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On Mindfulness and Masculinity

In December president Nana Akufo-Addo launched the Ghanaian iteration of the UN’s global He for She campaign. This campaign recognises that while men and masculinity pose the greatest danger to women, men also have the potential to be a crucial partner in advancing the position of women in society.

Exponential Education firmly believes in this vision. We know that through liberating boys from societal expectations and toxic masculinity we can ensure a bright future for women and girls. It is to this end that we have developed and run a Boys for Positive Change (BPC) program with senior high school boys for the last two years. The core of this program is critical reflection on what it means to be a man, and how our view of masculinity negatively affects those around us. Through this we hope to find a more positive way of being men, and to use this to support women and girls around us.

Video: Redefining African Masculinity

There are many ills in the world, inflicted in the name of a narrow, poorly defined concept of masculinity. It is this tainted masculinity drives us to hide ourselves and preen our egos, to scorn others in the name of pride. It pushes us away from our insecurities and into the arms of violence and disregard. It shuts out the world and uses the myth of its own muscle to punish those who stand between it and its own fabled ideals of dominance and sexual conquest.

Masculinity can drive men to inflict violence on the ones they should love. It is this masculinity that makes me 9 times more likely to kill someone than my sister and that makes suicide my most likely cause of death. These notions of what it means to be a man can seep into us from birth and if not recognised run rampant and seek to form us in a mould that cannot be complete. They tell us that if we are not men, if we are not strong, proud, capable, domineering, irrepressible and undefeatable, then we have failed. If we are not these things than we are not men. It is the fear of losing this, and the lack of a known alternative that drives men into pride, violence and the disastrous internalisation of vulnerability.

To change this, we must look at ourselves as men, and more crucially as individuals. We cannot remove gender from society, but we can take it out of the driving seat. Instead of being led by what we believe our gender has ordained for us, we can lead ourselves to a point at which we can turn on these notions of gender and masculinity and say to them that it is to be the individual who decides what it means for them to be a man. To do get to this point we must be able to know what it is that is laid out before us as men in a patriarchal society, what it is that is expected of us and where those expectations will lead us. Also, and I believe most importantly, to avoid this path we must know ourselves. We must know ourselves as people so that we can know that what is expected of us is not necessarily who we are or who we want to be. To be different we first have to know who we are.

The aim of the BPC programme is to create the seeds of a generation of liberated men who will create ripples of positive change in their communities, not just for the sake of the women around them, but for their own sake. To do this we focus on the dual task of finding ourselves as humans, and using that positionality to look critically at what it means to be a man in society. This critical view comes from engagement with the topics most shaped by masculinity; emotions, aggression, family life, sexual violence and gender roles. In our BPC meetings we read, talk, listen, debate and watch videos to expand our field of view, to see the various standpoints and to try and put ourselves in the shoes of those who suffer in society. However, while debate and discussion form the core of the activities of the meetings, they are essentially supported by activities that help us learn who we are, and help to break down the barriers which stop us, as men, from being vulnerable and expressing ourselves freely. These activities focus on self-expression; acting, movement and games and the creation of a safe judgement free space in which boys can connect with their individual feelings. It is the focus on self-expression, personal reflection and group-vulnerability that we hope allows boys to become men for whom “be a man” is replaced by “be whoever you want to be”.

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