What it means for men to speak up for reproductive rights

Advocates like Roger-Mark DeSouza say men want to play a larger role in family planning but face constraints

Roger-Mark DeSouza is the Director of Population, Environmental Security, and Resilience at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. Women at the Center interviewed DeSouza in his office in June.

What do you see as the role of men around family planning, both personally and politically?

I think men have a critical role in family planning on a personal level, and I think that personal commitment gets translated to those of us, those men, who are engaging on family planning issues on a professional level.

I reflect on my life as the son of a mother without a father in the household, as the father of two American boys, and as a future father-in-law, in thinking about decisions that my sons and their partners potentially might make about family planning.

I feel that it’s important for us men, personally, to understand the set of issues related to decisions with regard to family planning, to understand the barriers to services, and the decisions that couples should be making together. Because it is very much a joint role, to raise children, and to do that in a way that enhances a couple’s engagement in the family unit.

So there is no space for men NOT to be involved.

I know that many of the young fathers that are members of my family, my cousins or my friends, are very passionate about being a father. There’s a real desire on a personal level for us to understand and not be excluded from issues related to family planning. And traditionally, we have been excluded.

Very often, you may hear in the family planning community that we need to reach out and engage men. And that almost presupposes that men need to be engaged. But at the same time, you have a number of men who want to be engaged. We want to be in this space, too. We want to share this space with our partners, and very often we feel left out.

I think there’s a real generational shift, with many young men in the United States and internationally. It’s very important to reach out, build on this personal desire to be involved, and think about how we engage young men in this space.

It’s critical to the well-being of the families, it’s critical to help these men live a full life that responds to their desires to be engaged. And it’s such a critical component of being with your partner. This is something you share, and men are wanting to own that space. We no longer want to be left out, and I see that personally and professionally.

Are their cultural differences around these issues in other countries?

I’m originally from the Caribbean, and we have a very machismo culture in Latin America and the Caribbean. It’s not a space that was there when I was growing up. My father was absent, was not involved in the decisions that my mother had to make, and this is very common in the region. It’s something I’ve also seen in other cultures, in Africa, in South Asia, in some of the island communities. But more and more, I see men wanting to be engaged, young men recognizing that this is a part of raising healthy children. The more educated they become about family planning, the greater the desire to be more involved.

There’s a kernel of a desire to be engaged, but they’re not quite sure what that means. When I interact with these men across the world, the more they learn, the more they become very proud of that knowledge. They want to own it, and expand it, and be more involved, and they almost wear that as a badge of pride.

I think that we men must also reach out to gatekeepers who sometimes provide barriers. I’m sometimes surprised by attitudes I see from mothers-in-law, for example, who perpetuate this image of the wife needing to care for their sons, and have this revered space, particularly when it comes to reproductive health and family planning issues. Even when the son has gone past that outdated image. It’s a very interesting dichotomy. I see more and more men who want to engage, but they have to navigate this space of associations with power and being macho.

It’s a reinvention of what it is to be masculine, what it is to be macho.

So I think it’s critical to find the men who have this kernel of interest, and educate them. And help men figure out how to navigate these images of what it means to be involved with your spouse or partner in this way. And of course, making sure to respect culture and religious beliefs. There’s an important opportunity to get this into our discourse on religion, the importance of fatherhood in the context of religion, and of a family unit.

Does the US have a responsibility to promote access to family planning around the globe, for men as well as women? Are we doing a good job of that now?

I think that the United States has a critical role globally in providing access to family planning services and information to men and to women. I think we have to be very careful that we are not excluding men and young boys. We have to think about doing that through the delivery of comprehensive sexuality education, both in formal and informal settings at the early formative years, and help young men and young boys to figure out how they navigate their masculinity in that space. So it becomes a very empowering thing.

This is not easy to do, because you come up against these cultural barriers. But I think the earlier you do that, the greater the success you have. We know, for example, that abstinence-only programming is harmful. We help to support comprehensive sexuality education abroad, in partnerships. I think the United States is doing well at developing partnerships, but I think there continues to be a need to ensure that there is mutual understanding of what is appropriate, culturally. And that there’s not a perception of the United States advancing this agenda because we are a wealthy nation and we’re able to provide funding to assist in this effort. It must be in partnership, where there are opportunities for mutual listening and engagement, and support financially that comes from a variety of sectors, that includes foreign governments and their interests.

And it also includes the corporate sector. This should be a component of corporate social responsibility. Many of our U.S.-based corporations are operating internationally, and this is a real way to engage communities on the ground in a meaningful way that allows these communities to be healthy communities, and has a direct association with a business case for engagement at a community level.

Is there a danger in focusing family planning education just on women and girls?

One danger, if you focus exclusively on women, is that you miss men who are important decision-makers in this space. It’s a lack of recognition of the role that men can and should play, and want to play, in this space.

Secondly, I think if you focus exclusively on women and young girls, in many of the societies where we have family planning programs, many of the gatekeepers are men. So if you help increase men’s understanding and appreciation, and you demonstrate that there are concrete benefits to the family, to anti-poverty programs, to economics and livelihood opportunities, then you get men involved. Then they are willing to work together, men and women, professionally, to create opportunities. And that also translates into the personal space. We have to ensure that if we are working with women to help increase opportunities together with them, that there are not barriers that arise because men are not engaged. These women then may have to deal with power dynamics. If you have men involved in these programs, women are better able to navigate that space, together with the men. But if you exclude men, you may be making it more difficult for women.

As a father, why is improved access to family planning important to you?

We first got pregnant with our first son, and we were using an IUD. Which is a very reliable contraceptive method, with a very high success rate. We were quite surprised — and pleased — to have our first son even though we were using what was a very reliable method. Unfortunately, our son passed away at three weeks. And I remember my wife saying to me at the time, ‘we need to have a lot of kids, because we need to ensure that they survive.’

It was my final year of graduate school, and I recall thinking, let me separate myself from this personal situation, but this is what I hear from the women that we have been studying in the developing world. They say, if we have an unreliable system of family planning services that’s also tied to maternal care and delivery, there’s an incentive to have more children. And I said to myself, I’m living in Washington, DC, my wife and I are fairly educated, we’re fairly privileged, we have access to the best health care, yet we are able to have this reflection and this thought ourselves, having just lost a son.

And I thought to myself, family planning and understanding our options in this space is so important, because we are able to make decisions. What about those couples in other situations, that don’t have access to family planning services, and are unable to make those decisions, because they don’t have access, and because they have poor maternal health care? They could end up having many more children than they actually would like to have.

We had two additional kids. We thought, we didn’t want to be outnumbered, but that was a very conscious decision for us. And for us, it wasn’t because we didn’t want to have more children. We felt having two children allowed us to be able to invest and care for them in a way that they could be productive and engaged citizens as they grew up. So that was what was manageable for us. I would say, if another family wants to have three or four children, that’s up to them, but it must be an informed decision. Family planning, and information and access to services, combined with good maternal health care, is so critical and foundational to a well-functioning family, community, society and country, but it starts at that individual level. And it’s supported by actions that the government takes, that providers take, that donors take, and that a community takes. So it’s a collective impact and effort, but very much rooted in opportunity, access and information at an individual level.

And this is at the heart of our existence. It really is so foundational that I feel privileged that we have had that opportunity, and I hope that we continue to work to ensure that others are able to make informed decisions about how many children they would like to have, and when they’d like to have those children. And that men are active and engaged participants in that process.

Women at the Center

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Connecting the dots between sexual and reproductive health and rights and sustainability.