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Is masculinity in crisis or are men shifting blame for woes?

Worries over changing gender roles abound from China to Kenya

In Summary

• Emasculation is worrying some as the world celebrates International Women's Day

A man holds his face in his palms
A man holds his face in his palms

A lot has been said about the expectations placed on men in a world striving for gender equality. The clash in expectations between the traditional and the modern has led to a crisis in male identity.

The problem with male identity, also known as masculinity, is caused by the changing roles of men and women in today’s world. The idea of a masculinity in crisis has created lots of controversy in every country, including here in Kenya. Those who suggest masculinity is in a crisis say efforts to empower women and girls have reached a point where men and boys are "disempowered".

On the other hand, people who dismiss the thought of a male identity crisis argue that women and girls are simply reclaiming their space. Men should not feel threatened by empowered women. "I believe men can do better," wrote Star columnist Felgonah Oyuga. "Our fathers did their best. You now have access to so much, why would you want to concentrate on crying?" she asked in an article.

Worries about the decline of masculinity have motivated the production of books, movies and television programmes aimed at helping men cope with the changes unfolding before their eyes. On social media, there’s a growing movement of influencers advising men on how to conduct themselves appropriately. Those who provide the free tips say they are helping men fulfil their responsibilities to their families. The tips focus on romantic relationships, parenting, finances, careers and leadership.

There’s criticism, though, that some of the advice on social media platforms could be promoting “toxic masculinity”, which makes undesirable character traits, such as marital infidelity, domestic violence and discrimination against women, seem acceptable.

In Kenya, there’s already a vibrant discussion on masculinity and empowerment of the boy child. One of the leading activists in that field is Nderitu Njoka, chairman of the Maendeleo ya Wanaume lobby group. A controversial figure, Nderitu says the girl child is being empowered at the expense of the boy. He says the government should initiate policies and programmes to improve the self-esteem of the boy child.

On social media, among the leading proponents of masculinity is medical consultant Eric Amunga. He regularly provides tips on how men can enhance their masculinity. The tips range from how to handle marriages, how to manage personal wealth, fatherhood, personal health and career growth.

Here's one of Amunga's less controversial tips: "Men, if you show neediness, she will frustrate you to death. She loves that game."

In another masculinity tip, he says, “Before a man needs a woman, he first needs a purpose. Work on your purpose.”

He also says, “You must wake up early before the first crow, early before your family. If your wife leaves you in bed, you are courting conflicts. Even if you don't have a day job, wake up early, go run or slash or take your kids to school. Do something.”

Amunga's masculinity tips encouraged more men to share their ideas online on Saturdays, which is referred to as 'Masculinity Saturday'. Among the men active in the sessions is Waweru Nyaga, a social media influencer. Waweru believes the discussions on Masculinity Saturday are filling a crucial gap in society.

"The world is focusing on empowering women and has forgotten the important role of men in society. It [Masculinity Saturday], therefore, reminds men of their worth and teaches them how to better themselves," he explains.

However, some of Amunga’s more provocative tips have been labelled as misogynistic (strongly prejudiced against women) and pandering to toxic masculinity. Feminists and advocates of gender equality have heavily criticised Amunga’s masculinity tips. Renowned political commentator David Ndii waded into the debate, describing masculinity as "an affirmation echo chamber for fragile egos".

“My take on this masculinity charade is that it is a compensating behaviour of emasculated tubabas (adult men) who can't hold their own with a confident woman. Tigers don't strut around broadcasting their tigritude. How come none of you is tagging your wonderfully submissive women?" Ndii asked on social media.

Worries about the decline of masculinity are not just in Kenya. In February, China's Ministry of Education suggested that young Chinese men were becoming too "feminine". The ministry called on schools to put more emphasis on sports such as football to improve the masculinity of the boy child. The ministry encouraged China’s schools to employ more male teachers, especially those with a background in sports. The decision has been criticised as pitting masculinity against femininity.

“Why aren't there calls to protect girls against 'masculinisation'? It's because masculinity is traditionally associated with superiority and femininity with inferiority,” wrote Professor Liu Minghui of the China Women’s University in the China Daily newspaper.

In the rest of the world, both rich and poor countries, there are fears of men losing their masculine characteristics because traditional gender roles are changing. Jobs that used to require an army of able-bodied men are now done by machines. Factories that employed a thousand workers are today managed by less than a hundred machine operators looking at computer screens.

The shift in the workplace from manual labour has thus allowed women to enter career fields previously dominated by men. In engineering, mining, transport, aviation and the military, men and women are aggressively competing for promotions.

The opportunities that boys and men had to show off their masculine characteristics have greatly diminished. The average male will never have to wear a military uniform, carry a gun and fight on the battlefield. Living in congested urban areas denies males the opportunities to show off sporting skills, such as wrestling. The role of breadwinner in the family is shared with women. In some households, the woman brings in more money than the man.

The traditional meanings of masculinity place unrealistic expectations on men, says human rights lawyer and gender expert Steff Musho. In remarks published in the Star, Musho said society should stop reinforcing dead stereotypes of masculinity.

"This heavy expectation is undoubtedly a source of stress [on men]. Hard economic times such as the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic exacerbate the situation, resulting in substance abuse, anxiety and depression — and in worst-case scenarios, suicide," she said.

Edited by T Jalio