In honor of World Population Day yesterday, the Population Institute, UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) and the Communications Consortium Media Center sponsored a panel discussion on "Men as Partners in Maternal Health: Supporting Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies."
The expert scholars and panelists asked and answered questions about the traditional and future roles of men in reproductive health policy-making.
Men, said Lawrence Smith (President of the Population Institute) in his opening statements, are essential to involve in reproductive health. He quoted from the ICPD (International Conference on Population and Development) Programme of Action about male involvement and responsibility:
Men play a key role in bringing about gender equality since, in most societies, men exercise preponderant power in nearly every sphere of life, ranging from personal decisions regarding the size of families to the policy and programme decisions taken at all levels of Government. It is essential to improve communication between men and women on issues of sexuality and reproductive health, and the understanding of their joint responsibilities, so that men and women are equal partners in public and private life.
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Reproductive health has been seen as a women's issue, said panelist Nick Danforth, A resident scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University; he said that we've been hesitant to engage men in "what has traditionally been a woman's domain."
Essentially, gender stereotypes carry over into matters of maternal health; women nurture and men compete. Women are caregivers, and men are breadwinners.
This gender inequality, said Danforth, creates economic pressures that can endanger women's health. He cited an example of a Ugandan woman who explained that girls in her country don't sleep with older men because they think it's safe—they do it to pay school fees.
A leading cause of maternal mortality around the world is unsafe abortion. In her July 12 article on preventable deaths due to unsafe abortions, Indira Basnet discussed the effect of this reality in Nepal. During the panel discussion, Henry Foster, Jr., a medical doctor and Dean and Vice President for Health Services at Meharry Medical College, pressed the point with an emphasis on men as partners in reproductive health:
Eighteen percent of the 550,000 maternal deaths annually, Foster reported, are caused by unsafe abortion. Access to safe abortion is essential to improve maternal health.
According to Foster, abortion is about health, religion and politics—and the latter, politics, impedes programmatic efforts to improve women's health. He believes that at the national and international level, men have the power to craft policies. So, men must be better public partners in reproductive health.
Men must be actively engaged in making personal and political commitment for positive change to achieve global goals for maternal health, gender equality and combating HIV/AIDS.—(From the event program)
Frances Kissling, a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study and former director for Catholics for a Free Choice, spoke on the panel about the public element of responsibility and commitment to women's health.
Joking about celibate monks making rules about sex for married Catholic couples, Kissling analyzed the involvement of men in sexual and reproductive health policies. She asserted that men have always been involved—"some would say, historically, they've been too involved." For the most part, Kissling said, reproductive health decisions have been made by men in traditionally male-dominated settings—in politics and religion.
According to Kissling, the ICPD marked a change in language from population growth (which had political connotations with national security, economics, war and peace) to reproductive health (which is less popular and thought of as a woman-centered issue).
And as men have receded, taking a back seat on policy-making for "women's issues" in reproductive health, they gave the opposition a foothold for driving the issue into a more controversial space.
So what do the experts want done to improve maternal health and men's involvement?
1. Programs must adjust to welcome husbands and educate them on the needs of maternal care.
2. Women and men must work together to achieve equality.
3. Abortion must be safe and accessible.
4. Family planning services must be funded.
5. Gender and sexual violence must be addressed.
6. And, we must continue to raise awareness and engage men in reproductive health issues.
- Nick Danforth, Resident Scholar at Brandeis University
- Frances Kissling, Fellow at Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study
- Henry W. Foster, Jr., M.D., Dean, School of Medicine, Vice President for Health Services at Meharry Medical College