For a long time, toxic masculinity has become a general explanation for male violence and sexism, triggered by the patriarchal system. It refers to the socially-constructed attitudes that describe the masculine gender role as violent, unemotional, and sexually aggressive, among others, that it has attracted a growing movement fighting against its norms.
In a dialogue, dubbed Gender Cafés that was organised by UN Women in partnership Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Rwanda, gender advocates discussed ways in which toxic masculinity can be a threat to society and how it can be revised.
Citing her scenario when she just started her business two years ago, Dominique Alonga, founder of Imagine We Rwanda, she believes that the cultural shift towards gender norms, has benefited mainly, the male gender, and instead oppressed the women.
“When I started working, many people refused to partner with me because they thought it was a risk because they feared I would get pregnant and abandon my work. I also feared to hire women because I was afraid of how I would support my business when they went for maternity leave.
The audience that turned up for the Gender Cafe where issues of masculine toxicity were addressed.
“The system was not formulated taking into consideration the maternity leave or period days that may require women to take a few days off. The system considered women as secondary and accommodate men before they accommodate women. All men benefit from patriarchy as they are believed to have more assertiveness, powerful and intellectual, and will, therefore, get the job or even be respected in society for that,” she said.
Patriarchy, however, has also been spread in religions, that has gained the trust of many, yet its toxicity continues to affect its female members.
Among the participants, Pastor Hassan Kibirango from Christian Life Assembly (CLA), said religion has somehow contributed to toxic masculinity, even though God does not condone it.
“Church is a product of history, and we have a text called the Bible, which has some undertones and narratives that seem to be derogatory or pushing down women. However, all is not lost, as the Church can help to bridge the gap, and help men become more of the promoters of gender equality instead of being on the opposite side,” he said.
But women are not the sole victims of toxic masculinity as men can be affected just as deeply by these acts.
Fidele Rutayisire from Rwanda Men’s Resource Center (RWAMREC) noted that even if men are not directly targeted by an act of toxic masculinity, they cannot escape its culture that forces them to suppress their own emotions and feelings, in order to suit the expectations of masculinity that suggest emotions are weak.
“Today we have many men challenging the status quo because they have realised that patriarchy doesn’t just harm women, but men too. Although they enjoy some privileges, men are under pressure to be the provider in a home and fit in society’s expectations to prove their strength,” he said.
Echoing his words, Dr Zindaba Chisiza, a senior lecturer in the University of Malawi, added that the costs for toxic masculinity are so many in terms of the dangers, including men themselves.
“We have many men in prisons as a result of violence, and many of them dying because if they go to hospital they will be considered weak. There is a need to engage men, help them, to make them better but also make them partners to ensure equality and existence in a way that is fair for everybody, mentally, spiritually and socially,” he said.
Can masculinity be detoxified?
In order to dismantle toxic masculinity, Zindaba believes that people would have to be willing to challenge the system. Rather than engaging in toxic practices, men who are in privileged positions should be able to recognise that they can be agents for change, to the benefit of all.
“Even the toys parents buy for their children perpetuate their gender identities. Girls get Barbie dolls and boys get toy cars and they grow up to be scientists because cars challenge their thinking while the girls are taught to be caretakers. Buying different toys regardless of the gender is one way they can change these stereotypes in homes and schools,” he said.
For Alonga, one of the biggest challenges in fighting patriarchy and toxic masculinity is silence.
“Not speaking up or reporting a neighbour who beats up his wife is one of the privileges men have had in this fight. Break your own silences and hold men accountable.
“The other thing about this fight is that we do not want to dominate, we want to participate and sometimes protection can be nice but it can also hinder our right to participate. If women maintain the same energy and not get tired we can detoxify masculinity,” she said.
Also, religious leaders, she believes, need to ensure that women in the church or mosques are not stigmatised like it was in the past, rather, have a right to be heard and that young men should be taught that it’s okay to be vulnerable, and to be themselves because toxicity can hurt them as well.
Rutayisire also added that the best way to engage men and boys is to call them partners, allies and advocates as opposed to calling them ‘trash’, a common phrase that is used by some activists agitating for gender parity, since there are so many men that have joined in the fight to dismantle patriarchy.
“We need to continue these conversations and discussions because we need to take interventions around positive masculinity programme to policy. As people who work with boys and men, we recognise that all interventions promoting masculinity should be feminist informed, the end result should be promoting gender equality, women’s leadership and challenging the status quo.”
Fatou Lo, the UN Women Country Representative, also weighed in the issue of name-calling during activism referring to inferences like “Men are Trash”.
“We have to be respectful of human rights, by avoiding antagonizing any groups with name-calling, like the same way we don’t appreciate it as women, whether it is men, people living with disability, people of different religious beliefs. When it’s applied to men it is bad, when it is applied to women it is bad,” she said.