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Barker and Ricardo (2005) – Young Men and the Construction of Masculinity in Sub-Saharan Africa Implications for HIV/AIDS, Conflict, and Violence


Gender is increasingly used as an analytical framework in program and policy development for youth in Africa, but in most cases gender refers almost exclusively to the disadvantages that women and girls face. Given the extent of gender inequalities in sub-Saharan Africa, an almost exclusive focus on women and girls has been appropriate. However, a gender perspective and gender mainstreaming have too often ignored the gender of men and boys. The aim of this paper is to explore what a gender perspective means when applied to young men in Africa focusing on conflict, violence and HIV/AIDS. It explores the construction of manhoods in Africa and argues for the application of a more sophisticated gender analysis that also includes men and youth.

The authors carried out an extensive literature review, identified promising programs applying a gender perspective to work with young men, carried out 50 informant interviews with staff working with young men in Botswana, Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda, and 23 focus group discussions and interviews with young men in Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda.

A gendered analysis of young men must take into account the plurality of masculinities in Africa. Versions of manhood in Africa are socially constructed, fluid over time and in different settings, and plural. The key requirement to attain manhood in Africa is achieving some level of financial independence, employment or income, and subsequently starting a family. Older men also have a role in holding power over younger men and thus in defining manhood in Africa. Initiation practices or rites of passage are important factors in the socialization of boys and men throughout the region. For young men in Africa, as for young men worldwide, sexual experience is frequently associated with initiation into adulthood and achieving a socially recognized manhood.

There are a handful of important program examples that explicitly include discussions of gender socialization in their work with young men. Some key operating principles emerge from the various experiences in working with young men in a gender-specific context, including: (i) explicit discussions of masculinities in educational activities; (ii) creation of enabling environments in which individual and group-level changes are supported by changes in social norms and in institutions; (iii) broader alliance building; and (iv) the incorporation of the multiple needs of young men.

Key challenges include: (i) the need for better impact evaluation; (ii) the scope for scaling up and engaging the public sector; and (iii) the need for documentation, dissemination and technical exchange on program experiences and lessons learned.

Throughout the report, the authors make references to alternative, non-violent versions of manhood and to elements of traditional socialization in Africa that promote non-violence, and more gender-equitable attitudes on the part of young men, and to forms of socialization and social control that reduce the vulnerabilities of young men and reduce violence. Included in this section are examples of young men whose stories represent ways in which young men can question and counter prevailing norms.

These stories and the emerging literature point to some of the following protective factors that promote gender equality, health-seeking or health-protective behaviors and non-violence: (i) a high degree of self-reflection and space to rehearse new behaviors; (ii) having witnessed the impact of violence on their own families and constructed a positive lesson out of these experiences; (iii) tapping into men’s sense of responsibility and positive engagement as fathers; (iv) rites of passage and traditions that have served as positive forms of social control, and which have incorporated new information and ideals; (v) family members that model more equitable or non-violent behaviors; (vi) employment and school enrollment in the case of some forms of violence and conflict; and (vii) community mobilization around the vulnerabilities of young men.

Changing gender norms is slow, and it is made even slower by the fact that those who make program and policy decisions often have their own deep-seated biases about gender and are frequently resistant to question those. Efforts to question the sexual behavior of men in the African context, for example, have sometimes run into resistance by national level leaders who perceive that African men themselves are being “bashed” or maligned. The challenge to promote changes in gender norms is to tap into voices of change and pathways to change that exist in the context of Africa. Ultimately it will be the voices of these young men and adult men, and women, who will promote the necessary individual, community and social changes.

-Excerpt from Text, Executive Summary, p. v.


Barker, Gary, and Christine Ricardo. 2005. Young Men and the Construction of Masculinity in Sub-Saharan Africa: Implications for HIV-AIDS, Conflict, and Violence. Washington, DC: The World Bank.



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Barker and Ricardo (2005) – Young Men and the Construction of Masculinity in Sub-Saharan Africa Implications for HIV/AIDS, Conflict, and Violence

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