African masculinity examined

Eileen Moyer received an ERC Consolidator Grant for research into the background and influence of male involvement programmes

26 October 2015

Development campaigns in the area of emancipation and health in Africa, which up to around five years ago focused almost exclusively on women, now have a new target group: men. Anthropologist Eileen Moyer is not so much researching the effect of those campaigns as the way in which African masculinity is represented, experienced and shaped. She also explores the way men are approached and how this is in keeping with previous attempts to influence gender relationships through development cooperation. Moyer was awarded an ERC Consolidator Grant for her research.

Moyer has been conducting research in various African countries for many years. In 1999 she conducted researched among young people living on the streets in Dar es Salaam, and she has participated in a number of anti-HIV projects in Ethiopia, Kenya, Zambia and Swaziland. ‘Practically all of those programmes included emancipation and empowerment programmes for women. The past five years have seen a complete turnabout in aid projects and information campaigns: men have now become one of the key target groups. It's almost as though people suddenly worked out that men are also part of society and the family, as well as part of HIV prevention, etc.'

Masculine sexuality seen as a problem

All in all a good thing, Moyer thinks, although a number of matters have drawn her attention: the sexuality of African men is viewed and discussed in a very one-sided manner and as a problem. ‘South Africa has a high incidence of rape, but it's entirely wrong to extrapolate those numbers to an entire continent and to ignore the structural and historical causes of gender violence in South Africa, which also has some of the world's most progressive laws in the area of gender and sexual identity. It's also important to understand what the terms “responsible men” and “gender equality” entail. People use these terms as if they are set in stone and not open to interpretation, while in fact both terms are constantly in flux and are highly subjective. An example: according to some Europeans, a responsible father is present at the birth of his child. But that is not at all customary in other parts of the world - in fact many women prefer for their husbands not to be present during childbirth. In fact, there are still African countries where hospitals forbid men from being present during childbirth - by virtue of rules introduced during the colonial era. So you can't just attach the label 'irresponsible' to a father who is not present during the birth of his child. I don't think that is the right approach.'

What is gender equality?

Moyer wants to study how 'responsible masculinity' is interpreted in Africa and to what extent campaigns influence it. To that end, she wishes to set up a theoretical framework to clarify what 'responsible masculinity' entails according to Western aid workers, how this influences the African discourse and behaviour and how African masculinity is represented, experienced and interpreted. Moyer also wants to conceptualise the term 'gender equality' as a collection of opinions. 'In doing so, I consider both Western and African opinions. I consciously use the words 'collection' or 'assemblage' since they connote how varied, non-transparent and subjective the term is.

From boys to men in Tanzania

To generate answers to this complex pallet of questions, Moyer is conducting her research in a number of sub-projects. In the first two projects, Moyer will seek to gain insights into 'responsible masculinity' and how this has changed over time and place by interviewing a cohort of men from the Tanzanian underclass whom she has been following for fifteen years. 'This will allow me to see how ideas about masculinity and gender equality have shifted and changed over time.' In the third sub-project, post-doctoral researchers will study the ideas and discourse among men regarding homosexuality, gay rights and circumcision, three subjects that are sure to generate great interest from politicians, the media and popular culture. The fourth sub-project focuses specifically on communities that have recently been targeted by aid workers through ‘ male involvement’ projects.

In this ambitious project, Moyer and her team are seeking to contribute to feminist theory development and the growing number of men's studies by studying the complex ways in which gender and sexuality are shaped by practices and discourses that are deeply embedded in local customs.

Published by  Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences