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Good as gents

“At the end of the day, the only thing that is killing us is not talking. We don’t talk to each other. We think we are vibing. We think we are good as gents when we are together, but actually, we are not good because we don’t talk about our feelings. We talk about what we are facing at that moment and then pass. But at the end of the day, when we all go to sleep, we know what is eating us inside.” – Lukhano Mendu

Lukhano Mendu was unsure about getting tested for HIV but when he heard that he could get a free haircut, get tested and dialogue with other young men at the same place, he changed his mind. “It gave me a chance to see how other guys think besides the opinions I have. So, it broadened my horizon and the way I think.” Ndumiso Madubela, NACOSA’s program specialist for the My Journey Adolescent and Young People program, who facilitated the session that Lukhano attended, explains that men don’t feel the traditional healthcare space is for them: “It’s female-centric, not youth-friendly, and it’s uninviting for them, which is why they don’t take up those services. But when we ask them, what is it that you want? They say they want fast, free and convenient services. And that’s why we have the mobile clinics testing.”

Other young men at the session also expressed discomfort when trying to access healthcare. They feel uneasy not only within the community but also in clinics. Ndumiso explains:

“In many societies, traditional norms and societal expectations may discourage men and boys from expressing vulnerability openly. The lack of a safe space and understanding make it difficult for them to communicate sensitive topics such as mental health, reproduction issues, and societal expectations.”. Men and boys need spaces where they can come together and have important conversations. “Having worked with young boys and men, we observed that they need the space to unpack and address their vulnerability,” he adds.

Having grown up in a township similar to the men in the session, Ndumiso is familiar with the challenges they experience. He created an environment where participants feel comfortable sharing their experiences and views without feeling exposed. While the men were enjoying a braai and getting their haircuts, discussion extended to the societal norms that often discourage men from talking about their feelings.

According to Ndumiso, it is important to create a safe space for men to reflect on their roles in society, particularly concerning HIV prevalence and GBV in their communities: “We want men to understand how they could be part of the problem and how they have the potential to be part of the solution. We want men to have these discussions in their closed circles with their friends and their families, at home and also on the street corner.”

Men can become strong advocates in promoting health and gender equality. This change is possible through education and providing them with the resources to challenge harmful gender norms, advocate for women’s rights, and actively participate in preventing violence and HIV. “It’s important that we engage men and boys. If we’re serious about finding solutions, all genders must be sitting at the same table, having conversations and finding solutions that will help everyone,” says Ndumiso.

Ndumiso explains that when services are offered outside traditional healthcare spaces and brought into the community, people respond: “If adolescent boys and men have a space to be vulnerable, good things come out, specifically with GBV and testing. Today is evidence of that. If you look behind you right now, men are testing and that’s what we want.”