Sexual health has traditionally been a female responsibility. Faye Ekong, Advocacy Assistant at the German Foundation for World Population (DSW), argues that while the need for male involvement is now widely recognised, individual governments need to do more to ensure this actually happens.
Traditionally, issues surrounding sexual and reproductive health (SRH) have been considered primarily a woman’s responsibility, in which men only play a minor role. Even today, this view is still very common. In many cases, it is the woman who has to deal with the consequences of being sexually active with regards to contraception, child bearing and caring.
Even though men, especially ones in long term and committed relationships, are taking on more responsibility with regards to contraception and family planning, further action is needed in order to ensure that men’s SRH is present on the global agenda. Men should actively engage in family planning and looking after their own SRH. Especially in the era of HIV/AIDS, it is vital that the focus is not only on women but also on men and their attitudes towards SRH.
The Fourth World Conference for Women (Beijing 1995), recognised the need for men’s participation in SRH by stating that 'equal relationships between women and men in matters of sexual relations and reproduction, including full respect for the integrity of the person, require mutual respect, consent and shared responsibility for sexual behaviour and its consequences' As recently as 2004, the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly reaffirmed the importance of men’s involvement in reproductive health (RH).
There is more involved in SRH than just promoting the use and availability of contraceptive methods such as condoms. In order to improve SRH and stop HIV/AIDS, which is largely sexually transmitted, social and behavioural attitudes towards men’s role in family planning needs to be changed. Up until today, men’s sexual health often remains a taboo area, rarely discussed even amongst men themselves.
Some European States have made considerable progress in raising awareness amongst men. In the last 10 years, Sweden has launched a wide range of programmes and services in SRH catering towards the needs of men. Sex education has been introduced in the Swedish army, church, youth centres and schools.
Similarly, the UK based Brook Advisory Centre, which offers free sex advice and contraception to young people under 25, also started providing special sessions for men after realizing that young men were being seriously overlooked with regards to contraceptive advice and information. It now has two clinics in London which run male-only sessions paying special attention to protection against sexual transmitted infections (STIs).
Unfortunately, there are also a substantial number of countries that are not addressing these issues enough, and where comprehensive and unbiased sex education is still lacking. In Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries, the situation is particularly difficult, as sexuality in general is a topic not much discussed and religious beliefs still play a dominant role with regards to sexual attitudes.
In Poland, sex education is strongly influenced by the Catholic Church, which encourages young people to use natural methods and hence ignores the dangers of STIs and unwanted pregnancies. In countries such as Armenia, sex education is completely absent.
In 1995, in an attempt to combat the alarming spread of STIs, The Russian Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health, in collaboration with The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), tried to initiate a program to develop school-based sex education for adolescents. However the decision was quickly reversed as the government and education officials were subject to extreme criticism from parents, politicians and the Church.
Limited knowledge about SRH is causing CEE countries to be at the forefront of HIV/AIDS in Europe. A press release from the World Health Organisation (WHO) in February 2004 cautioned that there were over 1.5 million people in Eastern Europe living with HIV/AIDS compared to 30,000 in 1995. Even more worrying is a fact sheet published by The Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) on HIV/AIDS and STIs within Europe; at the end of 2001 the majority of adults (15-49) living with HIV/AIDS, were men. In the new member states like Estonia out of a total of 7,700 infected adults 6,200 were men. This fact is not only a characteristic of the new member States is also reflected in Western Europe. In Portugal 20,900 out of 26,000 were men and in the UK the figures were 26,000 out of 34,000.
In many European countries, men still play the dominant role in intimate relationships. In order to improve SRH on a large scale, it is crucial that the stigma surrounding men’s SRH is removed. Support networks which cater to the needs of men need to be set up in order for sexually active men to be able to make more informed choices with regards to their SRH. Similarly there is a growing need for special-awareness raising programs to encourage men to take responsibility for their sexual behaviour. Furthermore, in areas such as CEE, the hurdle of SRH as a taboo topic in general has to be overcome in order to be able to focus on gender specific sex advice.
: Karen Hoehn Director, European Affairs, German Foundation for World Population (DSW) Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: www.dsw-hannover.de