From birth, boys and girls are socialised into certain behaviours, attitudes and beliefs. Simple choices such as the toys we buy, the colours we prefer and the language we use all influence social expectations, many of which put boys in positions of power, dominance and aggression and girls in domesticity, gentleness and subservience. In defining their own masculinity, boys look to their parents’ behaviour and relationship, television, media, sports and the internet to find their benchmark for socially acceptable behaviour and attitudes. These influences teach boys and men what a man can and should do, and in doing so, have also defined what is restricted to them, what is not ‘manly’. In the country of Swaziland, a man must be strong, distant, unemotional, a leader, a defender, a provider, a breadwinner, fertile, virile, and have children. These characteristics are obviously ultimately unachievable and can be toxic. They often do not lead to happiness, companionship and a sense of belonging, instead creating feelings of inadequacy, and a crippling pressure to meet a rigid set of standards that can be harmful to them and their society.

When the definition of a man is made so restrictive, the paths a man can take, to be a better man than society expects him to be, seem blocked, and everyone suffers. Families suffer at the hands of absent or distant fathers who find it difficulty in expressing emotions, economies suffer when men feel that they cannot enter into professions normally seen as female sectors, such as nursing, and individuals suffer when men feel that they cannot seek advice and guidance (professionally, medically, psychologically). We need to challenge these toxic, unachievable notions of masculinity for the betterment of everyone, here in Swaziland and across the region.

There is a need to engage men as a distinct and specific target group, not only for their own health, well-being and prosperity, but also as a strategy which complements the work others are doing with the health and empowerment of women and girls.