluctant to visit reproductive health clinics for advice on family planning or antenatal care appointments for fear of being considered effeminate. Moreover, talking openly about contraception or sex-related issues is culturally taboo, making interventions relating to sexual and reproductive health extremely difficult.  Nationally, the unmet need for family planning is 21% in Cameroon, with the situation worse in rural areas. Maternal mortality and morbidity are high in these communities as there is a fear among women that use of modern contraceptive may offend their husbands.
The goal of my six-month pilot project was to use closed workshops exclusively for men and community-wide theatre performance to increase the participation of men in family planning decisions and break cultural barriers to modern family planning use. The project involved two communities (Eshobi and Eyang-Ntui) with 100 men (married or in long-term relationships) as direct beneficiaries. Workshop modules covered alternative definitions of masculinity, the man’s role as head of the family, and conversations about the family cycle, maternal health, and family planning methods. The theatre shows created a dialog about family planning through raising the issues of large families and raising children, and informed the audience about Family Planning methods and how to access Family Planning services.
At the end of the project’s activities, 85% of women interviewed said they received total spousal support. Expecting women were surprised and excited that their partners were more involved in their pregnancies. At the end of the second theatre activity, 19 couples immediately decided to adopt a modern family planning method and over 66% of women reporting having a say in family planning decisions. One unanticipated result of the project was when 13 single women and girls who were not directly targeted by the project but had watched the theatre shows, signed up for long term contraception immediately. Two months after the project ended, this number has doubled.
By the end of the project, 82.3% of male participants interviewed felt that it was their responsibility to support their partners throughout pregnancy and childbirth. Out the 40 expectant couples who participated in the project, 28 of the men accompanied their partners for at least one antenatal visit after the program.
Patience is now one month to her due date and has been experiencing the impact of this project first hand. “We plan to go to the health center for implants once I deliver this baby,” she said. I can’t remember a time when I was not pregnant. I feel like my body needs to recuperate and Ferdinand agrees with me. I don’t think he even wants children anymore.”
This intervention is a strong example of how challenging gender norms and stereotypes can lead to an increase in family planning use and improve the lives of women and girls. A new generation of men has emerged from this program. These men concern themselves with the welfare of their unborn babies and with their partners’ sexual and reproductive health.
This pilot also demonstrates that theatre and art can be effective in behavioural change in communities where discussing family planning is considered taboo. Given the success of this program, this pilot project could be expanded to target other taboo issues such as young women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights.

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My Favorite books

  • How Amazing Women Lead
  • Ripples From The Zambezi
  • The Children of Afrikville
  • The Media Are America
  • Thief in The Night

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