Academic journal article International Journal of Men's Health

Rethinking Gender, Men and Masculinity: Representations of Men in the South Asian Reproductive and Sexual Health Literatures

Academic journal article International Journal of Men's Health

Rethinking Gender, Men and Masculinity: Representations of Men in the South Asian Reproductive and Sexual Health Literatures

Article excerpt

In recent years, there has been growing recognition among researchers and international organizations of the need to involve men in health and development, both as an important analytical category and as a means of leveraging policy and programs in support of gender equality for both women's and men's sexual health (Greig, Kimmel, & Lang, 2000; Cornwall & White, 2000; Mane & Aggleton, 2001; Cornwall, Edström, & Greig, 2011). However, there is lack of agreement concerning the best and most effective ways of involving men in sexual and reproductive health (SRH), both conceptually and operationally (Sternberg & Hubley, 2004).

On the one hand, involving men has been described as critical for effectiveness of SRH programs, because men have often been seen as "gatekeepers" of women's economic and social mobility (Sternberg & Hubley, 2004). On the other hand, some researchers have suggested that involving men in program development may further increase their control over women's sexual and reproductive health (Cornwall, 1998, as cited in Sternberg & Hubley, 2004). Notwithstanding these debates, men have begun to appear within the SRH literature globally and, of special relevance here, in research studies from countries such as Nepal (Mullany, Becker, & Hindan, 2007), India (Char, Saavala, & Kulmala, 2011), Pakistan (Walle, 2004), Bangladesh (Hawkes, 1998; Hawkcs & Collumbien, 2007), and Sri Lanka (Simpson, 2004).

In this paper, and as part of a larger study focusing on the relationship between different forms of masculinity and sexual health in Bangladesh, we provide a critical review of the South Asian literature on sexual and reproductive health to examine how men have been represented within this context. We draw upon the work of two highly influential social theorists-Raewyn Connell and Judith Butler-because aspects of their work may enable a re-thinking of men and gender in relation to sexual and reproductive health in South Asia. We argue that there is a need to move beyond problem-focused understandings of men, to consider them as gendered subjects who enact contextually influenced, multiple masculinities in often complex and contradictory ways.


Since the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo in 1994, reproductive health rights have been a key dimension of the global health and development agenda. Principle 8 of the Programme of Action (PoA) of the ICPD stressed the need to ensure and promote the reproductive health and rights of all people (United Nations, 1995a, p. 12).

Chapter VII of the PoA of the ICPD defines reproductive health as:

...a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and ... not merely the absence of disease or infirmity, in all matters relating to the reproductive system and its functions and processes. Reproductive health therefore implies that people are able to have a satisfying and safe sex life and that they have the capability to reproduce and the freedom to decide if, when and how often to do so. (United Nations, 1995a,p.40)

Implicit in this definition of reproductive health rights are the rights of individuals and couples to be informed about effective, affordable, acceptable and safe methods of birth control, and to attain the highest possible standard of reproductive and sexual health (United Nations, 1995a, p. 40). The ICPD called upon all nations to take measures to ensure the reproductive health and rights of men and women, and to empower women to realize their rights (United Nations, 1995a). Linked closely to reproductive rights and health are broader issues of sexual health and sexual rights. According to the World Health Organization's (WHO) working definition, sexual health may be defined as:

.. .a state of physical, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality. It requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. …

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