Work vs. family – how do men do it?

Today I was at a women and tech event. This isn’t the first one I’ve been to and I noticed that some of the usual questions came up. Questions about how to give young girls role models in tech, how to bring opportunities to primary and secondary schools, about what ‘in tech’ really means, until we eventually got to the question about balancing work and family life. The three women on the panel gave the usual kind of answers about improving support in the workplace, dealing with guilt, understanding it was ok to take some time out and so on. The two men on the panel stayed silent. I cheekily posted the following tweet, which was then picked up by the moderator.

Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 20.39.56

At first I was a bit embarrassed as my tweet was not a real question, rather a funny remark to highlight the fact that we rarely expect men to answer that question. Yet, the moderator decided to ask my question in the most sincere and matter-of-fact way that took the two men quite aback. Both their answers clearly showed they had never really thought about that question, let alone been asked it in public. They acknowledged that they didn’t do a great job in terms of their family life and got to the conclusion that society gave men leeway to be bad at balancing family and work life, by judging them less harshly.

It was quite eye opening, both for me and, I believe, the two men. In my opinion, asking women that work/life balance question tends to exacerbate the problem rather than solve it. Whenever I hear it, it makes me question of how I will be able to have a career and a family, how I will manage when my partner will be working, when the best moment for me to have kids is – even though it’s a conversation for me and my partner.

Many of these gender debates are too focused on highlighting the problems and not the solutions. There is a negative bias towards what doesn’t work, while we could try and learn from where and when it works – and constructing a dialogue together with men, rather than question of why we still can’t have it all.

What about the men?

ICT interventions to prevent violence against women more often than not work with… women

In the last decade Information and Communication Technology (ICT) went from being a buzzword to representing an essential tick-box in the development community as more and more donors and NGO professionals see opportunities in ICT to add value to their existing projects, to ‘conquer the last mile’ and to scale up projects faster than ever before. Projects addressing violence against women (VAW) are no exception. There is indeed a plethora of ICT solutions that aim to fight VAW. A recent post by Hera Hussain on ICTWorks talks about some of the missed opportunities to address violence against women and also about some of the projects that are addressing VAW. Her article however highlighted to me an essential problem: too many of these projects target women.

I understand that women need to be informed of their rights, because they need to know that violence – in the household and elsewhere – is always unacceptable and that there is legal and social help available.

In the same way, creating better ways of notifying support services or the police can be helpful for survivors of violence against women.

Finally, gathering data on VAW helps to inform policy decisions and to increase awareness.

But all this will not change the fact that there are people perpetrating violence against women – many of them men. Yet most projects that are involving men to reduce levels of violence against women remain at the community-level. They often come in the form of training, workshops and peer education. They also require a long-term commitment.

While ICT is not the magic bullet some make it out to be, I think that the one missed opportunity in addressing VAW using ICT is the fact that men are not involved enough as part of these interventions. I find it a shame because it’s been widely acknowledged that we can’t address VAW without men on our side – whether that is for addressing rape culture on university campuses or intimate partner violence in the household.

One of the few examples I heard about was from GoJoven Belize at the YTH Live conference last April in San Francisco. They partnered with the Center for Digital Storytelling for a project called ‘Youth Leaders Speak‘, where young people are trained to create their own videos on a variety of issues linked to adolescent sexual health and rights. The presenter worked with a particular group that reflected on male values and masculinities in the community to create their own videos, which they then showed to their community to start a dialogue.

I would love to hear about more ICT projects addressing VAW prevention that also involve men! Are there maybe:

-> eLearning modules for groups of men and boys to learn about concepts of masculinities and VAW?

-> eLearning modules for parents to rethink the values they are passing down?

-> support groups and call-in numbers for men who display aggressive behaviour?

-> SMS advocacy campaigns to raise awareness about values, gender roles and culture?

If you know of any projects, I would love to hear about them!

