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Special Feature

Masculinity and Development

Masculinity and Development: Strategies for Addressing Inequities and Poverty Reduction – The Case of Liberia

When you hear the word “masculinity” do you think man, men, muscles and other features associated with male? And when you hear the word “gender” do you automatically think  “woman, or female?” Obviously, you are not alone in your thinking. Most people associate masculinity to men, muscles, swiftness, aggressiveness, tough and all manner of characteristics considered typical for men.  But then, when a woman shows a hint of being “tough” she is immediately seen as “acting like a man” or “un-womanish.”  Some women who have been considered “tough” are former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, Indiras Ghandi of India, Bhutto in Pakistan, Liberia’s Iron lady,  Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and a few more.  But the question remains: Is masculinity limited to being male, or characteristics associated to men? Is gender limited to women or female? Could masculinity and gender in sustainable development actually mean more than what actually comes to our mind?

What then is masculinity? What is gender? What role does masculinity and gender play in sustainable development and in addressing inequalities in development? To understand the importance of gender and masculinity in addressing developmental issues, let’s look at their definitions.

The definition of gender roles differs at society, social class and even family level. The specific practices of each community determine the expectations attached to the different genders. What is important is not the label individual or otherwise as to what gender is but an appreciation of how power, ethnicity and class affect gender interactions and how these ultimately facilitate or mitigate inequities and inequalities in society. This article analyses the impact of masculinity on poverty reduction in Liberia and suggests alternative strategies for addressing inequities and inequalities in the country’s development. By reviewing the effect of masculinity, as defined by history and the present context of Liberian society, on poverty eradication projects and programs the article emphasizes the dual role of masculinity as a reason for and part of the solution to poverty reduction and the ideal of its eradication. Masculinity is singled out as a tool that dissuades broad-based participation and limits empowerment to those within its circles: masculinity and its supporters.

From this perspective, this article begins by providing a brief history of Liberia, and then “masculinity” in the context in which it is used in this discussion on Liberia. This article looks at the political and social implications of masculinity, while examining Masculinity and Poverty, which are a  brief examination at the relationship between masculinity and poverty, and how masculinities’ can be transformed to promote broad-based participation and empowerment as a way of alleviating poverty in Liberia. This article concludes by discussing that understanding masculinity is important to establishing programs to alleviate poverty and more development processes to improve economic and social outcomes.

The first part of the article provides an overall definition of masculinity and how Liberian history influences the construction of Liberian masculinity. The sections on the Politics of Masculinity and Masculinity and Poverty Alleviation in Liberia present the main discussion on the interplay between masculinity, poverty and development and how strategic solutions to poverty must recognize and incorporate the notions of Liberian masculinity to be effective in the overall development of Liberian Society.

What then is Masculinity? Masculinity is generally defined as, “maleness:  the properties and characteristic of the male sex; the trait of behaving in ways considered typical for men.” (wordnet)

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Research has shown that Masculinities’ are not characteristics that are isolated to ‘men’. To speak of masculinities is to speak about gender relations. Masculinities concern the position of men in a gender order. They can be defined as the patterns of practice by which people (both men and women, though predominantly men) engage that position.

Peter Steinberg defines machismo, another term of masculinity  “…as a cult of the male; a heady mixture of paternalism, aggression, systematic subordination of women, fetishism of their bodies, and idolisation of their reproductive and nurturing capacities, coupled to a rejection of homosexuality.” (Sternberg, 2000). These definitions of masculinity specify that masculinity is the fact of being a man or having qualities considered typical of a man.  These definitions of masculinity are parallel to the traditional gender stereotype of masculine, which is defined as being strong and robust. As have been noted in most societies where masculinity is prevalent, males are expected to demonstrate self-reliance, show power and strong attitude, while females are mostly seen as being emotional, soft and associated with mediocrity  or lower roles in society.

While there may be several definitions of Masculinity, the key words almost always remain, “characteristics typical of men,” which generally are usually tied to strength, power, and force of will. What these definitions portray is that, unlike the biological state that defines the actual sex of a person, masculinity is not defined by the sex of a person. Masculinity is defined by the cultural practices that designate roles, values and expectations, and also demonstration of power, force of will as accepted within the social historical and political structures within society.

Has Liberia’s cultural practices influence gender roles and masculinity in society?  To delve into this question and others, let’s look at Part II of this article: History: Masculinity Engendered in Liberia.

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