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Men and Masculinity in the Maldives

On the occasion of International Men's Day 2019, The Edition explores the unexplored; issues that require urgent male awareness and routinely affect Maldivian men. Read on about why a celebration of good, kind men is something our society desperately needs.

Rae Munavvar
20 November 2019, MVT 11:36
Men and Masculinity in the Maldives. VIDEO: HAWWA AMAANY ABDULLA / THE EDITION
Rae Munavvar
20 November 2019, MVT 11:36

Amongst a great many topics that are, as I write, being fervently dissected over coffee tables around the world, it would not be incorrect to assume that very few address issues specific to men or analyze the (at times) very vague concept of masculinity. Truth is, at least in conversation, bloke-centric affairs pale in comparison to themes such as female empowerment, rights of differently-abled persons, climate change, economic disparity and so on. Presumably, because men hold most positions of power and influence, it is assumed that therefore discussing what afflicts this portion of the population cannot be as urgent or as important.

However, that certainly cannot be true. While it is correct that, for the most part, the world is still run by men, the small percentage of males that occupy these elite spaces of economic superiority and power, do not accurately represent the gamut of male experience. The needs and wants of the specific group of individuals responsible for these great divides in privilege and representation have little to do with the way they shape and govern society around the globe.

Thus, it makes sense to declare that, without the acknowledgement and celebration of good men, and positive role models for young boys, a nation can never move forward. True equality, gender balances, elimination of corruption, dignified living for persons of various abilities, advocacy for the environment and sustainable growth - cannot be achieved if communities, societies, leaders, and media fail to encourage better ethics and values that define what a good man is, and what can be propelled forward via ‘positive’ masculinity.

Of course, a single person cannot speak for all men. Nevertheless, the research conducted by The Edition made it abundantly clear that, at least in the Maldives, a majority of males are not even aware of dangers specific to their gender, outside that which is experienced in their personal and professional circles. Now, while at first glance this might seem like men stand at such a great advantage that they can afford to “ignore” these affairs, it is more indicative of a significant gap in communication. These informative voids exist thanks mostly to the vicious cycles in which we raise boys, discouraging them to share thoughts or feel emotions with anyone at all, much less one another. Cut to a world where they not only have to deal with this inherited damage but face consequences of not being able to do so in an effective manner.

To start off, health issues that primarily affect men don’t really get as much spotlight. For instance, males are 50 percent more likely to die from preventable heart conditions, such as high cholesterol and untreated blood pressure, and as such, have shorter life expectancy than the opposite sex. On the flipside this, experts divulge, may have more to do with psychology than anything else. It is often considered ‘weak’ to worry about illnesses which prevent even men with a family history of prostate cancer, from doing regular checkups and consultations. Even when it comes to something as fervently discussed among men as sexual satisfaction, commonly held beliefs surrounding unrealistic performance expectations and ‘false advertising’ can actually result in causing undue stress and holding men back from getting necessary medical assistance or even therapy to improve their lives, sexual and otherwise.

Frankly, on the subject of mental health, a massive gender-specific problem does surface. With many men encouraged to bottle up their emotions from a young age, an unhealthy message perpetrated by both male and female adults alike, most fail to diagnose conditions or seek any help at all. There is constant pressure to live up to the ‘Malboro Man’ image, emulating a tough and stoic character, which leads to conditions like Normative Male Alexithymia (NMA). Consequently, pent-up unexpressed emotions tend to burst out in violent, negative ways and also contribute towards young males becoming more susceptible to temporary releases such as those granted by often addictive recreational drug or alcohol use, which in turn serves to deepen feelings of sadness, depression or increase impulsive behaviour. Maldivian men in their youth are noted to also frequently gravitate towards gang-like behaviour to help them compensate, as such activities typically revolve around enforcing the alpha male stereotype.

