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Desmond Nji Atanga: Why men and boys should cry

Desmond Nji Atanga: Why men and boys should cry

Boys and men need gender equality too

Image above: Desmond Nji Atanga with members of Adolescent and Youth Constituency at the 8th African Conference on Sexual Health and Rights, Johannesburg, South Africa, 2018

For International Nonviolence Day, Queen’s Young Leader, Desmond Nji Atanga writes for Leading Change about attending the eighth African Conference on Sexual Health and Rights (ACSRH), why guidelines matter and the importance of expressing emotions.

In February 2018, I was one of hundreds of delegates from across Africa to converge on Johannesburg. I had learnt to say “siyakwamukela”, which means “welcome” in Zulu.

We gathered to talk about sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) in Africa under the theme, Woman up.

I attended as a member of the Adolescent and Youth Constituency (AYC)  of the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (PMNCH). I am also the country focal point for the rollout of the Advocating for Change for Adolescents toolkit (ACAP)  project in Cameroon. I would speak in one breakout session and one plenary session.

Including youth

At a youth pre-conference, I participated in a breakout session to identify key gaps in the SRHR of young people. We looked at existing protocols, plans and programmes to tackle the gaps, limitations and recommendations.

I presented my group’s recommendations to the youth delegates. Among the proposals were:

  • the need to institutionalise comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) in countries
  • and the need to ensure inclusive participation of youth from all parts of Africa in international forums – that is, to ensure that translation services are made available to youth who do not understand English.

Advocating for change for adolescents

Later in the day, during another breakout session, I presented the Advocating for Change for Adolescents toolkit  project in Cameroon. As I told participants, ACAP is an essential document for every young delegate to take home. It would help them transform global commitments into local actions.

Young people need guidelines to carryout change actions in their communities. That is why we developed the Advocating for Change for Adolescents toolkit.

In my presentation, I talked about the strength of collaborating with government to carry out impact projects to promote the health and wellbeing of adolescents.

I also presented a bright prospect for adolescent health data in Cameroon. Our innovative monitoring and evaluation toolkit has been designed for disaggregated data collection and analysis on adolescent health and wellbeing and improved CSE lessons in the country.

Desmond and other delegates

Desmond and other delegates at the 8th African Conference on Sexual Health and Rights

Shedding tears

At the opening of the main ACSHR conference, the convener – Nigerian-born, Dr Uwemedimo Uko Esiet stressed the need for women’s rights to be protected.

Dr Esiet is the Co-Founder and Director at Action Health Incorporated. He shared the difficulties he and his team – including the Director of Youth Lab, Tessa Dooms – went through to convene ACSHR. He had staked US$40,000 from his personal bank account to convene the conference.

It was an emotional moment. Dr Esiet shed tears. I would later build on this to make a statement on gender equality during my plenary talk. Tessa Dooms offered him a painting for supporting her organisation, Youth Lab to organise the conference.

The need to express emotions

Later, I participated as a panellist in the plenary session on ending violence against women and girls. I spoke about how gender equality should be equal and should involve boys and men.

The session was special to me and I spoke with passion on how to end gender-based violence.

I shared the story of how I was motivated to promote the health and wellbeing of girls and women – a result of being raised by my loving mother.

Leveraging the HeForShe campaign, I said that gender-based violence is typically triggered when boys and men are taught to be people who cannot express emotions – when they are taught to suppress their emotions and never to cry.

Mentioning men who cry on stage like Dr Esiet, Desmond Tutu and Barack Obama, I said that I also cry. Men who cry are gentle.

I spoke for boys and men. They need to be taught to express their emotions as human beings and not to feel infallible.

Barack Obama on stage

President Barack Obama speaking onstage

Boys’ and men’s minds must be emancipated so that they can feel human as girls and women do. Expressing vulnerability is not a sign of weakness, but a thoughtful expression of the humanity in us.

If a boy is allowed to cry, he will see a girl as an equal human to him and will be less likely to cause harm or injure on her.

The response of the audience was full of intense emotions especially from female attendees.

Looking to the future

On the last day of the eighth African Conference on Sexual Health and Rights, the conference recommendations were read to delegates. Among them were calls to expand access to CSE, greater commitment by governments and the need to harness the Demographic Dividend.

Nairobi was announced as venue for the next conference in the year 2020 to be placed under the auspices of the Kenyan First Lady, Mrs Kenyatta.

On my part, I would say all’s well that ends well. I am confident that my contribution to the eighth ACSHR worked to inspire participants to take actions in promoting the health and wellbeing of all persons and to consider boys and men in issues concerning gender equality.