What About the Men? APHRC Examines the Practices of Urban Poor Men
What about men? In a world in which gender research has been associated with women, few people bother to ask this question. Generally, suppositions that practices of masculinity universally benefit all men and harm women have guided development interventions and programs in sub-Saharan Africa. Such wrong-headed notions were among issues challenged in a new study conducted by APHRC researchers.
The study collected data from Korogocho and Viwandani slums in Kenya. It relied on an assortment of qualitative research techniques, namely, ethnographic observation, in-depth guided dialogues and individual interviews with several persons, particularly men and boys. The two slums are characterized by frightening and visibly ubiquitous poverty, desperation, and misery; a visible lack of basic infrastructure; dearth of socio-economic opportunities; extreme deprivation; and enduring hardship. Put simply, the socio-economic context of life in the slums sets significant limits to what men and boys who live there can both aspire to and achieve.
Research continues to highlight poverty as a major masculinity threat. In many cultures, material wealth and the capacity to earn income are central to the identity of men. In such contexts, the ownership and display of wealth often set performance hierarchies of manliness, facilitating the castigation and devaluation of men perceived as economically-incapable. The central question addressed in the study was: How is manliness constructed, performed and realized in these slum contexts where the ‘conventional’ artifacts of masculinity are not readily available to men? Our goal was to contribute to the understanding of practices of manliness among poor slum men in Kenya, the interaction of these practices with livelihood conditions, as well as the implications for poor men’s relationships, health, and civic engagement, of their gendered practices.
The urgent and overdue need for a more critical perspective on the boys and men who live in poor urban communities of Africa has been noted. Boys and men in African slums are disproportionately represented among those who suffer morbidities and mortalities arising from injuries and interpersonal violence. In several African countries, the prevalence of violence, male involvement in alcoholism, substance use, and risky sexual practices, including multiple sexual partnerships and non-use of condoms in casual sexual liaisons, is also generally higher in poor urban communities than in the general population.
What Did We Find?
A central feature of slum manliness was the tenacious pursuit of breadwinner-type manliness in the face of its unfeasibility and impossibility for the men. Men’s fixation with breadwinner-type masculinity were performed in different ways, including the high regard in which men perceived to have attained it were held, the disrespect shown to men who had not achieved, and the hard work that poor slum men expended to achieve it. Masculine overcompensation was also evident among the slum men we studied, and tended to help them achieve dominance and status differentiation. The social routes travelled by poor slum men in quest of breadwinner masculinity also frequently required them to defy prevailing gender norms and follow courses that would qualify as ’unmanly’, including sex work.
High-levels of male violence typified the two slums. Yet, slum men did not engage in violence for the fun of it or to satisfy emotional obsessions writ large. Rather, slum men invested in violence as a survival and livelihood imperative. Being violent protected men against violence and validated them among peers. Excelling in violent situations confirmed the men as truly masculine. Masculine violence in the slums we studied was also not unconnected to the dynamic association, which slum men made, between their private and collective marginalization and livelihood misfortunes and the everyday cruelty of others. A widespread belief among slum men and boys was thus that they had to both vigorously resist violence and deploy it in order to be safe in the slums. Narrative data also conveyed a tragic sense of an inherently vicious world as well as a lived reality of powerlessness that banished slum men from dynamic access to public goods, to the realm of socioeconomic marginality and insecurity as well as participation in drugs and other illicit economies that endorsed masculine aggression and brutality.
The ways men perform themselves have important social, political, economic, and development implications. Engaging men in the fight against the lifestyles that hurt or kill them and the people around them can advance the agenda of social change and population health. A boom in interventions and efforts to support violence prevention among men currently exists in Kenya. But despite years of implementing these interventions as well as the large financial investments they have attracted, results have generally been very far from impressive. Rather, evidence of growing violence among men continues to build as several media reports demonstrate.
The evidence from our study suggests that livelihoods are key to understanding violence among Kenyan slum men. Lack of opportunities and poor livelihoods have created the most sinister forms of poverty in a context where manliness is associated with the capacity to provide and fend for families and households. Understanding and addressing violent and self-destructive masculinities among poor men in Africa requires serious attention to the victimizing implications of poverty in the face of the unremitting construction of manliness in terms of provisioning and self-defense. Inattention to poor men’s need for jobs and improved livelihoods is therefore one of the more painful limitations of current programmatic work with men in Kenya. The apparent lack of thought, by existing interventions, to the daily structures and livelihood issues that shape the lives of millions of men may thwart the vital transformations that existing initiatives are producing.
Moving Ahead with the Results
The data we have generated can provide a good basis for thinking critically and creatively about forms of programmatic action to address the negative implications of dangerous masculinities among men in the slums of Nairobi. Against that backdrop, APHRC researchers are currently using the emerging evidence to engage organizations that focus on issues of gender in Kenya. The ultimate goal of these engagements is to popularize findings from the study and encourage program implementers to use them in the design and delivery of interventions targeting urban poor men.
For more information see:
Izugbara, C (2011) Poverty, Masculine Violence and the Transformation of Men: Ethnographic Notes from Kenyan Slums. In Pringle, K., Hearn, J., Ruspini, E., & Pease, B. Men and Masculinities around the World. Palgrave Macmillan, New York. 21-32