Globally though, the facts are clear - suicide is still the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45. When diving into what triggers this tragic statistic, it is found that relationships can also be a major contributor. This is especially for Southeast Asian culture, where the pressure is on men to make the first move in most romantic situations, and furthermore, where families and spousal bonds still rely heavily on the male taking on the brunt of financial responsibility. Emotional challenges are not the only factor here though, as difficulties in obtaining employment, maintaining a steady income and attaining ‘respectable positions’, particularly in work that is sustainable, adequate and/or rewarding, are all likely to push a vulnerable person down a dangerous spiral.

In Maldives, a significantly higher proportion of men in all age groups do not possess an academic or vocational certificate or diploma. At the same time, Maldivian men that do have a diploma or degree are also less likely to be employed. The 2014 census shows that of the 8,000 strong unemployed population, a total of 3,550 are men and across all ages, less than 10 percent are jobless by choice (all expenses borne by the family). While data indicates society pressures men to obtain work at an earlier age, the divide in academic or vocational training between the sexes also suggests that they are less likelier to climb up the corporate ladder compared to expatriate counterparts, and may also be less satisfied with their career choices. A 2015 study conducted in Greece established a link between the cost of the economic crisis on psychological well-being, finding that for every 1% increase in unemployment there was a 0.79% increase in the suicide rate.

But it’s not all about fatalities. Arguably, there are even worse fates to be faced with. The report on ‘Youth Vulnerability in the Maldives’ sums this up well, stating “the prevalence of drugs, gangs, and unemployment, as well as confrontational politics of the past decade, has stirred up disillusioned young men”. Accordingly, Maldivian prisons are overflowing with men, from a wide range of backgrounds and while these men may ‘deserve’ their sentences, the boys that they once were, certainly do not. In fact, what went wrong in their story is something that should concern all of us. Though we do not possess enough data to draw valid conclusions, the information we did glean supports the idea that, having had incorrect values being reinforced continuously throughout their lives, many adult males do not hold the tools necessary to deal with life’s adversities in a productive fashion. To illustrate this statement and make a brief departure to our previous discussion, in 2011 a UNDP report revealed that 80 percent of prisoners were made up of those serving sentences for drug abuse.

What are these tools we speak of? The knowledge and skills that children absorb during their formative years allow them to function as productive, happy adults. Many of these lessons are those which we learn in classrooms, whether on the blackboard or in the yard. Numerous teachers have reported the likelihood of a higher incidence of learning disabilities among schoolboys, which due to cultural factors and a lack of awareness, often passed undiagnosed. This is an issue that is not addressed within the schooling system. However, one of the most worrying effects it has is discouraging young boys from pursuing education, making them feel unable to match their peers and perhaps cause them to eventually forsake career pathways they are better suited for. Coupled with an inability to express healthy emotions, this frustration also lays ground for young men to act out and engage in undesirable behaviour. The former idea is supported by the 2014 census which reveals that men aged between 20 to 34 struggle to find suitable work that matches their level of education.

The census also identifies ill health and/or disability as a primary reason for men being unemployed in the aforementioned age group. As many as 18 percent of male youth aged between 25 to 29 and 21 percent aged 30 to 34, report levels of ill health and/or disability preventing them from working. UNFPA’s Thematic Analysis on Youth in the Maldives highlights this trend as an indicator suggesting a large proportion of young men with debilitating health issues, an issue that has as yet not been identified in a satisfactory manner.

Indeed, much of the troubles focused on men does ease up comparatively as fellows approach adulthood, with the system leaning heavily in their favour. Yet, as evidenced by the health data alone, it is not a problem-free era of a man’s life. In parenthood, especially with regards to single-fathers, there are a lot of difficulties presented by the fact that a majority of the services, exceptions and advantages offered to parents do discriminate against the male. Even for something as simple as access to changing tables, the needs of fathers around the world are not accommodated as well as mothers. On the other end of the spectrum, there is a prevalence of strained paternal bonds, likely remnant of the emotional repression promoted between and amongst men, which when between fathers and sons, marks the beginning of a vicious cycle.

