Adolescent Boys and Young Men: Engaging Them as Supporters of Gender Equality and Health and Understanding Their Vulnerabilities

Kate-Wallace, Adolescent boys - cover.jpg

“Far too many boys approach adolescence having experienced violence, witnessed violence, dropped out of school, had risky sex, or practiced other risk-taking behaviors because they believe that they must do so to be seen by their peers and their communities as “real men.” This has real and long-lasting impacts on the lives of women and girls and inhibits the creation of respectful and equal relationships.”

This technical paper, based on global research, seeks to create a better understanding of the realities of adolescent boys and young men. It explores the specific risks and realities in relation to health in general, violence, sexuality and sexual and reproductive health (SRH), media violence, sexual exploitation, education, and other specific vulnerabilities. It then analyses the implications of these risks and realities not only for boys, but also on the lives of women and girls. The study emphasises that a holistic approach to advancing gender equality and SRH must include both adolescent girls and boys. It highlights the need to engage adolescent boys and young men as allies to achieve gender equality and as supporters of women’s empowerment, as well as the importance of addressing the specific health and social development needs of boys themselves. It makes the point that “the process of questioning and overcoming rigid, inequitable, and violent norms that limit the lives of women and girls is also positive for adolescent boys, whose lives and health improve when such norms are challenged.”

The paper is organised as follows: The first section states the rationale for engaging adolescent boys and young men for the purposes of gender equality, as well as for their own needs. It highlights the need to engage adolescent boys and young men from two overlapping and complementary approaches – one that engages boys for the purposes of gender equality and a second that recognises the context-specific needs and vulnerabilities of boys themselves. It also looks at adolescence as a “period of opportunity” to engage boys in gender equality, explores the impact of living within “systems” of inequality on gender norms and health, and reviews the importance of engaging men and boys (alongside women and girls) across the lifespan.

Section 2 reviews current research on boys’ specific risks and realities in relation to general health status, violence, sexuality and SRH, media violence, sexual exploitation, education, and other specific vulnerabilities. It also discusses the implications of these issues on the lives of women and girls. The section makes recommendations for working with boys to change gender-inequitable norms in relation to popular media, which has a tendency to present hyper-masculine images of “typical” manhood and stereotypical views of sexually submissive girls and women. It highlights the need for comprehensive sexuality education, school-based campaigns, and the use of social media such as Facebook as methods to spark awareness among young women and girls, and among young men and boys, about these issues. The report calls for more dialogue with media content producers to promote positive norms and open discussions about healthy sexuality. In addition, initiatives should be encouraged that support young people, parents, schools, governments, and the community sector to understand and address the influence of pornography. The report makes the point that, “[A]s boys’ access to popular media increases across the Global South and North, they must be given the skills to look at stereotypical images of men and women with a critical lens – including sexually explicit imagery such as pornography – and be able to distinguish between images that portray positive sexuality and those that are violent and degrading…Violent and degrading imagery depicts men in unhealthy ways that put their overall well-being at risk. Comprehensive sexuality education, facilitated dialogue via organized sports, and online campaigns can all raise boys’ and young men’s critical awareness of the need to adopt healthier masculinities.”

Section three looks more deeply into the ways that policymakers, development practitioners, and other key stakeholders can work with boys in the following areas: 1) boys and access to SRH services, 2) comprehensive sexuality education, 3) fatherhood, caregiving, and the development of connected and caring relationships of all kinds, 4) elimination of violence against women and girls, and 5) sexual orientation and gender identity. Examples of programmes from across the globe are highlighted for each of these areas, such as the Brave Men Campaign in Bangladesh, the Roots of Empathy programme implemented in various countries in the Global North, The Young Men initiative in the Balkans, the Gender Equity in Schools Portal in Brazil, and a programme working with young boys with HIV in Uganda.

The report concludes with the following final considerations:

  • “To continue improving the lives of women and girls, and to continue improving boys’ own well-being, we must understand and address boys’ vulnerabilities as a result of gender inequality.”
  • “These vulnerabilities (for both boys and girls) are also the result of, and interact with, structural inequalities within our societies, including poverty and other forms of social exclusion.”
  • Gender synchronicity in gender-transformative programming is a new gold standard - “we must work with boys and girls, men and women, sometimes together, sometimes apart, in programs that question gender norms, challenge power inequalities, and find benefits and opportunities for both adolescent girls and adolescent boys, young women and young men.”
  • “It is also necessary to work with men and boys beyond the field of sexual and reproductive health and rights.” This includes engaging adolescent boys as economic actors, political actors, and civil society actors to use their leadership positions to promote gender equality.

To see the full report, go to….