On Men Having Safe Sex

Clearly, men have unique sexual and reproductive health needs, but their needs are more often than not sidelined in reproductive health service provision.

As a result, men participate in a limited way in reproductive and child bearing matters, with dire consequences for society. Men's limited participation in reproductive health affects not only the health of men themselves, but also their female partners, children and the general society.

In recent times, however, policymakers and researchers have begun to take into account the sexual and reproductive health needs of men.

There's a growing awareness that merely addressing the sexual and reproductive health issues faced by women solves only half the problem. Because men are the other half that makes up the "two to tango" relationship—so to speak—there's no doubt their involvement and participation can make all the difference in their own lives and in women's lives.

Men can play a key role in providing a supportive role to the reproductive health needs of female partners, managing sexually transmitted infections, preventing parent to child transmission of HIV (PMTCT), and assisting in postpartum care.

However, given the historical design of sexual and reproductive health programs which are mainly targeted to women, there are numerous but surmountable challenges to get men to access sexual and reproductive health services.

Perhaps the biggest challenge of them all is that men are not willing to open up about their sexual and reproductive health issues. Such issues are usually seen as both intensely private and a threat to the socially-acquired sense of masculinity; therefore many men prefer silence over disclosure.

Moreover, men's sexual and reproductive health needs, especially in Africa, receive little attention within public health systems, with many of the services catering to women's needs only.

Also, in many cultures, it's very rare for men to go for a simple, ordinary sexual and reproductive health check up. As long as a man can have sex or reproduce, they consider themselves healthy.

In many parts of Africa, for example, men are brought up to believe that sexually reproductive health services are the domain of women, and that men have no part to play. As a result, men have not been fully involved in sexual reproductive health programs, putting a severe dent on efforts to rein in sexually transmitted infections, particularly HIV.

The lack of involvement by men not only compromises their own health, but also the health of their female partners, as well as their children, and of society at large.

Men tend to be generally left out of the loop of sexual reproductive health services, until they either have some fertility problems or a serious infection, which may be impossible to cure. That infection will inevitably be spread to the female partner, and, in the process, compound her sexual and reproductive health problems.

Making the matter rather complicated, in many instances, public health service providers are women, which makes it extremely difficult for men to open up or access services related to reproductive health problems.

Unlike men, women have little choice but to attend sexual and reproductive health services, especially when they attend the ante-natal clinic, where they are screened for infectious diseases and receive information and counseling.

But the fact is: without men taking a stake in the reproductive health care process of women, they will either compromise or violate the sexual health rights of their female partners.

To get men involved requires understanding how they behave, their socialization, their views and needs and what they do in their free time, and then designing reproductive health programs that are attractive, non-threatening and ensure confidentiality.

Further, public health campaigns must encourage better communication about sex and sexuality between men and women. Peer education models can play a key role in encouraging men to access reproductive health services. Male to male advocacy can play a key role in encouraging men to be open about reproductive health issues, and also helps men to be better partners and fathers.

Designing sexual and reproductive health programs that are targeted to men will require deconstructing traditional concepts of masculinity. Men, women, public health workers, traditional leaders and other opinion leaders need to be engaged in a process that encourages men to construct an idea of sex and sexuality that is safe, satisfying and respects the rights of the female partner.

There's also need for educational and counseling services that encourage men to take care of their sexual health. More male reproductive health service providers need to be trained so that men can feel confident enough to discuss their sexual issues. Alternatively, female service providers need to be trained to become more sensitive to men's reproductive health issues.

Public health systems must also create safe spaces where men can feel confident enough to open up about their sexual and reproductive health needs.

The ripple effect will be positive and improve health for women, men, children and society at large.

As UNFPA's Executive Director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid rightly puts it: "We see men and women as partners in a relationship built on mutual respect, trust and commitment. Partnering with men promotes promotes the right of every woman, man and child to enjoy a life of health and equal opportunity."

Listen to a great radio segment on men and reproductive health in Zambia!

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