Poor communication also has devastating consequences when young boys fall victim to abuse, sexual or otherwise. Research conducted over the past five years by the gender ministry revealed that every single month, approximately 126 children are molested in Maldives. Although the study establishes that those most commonly abused were girls aged six to ten, the number of boys abused in the same age group remains significant. Experts state that males of all ages often fail to report sexual abuse because an admission of being sexually violated is commonly perceived as a blow on their manhood. Factor accounts from local media attesting that most young males openly refuse to report such cases and there is cause for serious concern.

Overall, it is evident that across the spectrum of male experience, values of traditional masculinity which rank ‘remaining stoic and silent’ higher than ‘being in touch with one’s emotions and expressing them effectively’, is far more detrimental to the man himself, than anyone else. However, it would be remiss not to acknowledge that the bad rep masculinity has gotten of late is for good reason. Vile, horrible things have been done in the name of preserving the superiority of the male gender. However, International Men’s Day is a time to celebrate exactly the opposite. To dedicate a moment to the lads out there facing their ancestral trauma in order to be the fathers, brothers, sons, husbands, boyfriends, friends and partners that this world so desperately needs.

The candidates that graced our studio described masculinity and manhood as a sort of responsibility, a sense of guardianship towards oneself and others, strength rooted in body and character and so on, but each considerably more introspective and positive than the aggression, ego and toxicity the word is typically associated with. According to them, there is absolutely no room, regardless of interpretation, for stereotypes or abuse of powers in any form. Definitions of any nature have to do with perspective, and the power to change perspectives lies within all of us.

While it is true that hashtags like #menaretrash returned a sliver of ownership and dignity to millions of those that have suffered at the hands of cruel men, the danger is that anything that puts people in a box slackens their very ability to evolve beyond said narrative. And as with any vast subject, there is more than one way of looking at it.

This in mind, the need to support good men present in one’s life goes hand in hand with holding the less-than accountable for their deeds. A responsibility to lift up the best of men, falls on the shoulders of every single Maldivian, regardless of sex, gender or background. Dissemination of negative messages that lump everyone together, no matter how well-intended or justified, makes it that much more difficult for a man hoping to rise above centuries of conditioning. A lot can be expressed and achieved without limiting the message to one negative. Among the many hurt by men marked by an inability to ‘exorcise’ unforgivable darkness, I am no exception. Regardless, the potential for good that one man holds, to me, is an important distinction to make. As with any matter, we do have a choice to turn towards the future, transcend ancient ideology and channel our energy towards inspiring more kindness.

Though the fire that ignites blazing discourse is not likely to change and the momentum of conversation is, as should be, decidedly set towards issues that affect marginalized demographics, let us spend today reflecting on the long-forgotten ancestral bonds of brotherhood. Guys, take a moment to celebrate the role models that allowed you to become the man you are today, hopefully, a better man than you were yesterday - perhaps ponder upon what being a man means to you, and how you can give back to a world that has given you and your brothers so much, for so long.

It is time for all manner of positive change. Numerous scientists have attested that, with the inevitability of global warming, the human race is standing at the brink of extinction. For redemption of any kind, the sands of time are running out. And if men should seek it, the rest of us should deliver. Celebrate the good men you know. Tell them they are wonderful, show them that they can win. Above all, raise good men. Facilitate the evolution of boys to become amazing, fabulous, multifaceted, kind, loving men.

All in all, it seems about time as a society we ensure that where men are concerned, the good guys finally finish first!

Editors Note: The hotline for all matters relating to child abuse is 1412 or concerned citizens may dial the Police Helpline at 3000600. Hesitating to report abuse may prevent the possible protection of a child. To seek free legal consultations and awareness in the areas of family law and prevention of domestic violence law for people of all ages and genders, please contact the Family Legal Clinic at their dedicated hotline 9977771. In addition to female clients, the NGO has helped many men in need and plans to continue doing so, for the foreseeable future.

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