The Forgotten Boys
There is a tuck-tuck driven around Colombo with a sticker that states, “no seat belts-we die like men”. This sticker is the embodiment of societal views; that men and boys would rather die upholding the ideals of masculinity than live a life where they are considered weak.
This message is expressed in multiple ways throughout society; men behave in ways that are associated with strength. Phrases, that I heard growing up in Canada, such as, “boys don’t cry”, and “toughen up”, can also be heard in Sri Lanka. These phrases become ingrained in boys and determine how they must act to fit in, to become a “real man”. I have observed how mothers glare at their little boys if they cry, but gently cuddle their teary daughters. Even little boys wear T-Shirts that feature messages regarding their sexiness. On social media and in the classes where I teach, the males communicate in such a way to exude masculinity.
As a student of international development, I have explored how my observations of Sri Lankan expression of masculinity may be affecting other parts of this nations’ growth potential. Is it actually detrimental for men to behave in this way, or is it just part of life? Is it “just boys being boys”, or are these overtly-masculine behaviors destructive? What are the effects of masculinity for education and employment, which are key building blocks for development and the cornerstones for Sri Lankan political campaigns?
Every day, I see the differences between men’s and women’s behavior in the classroom. Males show up late, are loud, and don’t hand in their assignments. It’s not cool to be smart. While the men may have great potential, they will not show it in front of their peers. They are the ones failing class, while their female counterparts excel. A paradox is created as masculine traits of physical and emotional strength conflict with academic performance values. The “boys” would rather fail than ask for help and appear weak. Without academic credentials, employment and social advancement are limited for these males.
In academics and life, men are taught not to ask for help or express their feelings. This results in the suppression of their emotions. They cannot talk about their feelings to their family or their friends. In Sri Lanka, discussion of mental health is taboo; there are no school counselling services, nor help via the medical system. The men that cannot sustain the masculine stereotype are alone and it has dire consequences. According to the WHO, Sri Lanka has the highest suicide rates in the world for men, with an age-standardized suicide rates (per 100 000 population) of 58.8 and 13.3 for women in 2015. In contrast, Canada’s rates were 15.3 for males and 5.8 for females. Suicide is very prominent in Sri Lanka and affects everyone, yet at the same time, is never talked about.
Masculinity is a complex issue as it ties together personality traits, cultural beliefs, and social norms. One approach to addressing this complexity is peer mentorship. Both men and women may be supported in their life challenges by providing individuals a safe space where they can talk about their concerns without fear of being ridiculed and rejected. A peer mentorship program, supported by OXFAM, has been successfully implemented at the University of Western Cape in South Africa and in Nigerian schools. This program “encourages young men to rethink their masculine identities, and promote nonviolent, gender equitable attitudes and relationships” (Longlands, 2018). Sweden also has an interesting approach to masculinity issues. They are trying to teach school children in a way that does not enforce gender norms by selecting stories which avoid traditional representation of gender roles, and addressing children by their names instead of him and her. If you would like to read more about this here is an article https://qz.com/1006928/swedens-gender-neutral-preschools-produce-kids-who-are-more-likely-to-succeed/.
It is challenging to change societal values, however by building awareness that toxic-masculinity hurts everyone, there are opportunities to bring out the strengths of all. Post-civil war Sri Lankan society is changing at a hectic rate. Masculine traits that were once essential for survival are being challenged. The boys are caught in the middle. Education and employment development programs are avenues to identify the males that have the potential to succeed but who need some safety supports in this transition. There is no need for them to die trying to live life without a little help…a seat belt. We must not forget the boys.