Not just a women’s issue: Safe abortion, SRHR, and the role of men and boys

Around the world, 25 million unsafe abortions happen every year. From the community to the global level, activists, sexual health providers, and campaigners are working tirelessly to change that.

One collective of such organizations – Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights – works to realise the full sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) of all people, with a particular focus on the most marginalised.

We spoke to Marevic Parcon, Executive Director, and Mageda Esolyo, Regional Communication and Campaign program officer from WGNRR to discuss how SRHR – and specifically access to safe and legal abortion – can be supported by initiatives working to engage men and boys.


Find out how you can support calls for safe and legal abortion, and the campaign for International Safe Abortion Day every year on 28 September, at september28.org


How are men and boys engaged in SRHR at the moment?

Men have always been engaged in various SRHR issues. For example, contraceptives such as condoms have always been men-centric. If you go to a village in the global South you will see that men can access condoms but women cannot access contraceptives of their choice. It has always been the men that are targeted at the first instance of family planning programs of the government.

In terms of WGNRR capacity-building, we work with men at the regional and national level. Most of the people who have the opportunity to engage with our work, specifically in Africa, are men. We are not looking at men’s involvement in our work as a threat. They are the very audience that we want to change the mindset of: Those who are part of the patriarchy who are benefiting from the current system.

What are the risks and opportunities of working with men that you hear about from your members?

The risk is that opportunities to engage are taken away from marginalized women. Giving a very specific example, almost 70% of applications to our capacity building sessions are from men. While they are wanting to learn about the issues that women are facing, they take away opportunities for women to engage in these spaces. However, we recognize the fact that men are in the room is a positive step in supporting our advocacy in challenging and confronting traditional gender roles and attitudes.

There are instances that men feel criticized, if not attacked, by feminists in the room. So there is always that tension, but it is manageable. For example, we can begin by strengthening men’s understanding of their roles as allies. Some great tools out there have been developed for this example the COFEM Feminist Pocket Book on Men as Allies and Activists. If we start from this point we reduce the scenarios of tension and to acknowledge that this is a process with its ups and downs.

How can organizations engaging men and boys do their work responsibly?

We set some criteria when we are inviting men. For example, if we have our call for applications to a program, or we engage with a national network or national organization that is male-led, those male leaders must have a certain level of understanding and acceptance about gender equality, and an understanding of feminist frameworks. If that benchmark is met, those leaders are able to be influential within their contexts and show it is okay for men to be engaged in women’s issues, to be able to challenge the power dynamics in that system of patriarchy.

How would you like men to be engaged in the specific topic of abortion?

This year’s campaign for International Safe Abortion Day is ‘my abortion, my health’: so it’s addressing women or trans men – those who can experience pregnancy and childbirth. There is no pregnancy without men. A responsible male supports his partner’s decision. It is about empathizing with the reality and experience of people who can get pregnant. Although ‘my abortion, my health’ refers to an individual, it is also a couple’s or community’s experience.

It’s not just individual human rights, but a collective experience as well. The right of people who can get pregnant to exercise their autonomy and freedom, and the support they have around them. That support is extremely important.

How do you want to see men – especially cis men – supporting campaigns for safe and legal abortion?

We are really appealing to cis men to be very openly supportive about women’s access to a safe abortion. My dream is that we are together, hand in hand, beside each other, all genders, not just cis men and cis women, but all genders calling for wider access to abortion for all of those who need it.

In the advocacy work of WGNRR in Africa, we have lots of men who are engaging: at the grassroots level, at the policy level, at the national level, to try to change the policies and laws around abortion.

In many contexts, such as we are seeing in the Philippines, the position of religious institutions is, ‘you should be using natural family planning methods and not all those modern ones’. But there are also men involved in religious communities calling for pro choice, respecting the choices of women stances. Some of them are priests, some of them are lay workers. In some contexts, it very important to have cis men, specifically religious cis men working on this issue, even if it’s just at the local community level of engagement. The point is that they’re involved in wanting to change the whole narrative, and are combating the stigma around the issue.

Could it ever feel like very vocal men are taking space from women to talk about abortion?

Yes – whilst we value male involvement and see them as allies, oftentimes men dominate spaces. It would only be proper for women and those people who give birth to be in the forefront of the advocacy. The support that we are asking for is about changing the narrative, combating stigma, demanding access, academic and scientific research, and supporting those who are facing abortion stigma on a daily basis; women and health workers, for example.

I think the responsibility of organizations engaging with men and boys is ensuring that men understand the issue and are able to support women and their decisions. And that men are able to amplify those experiences and are able, if they have the power, to change the narratives and to combat the stigma.

There seems to be a long way to go between where we are now and men feeling like SRHR is an issue they should care about. How do you see our current situation?

During the 90s, we could barely say the word ‘abortion’ openly. We have moved forward, but we still have a long, long way to go, specifically in changing the mindsets and perceptions around abortion and also engaging those who have the power to change policies. So there’s a long way to go, and not only about engaging men. But I can also say that there are already great practices that have been done in the recent past. We have the September 28th campaign, for example, which we hope will continue to be a platform to help normalize discussions around abortion. 

Marevic Parcon – or Bing, as she is known – is the Executive Director for WGNRR. Bing has been a women’s rights development worker and advocate for two decades with expertise in gender issues, paralegal work and community-based trainings on violence against women and sexual and reproductive rights. Bing is a cofounder of a feminist legal organisation called the WomenLEAD Foundation. She also worked with local and international NGOs as a trainer, paralegal, advocacy officer and program officer, and organised national and international events on a feminist legal framework, militarism and war, aid effectiveness and gender and conflict.

Mageda Esolyo is psychologist by profession, impassioned by women and girl’s health in particular SRHR, development and equality in society. She works at WGNRR as the regional communication and campaign officer for Africa programming. Mageda has provided counselling to survivors of gender-based violence and helped set up hotlines in Uganda, Tanzania, Nigeria and Rwanda that ensure girls and women can access unbiased sexual and reproductive health information. She also led team on key communication campaigns in Kenya for advocacy on comprehensive sexual and reproductive rights. Reach her at mageda@wgnrr.org 

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