The Men's Movement: Populate or Perish?

Paul Williams, a Community Health Social Worker in Hobart, Tasmania, is one of the few people in Australia whose job is to provide health services for men. He believes it's time for the men's movement to unite and make itself heard.

Over the last ten years I have been actively involved in the Men's Movement through the provision of services and activities targeting men. In this time I have networked both nationally and internationally with other kindred spirits who are trying to support and develop services for men. I have read extensively, and attended men's gatherings and conferences. Through all of this I have felt a range of emotions about how I have perceived the Men's Movement to be developing. These have included excitement with the news of new initiatives (nearly always grassroots), frustration that the political parties continue to ignore men's issues, and anger that men's groups are terribly fragmented and appear in many instances to be concerned more about ego building than with joining forces with other interested men to have a powerful, uniform voice. A further frustration is that I believe that to be successful the movement needs leaders, but so far there are very few.

I attempt to remain positive and console myself that the Women's Movement experienced similar problems but were able to overcome them to gain the advantages which they now rightly enjoy.

I became interested in men's issues in during my social work training where as one of only three male students in a strongly feminist orientated course I was continually asked during tutorials "Now lets hear a man's view of this". I remember at the time that it was far safer to give a response which I knew would fit the feminist ideology than to say what I really thought. Even though I was reasonably naive at the time I couldn't help but wonder why we weren't being trained to work with the entire population instead of just the female half? Surely social work graduates should have a thorough grounding in men's issues, migrant concerns, working with the elderly as well as how to work with women.

After graduation I quickly realised that there were myriad services for women but almost none for guys. As one of the few male social workers in my region, I was quickly inundated with male clients. I had to try and fit them into services which were not designed with their needs or issues in mind. So it was at this time in 1987 that I first began developing services specifically for men.

Initially, I was treated by other service providers with suspicion. My motives were questioned and much needed support was not forthcoming. At this time the men's movement was embryonic and those beginning to draw attention to men's issues were voices in the wilderness. The only avenue of support (and by far the most important) were men I was seeing as clients through my job who were desperately keen to meet with other men to gain support from one another.

As the years went on and I persisted with the development of men's groups etc. I received more and more encouragement and support from the people who had initially spurned me. There was a growing community awareness of the specific needs of men, their appalling health status and that male appropriate services were desperately needed. Men's conferences and forums were being held, some state governments and the federal Labor Party were mooting men's health policies through their Health Departments, grassroots men's groups were forming throughout the country and men's magazines, books and newsletters were being created. Suddenly the men's movement was gaining widespread attention through the media and token support (not financial) was being provided for further development of men's services. I found these to be exciting developments and I was encouraged to believe in the potential to improve the quality of life for all Australian men.

However, the men's movement must overcome a number of obstacles if the promising future is to come to fruition.

Obviously, the ditching of the proposed Men's Health Policy by the current Federal Government has curtailed the advances of the men's movement. Funding for men's workers and for men's programs is crucial. Unless designated positions are created for men to work with men, we will continue to experience the frustration of those field workers who try to incorporate "menswork" into their current roles without official support of their employer.

Each state and territory require positions which are responsible for supporting local men's groups and a grants program to facilitate this. I have been aware through my contact with various men's groups and organisations throughout Australia that they all operate on a shoestring. They nearly always comprise volunteers, have no paid staff, receive little or no funding, and struggle to survive week by week. Whilst they are continually told by the men they support and other service providers that they are doing a wonderful job and providing a much needed service they do not receive any tangible support. I have found through my work that these positive rubs and expressions of gratitude can keep you or your service going for only so long. Then dedication to the "cause" begins to wear very thin, particularly when year after year you sacrifice significant amounts of time with your own family to provide voluntary and unrecognised work promoting and developing additional services for men. I know that many of the pioneering men in the men's movement have in fact become quite burnt out and disillusioned with the lack of support they have received.

The other major barrier which I believe is seriously threatening the men's movement is fragmentation. There are now more men's groups and services for men than ever before. Each week I hear of a new men's group being formed or volunteers getting together to develop a men's information service or men's program. However, whilst happy to speak of these initiatives, many of the organisers appear to be very reticent about uniting forces with other groups and wish to only work with the men in their own area. Unfortunately, I believe that egotism, parochialism and competition are the underlying causes of this desire to work in isolation.