Why breastfeeding is everybody’s business

Today I read quite an interesting article about how  ‘Breastfeeding is a grey area for Ugandan mothers’. Namubiro’s article is from 2009 but still relevant for today.  She makes a very good point – which is also widely acknowledged – a lot of mothers in Uganda stop breastfeeding early, a lot of them exclusively breastfeed for only a few months, some give pre-lacteals. These practices, that could be improved according to WHO standards, have some role to play in child survival and child development.

For me, talking about breastfeeding is a dangerous territory, as we are quick to attribute responsibility to the mother – and putting mothers at risk of probably the worst accusation of ‘being a bad mother’.

From Namubiro’s article:

“Asked whether she breastfeeds exclusively, Ayio says she does. On further probing however, she reveals that she gives him cow milk once in a while. “I gave him cow milk only twice” she says defensively when friends around her laugh.”

“Ayio is doing better than her neighbour Sharon Apolot who has just fed her one-day-old baby on almost half a mug of sugar water.”

Both Ayio’s friends and to some extent the author are judging the mothers. To improve the nutritional status of newborns and toddlers it is important to empower mothers, but also their communities. Namubiro for example talks about the fact that “the best and most nutritious food is given to the father”. Infant feeding isn’t just the mother’s business- she needs an environment that helps her make the best choices for her baby!

While it is important to give every mother the information she needs to do the best thing for her baby (none of us is born the perfect mother, we all have to learn it!), there is more to improving breastfeeding practices, such as:

  • providing her environment with breastfeeding information – her mother-in-law, her mother, her partner, her sisters…

  • giving the mother the possibility to breastfeed at work and in public spaces

  • providing breastfeeding support in case of breastfeeding problems

  • making the first baby foods more affordable …

On sexist social marketing

In her TED talk Amy Lockwood talks about selling condoms in the Congo. She shows examples of condoms given for free by NGOs, international organisations or the government. She mocks their designs because they use pictures and slogans highlighting things such as ‘prudence’, ‘protection’, ‘trust’, the AIDS ribbon etc… She goes on to say that this is not what people (understand men) have on their mind before buying condoms. No, they think about ‘SEX’ (apparently it needs capitalised letters). So she gives examples of a different kind of packaging used by private companies – which are ‘incredibly provocative’ (understand ‘they objectify women’).

She argues that the problem with donor/ government condoms is that they make the messages for their first audience (donors, politicians, agencies, international organisations, NGOs) which like to see such values associated with safe sex unlike the private companies who are only thinking of the consumer. But, it seems they are going wrong. They should be using half-naked women (that’s my interpretation of her comments).

‘It doesn’t really matter what you’re selling. You just have to think about who is your customer? What are the messages that are going to change their behaviour? It might just save their lives’

So, what is wrong with this talk?

Well – what isn’t wrong with it?

Her argument makes sense in a way: If a certain strategy is the most effective in changing people’s behaviour, let’s pursue it. While this is a great logic if you are trying to get people to buy a fizzy drink or tomato soup, it’s not so great when you are trying to fight HIV/ AIDS.

The problem with HIV/ AIDS is that a lot of structural barriers exist – they are macro-level barriers such as HIV stigma, poverty and also gender roles.

Gender roles as a driver of HIV have been the subject of many studies. This is also due to fact that in many high-prevalence countries, the social group with the highest prevalence are young women (15-24 y).

While there is no one way in which gender roles affect HIV transmission, often the problem is that women are not empowered enough. They are not part of the decision of whether to wear a condom. They can be scared to be seen as promiscuous if they ask their partner to wear a condom or they feel obliged to conform to the man’s desires.

So, by using pictures like these,


we are not changing anything about the perception of women’s and men’s role in society.

I know that one condom packaging might not make a huge difference overall, but this does not justify the use of pictures that objectify women. A change of perception will not happen overnight, but we have to try- step by step. It is important to speak out against the use of social marketing in HIV prevention.

If you look at the theory, the same problem emerges. Social marketing is based on the principle that messages are embedded in the social environment. So, what do we do if the social environment is conducive to more infections? Selling more condoms will make a minimal difference. And Amy Lockwood is trying to be impactful by stressing that this kind of strategy will save lives. But actually changing the perception of the role of women and the role of men will save more lives.