Broadly speaking, men are expected to be physically strong, emotionally robust, daring and virile. Some of these expectations translate into attitudes and behaviours that have become unhelpful or frankly lethal with the advent of AIDS. Others, on the contrary, represent valuable potential that can be tapped by AIDS programmes.
Men's traditional role as economic providers -- a major contribution to family welfare and survival -- has traditionally meant that women are the ones expected to look after children and care for sick family members. With millions of women falling ill and dying of AIDS, and millions of children left orphaned, it is urgent for men to be more fully engaged in domestic tasks and the provision of care within the family.
Extra challenges for HIV prevention arise from traditional expectations that men should take risks, have frequent sexual intercourse (often with more than one partner) and exercise authority over women. Among other things, these expectations encourage men to force sex on unwilling partners, to reject condom use and the search for safety as "unmanly", and to view drug-injecting as a risk worth taking. Changing these commonly-held attitudes and behaviours must be part of the effort to curb the AIDS epidemic.
The roots of such behaviour lie in the broader culture and in the home. Boys are encouraged to imitate older boys and men, and discouraged from imitating girls and women. Boys who see fathers and other men being violent toward women, or treating women as sex objects, may end up believing this is "normal" male behaviour. A recent study in Germany, for example, found that young men who were disrespectful in relationships with young women had often witnessed similar relationships in their homes.
During childhood and adolescence, girls are often kept close to their mothers while boys are permitted to spend most of their time outside the home. This gives them more freedom but also greater exposure to other boys and men who may implicitly or explicitly encourage them to see women as sex objects that men have a right to dominate. It may be in this context also that they learn behaviours such as substance use or rejection of condoms. A survey of 15-to-19 year-old boys in the U.S. found that those with traditional views of manhood were more likely to have been involved in violence and delinquency, substance use and unsafe sexual practices than boys with less stereotypical views about what "real men" can and should do.
Is it possible to change the way boys are brought up? Research suggests that when fathers and other male family members offer a positive role, boys develop a more flexible vision of manhood and are more respectful in their relationships with women. But all members of the family have an important role in raising boys. Mothers often reinforce traditional ideas about manhood by showing that they do not expect sons to do household chores or express their emotions. Relatives, teachers and other adults may worry more about the sexual behaviour of girls, leaving boys to learn about sexuality on their own. Boys may be discouraged from talking about their bodies and issues such as puberty and masturbation. This can be the start of lifelong difficulties for men in talking about sex and learning the facts rather than believing the many myths that surround the subject.
This article was provided by UNAIDS. It is a part of the publication Men and AIDS -- A Gendered Approach, 2000 World AIDS Campaign. Visit UNAIDS' website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.