It is easy to understand how this occurs. There is enormous kudos to be gained by establishing a men's group or service. You will be swamped with "What a great idea!", "It's about time something was done for the blokes!" and "Well done, you've taken the initiative" Some organisers seem to fear that making links with similar groups elsewhere will in some way tend to diminish their own personal glory. I have found many organisers of such men's groups to be very protective of their initiative as well as being competitive in their outlook.

How sad this is. I am sure all of the men who are putting their creative talents, energy and dedication into their local projects have a common denominator. This is the improvement of services to all men. It is imperative that the different elements of the men's movement come together in order to gain strength through unity and to create a powerful, vocal and persuasive voice to the decision makers in this country. The current fragmentation and divisiveness of the men's movement is exactly what the powerbrokers look for when quelling demands for better male specific services.

The efforts of the Western Australian Association for Men's Health and Wellbeing to extend branches to each of the other states is the first concerted effort to overcome this fragmentation and their vision should be applauded and supported. A national body will have far greater clout and lobbying power than any individual efforts.

I find it very ironic that in a society where men predominate in politics, boardrooms, and executive positions that there are no real leaders within the men's movement. We know that at a grassroots level there is a boom in men's groups and activities but on the macro level there are very few recognised spokesmen for men. In fact it may be argued that in many instances it has been women who have been publicly asserting the needs of men, such as Bettina Arndt and Carmen Lawrence. Our male politicians in many instances appear to support the current policies which actually discriminate against their own gender.

We must motivate and support our male colleagues and friends to become more vocal and "political". Potential leaders need to be cultivated and nurtured within the men's movement. I believe that many men are being constricted in their public comments by continually trying to accommodate everyone else's needs instead of asserting themselves and maybe ruffling a few feathers. A passive men's movement will achieve very little in real change either at a policy or community level. Strong, articulate and persuasive leadership is desperately needed otherwise, apart from greater self awareness, nothing will have changed.

We will never have a better opportunity to effect real change for men in this country than we do right now. If we can put aside our personal agendas and aspirations and look at the bigger picture by coming together we can achieve men's health policies, funded men's workers and grants programs. It would be a tragedy if the current wave of enthusiasm and energy being generated at the local level is not channelled into a national push for a better deal for all Australian men rather than the needs of a few.

I see the men's movement as a vehicle for the creation of new and improved services that are appropriate to men. We know that men's health status is abysmal and their utilisation of current services is limited. The men's movement is drawing attention to these issues and forcing service providers to re-evaluate the way they are providing their services.

Currently, in Tasmania, Child Health nurses are becoming more aware of the inadequacies of their service to reach men. Admirably, they are responding to this by instigating fathering programs, and including men in new parents groups.

Nurses are coming to people like myself to gain support and assistance in redesigning their waiting rooms in clinics so that men might feel more comfortable. The spark for this has been the men's movement.

The growth of men's groups, although working in isolation from each other, has led to enormous personal change and growth to the men involved. I continually talk with men who after joining a group have become more confident, happier in themselves and moving forward in ways which they never thought was possible. But these changes are not confined to the men themselves. So often I talk to their partners who cannot believe the transformation that has occurred and are ecstatic about the impact of the men's group on their partner's wellbeing. Significantly, they state that many aspects of their relationship, particularly concerning intimacy and trust, have also improved. What the men's movement is doing is quite simply fulfilling our special needs as men and making us much happier individuals.

Personally, the men's movement has helped me to gain a better understanding of relationships and ways for me to be a better father, husband, and son. I have become more aware of who I am and have been able to identify my strengths and limitations and to set goals for the future. My involvement with men in groups has shown me the pain that many men experience in their lives and how their inability to express their feelings has contributed to this pain. I have learnt to be more open and honest within my relationships and to express my feelings to the people I care for most.

Even though I am concerned about the various problems constricting the men's movement I do have a vision for its future. I see Australian men uniting on a national scale through an association which has a lobbying role as well as a supporting role for its members. I can see a society where men have as many specific services catering to their needs as women currently enjoy. Finally, I hope to see an increasing number of men who are proud of being male and the qualities that go with this. By all means acknowledge and work upon our limitations but refrain from apologising for being a man!

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