By Ian Bethell-Bennett
Men do not cook. Boys take out the garbage and clean the yard; boys do not clean the kitchen, cook food, wash clothes; girls wash clothes, cook meals, clean the kitchen and manage affairs. Men, we are told, go out to work and bring home the money; their participation beyond that is limited. When they come home they are catered to. These are seriously solidified gendered roles that are culturally created and reassert themselves regularly, even if they change slightly to adjust to changing times.
At the end of the day, though, the culture of the country determines what people can do. The culture determines what boys and men can do, as well as the work girls and women can do. How do these gendered roles work in 2013? In a discussion on television last week, Dr David Allen talked about a recently released report on suicide in the Bahamas that showed that suicide was on the rise. The group then talked about the worry about the young black, Bahamian male; he is disappearing. I have written about this disappearing young man in a number of other articles, but the image continues to galvanise itself in the local cultural landscape. The report further showed that men were more likely to commit suicide than women. One participant offered that this was because women were stronger than men.
One image we have of men is that they are strong. This flies in the face of the participant’s comment that women are stronger. However, there is some truth to the statement. What needs to be examined, though, is some of the reasons for this weakness that means that men are more likely to commit suicide than are women, as the study in question shows. This is actually borne out by many international studies as well. Under the stress of the financial melt down in 2007-8 men were seen to be committing suicide more often. Domestic violence cases rose as did gender-based violence, all of these were linked with unemployment and under employment. Men are expected to provide for the home and when they cannot that means that they are no longer men; their masculinity card is taken away from them. What else are men allowed to do? If we look back we can see that men are not taught to manage all these stresses and roles, but women are. No male is taught that he must be able to cook, clean, go out to work, bring work home, and still turn the children out every morning, should he have children. Women, on the other hand, are taught to manage all these demands.
The role society allows men to play and the ways we bring up boys then either enables them to cope with the demands placed on them, or we push them into the narrow confines of being men who cannot function at all levels at all times. Perhaps women are stronger than men; they do have babies. If we taught boys how to really survive in the world, would they not do better? We seem to condemn them to the same roles as men of bygone years who should be catered to, not being able to look after themselves as well as go out to work. When all the social and economic stresses are visited on the unprepared male youth, who has been told that life is there for him and will be easy for him as a man, he simply crumbles; the pressure is simply too much. Parents, however, teach girls to manage all these stresses, but boys are not given those tools.
Yes, suicide is a serious problem in the country, but gender roles are a large part of the problem. The shifting world and its demands means that more-demanding roles must be played by everyone. In preparing reports for Cairo +20 on the progress of Caribbean societies, we have serious gaps in access to services as well as gaps in preparedness of youth to meet life’s demands. The inequalities are massive. These inequalities allow such social concerns as suicide to increase. Gender inequalities are a part of the social inequalities that cause so many problems in the country. This reality is not unique to the Bahamas, but it is heightened here. At the ICPD meeting this week in Guyana, the need to address these gaps and inequalities is underscored. Obviously, the Caribbean, and the Bahamas, has serious problems with violence; suicide is a form of violence, albeit self-inflicted. When we do not teach youth how to manage stresses but encourage them to believe that life will take care of them, we push them into roles that are unsustainable and result in very damaged young people. At the end of the day, the damage we do to our young men through domestic violence, lack of adequate role modelling, abuse—sexual as well as physical and emotional—destroys them. Given that men are not allowed to speak out when they are in pain, they cannot seek help, so the bind is doubly tight.