3. Masculinities and women’s empowerment in the private sphere 

While the private sphere has traditionally been seen as the domain of women, men continue to control, dominate and exercise power with regard to household decisions and practices. Social expectations of men in the private sphere encompass critical areas such as household decision making generally, and specific choices regarding the actions of family members, household assets, family planning and the household division of labour. This chapter discusses five norms of restrictive masculinities in the private sphere which dictate that a “real” man should: i) not do unpaid care and domestic work, ii) have the final say in household decisions, iii) control household assets, iv) protect and exercise guardianship of women in the household, and v) dominate sexual and reproductive choices (Figure 3.1). These five norms reveal the important role that restrictive masculinities play in the private sphere and their related consequences for women’s empowerment and gender equality. While not all households are composed of different-sex partners, and restrictive masculinities can directly harm lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people (Box 3.1), much of the data that is widely available concerning gender dynamics in the private sphere is oriented towards heterosexual couples and the consequences faced by women that result from these unequal gender dynamics within the household. As such, this chapter mainly focuses on different-sex couples and the consequences faced by women in these partnerships.

Exploring restrictive masculinities in the private sphere is key to understanding why discriminatory social norms in the household are so resistant to change. Despite the fact that issues within the private sphere – such as unpaid care and domestic work, intimate partner violence and household decision making – have attracted more attention from the media, researchers and policy makers, social norms and practices in these spaces have changed either slowly or not at all (OECD, 2019[5]). This has important consequences for women and girls, as lacking agency and decision-making power regarding their time, bodies and resources directly hinders their empowerment. Moreover, in the private sphere, norms of restrictive masculinities can give rise to physical, sexual, psychological and economic violence which can further entrench male dominance. An understanding of the restrictive masculinities in this area gives a clearer picture of the deeply entrenched social norms that hinder women’s empowerment as well as the pathways to transform masculinities, and in turn, the lives of women and men. In this regard, public policies and programmes are pivotal. The notions and ideals about how men should or are expected to behave, held by both communities and individuals, are shaped, at least in part, by states’ policies and equality discourses which can foster supportive environments and create incentives for societies to adopt more gender-equitable ideals of masculinity (Segal, 1993[6]).

Masculinities have an important role to play in facilitating women’s empowerment in the private sphere, the pursuit of which can give way to new, gender-equitable masculinities. In the private sphere, gender-equitable masculinities emphasise open communication and collaboration, leading to joint decision making on household matters. Where these norms are widely accepted, societies encourage women to be autonomous decision makers over their own bodies and freedom of movement. In promoting more gender-equal divisions of household labour, these new masculinities do not define men’s role in the household as strictly providers. Rather, they allow for men’s fuller engagement in all aspects of household life, especially including caring. With regard to fatherhood, evidence has shown that becoming a parent can be a moment in which men exhibit “caring masculinities” (Elliott, 2015[7]). In a gender-equal world, societies may come to expect this from fathers, and states will provide the necessary institutional frameworks for men to be caring and active parents. This positive vision requires that understandings of what it means to be a “real” man in the private sphere move beyond the “scripts” provided by restrictive masculinities.

This chapter is structured around five defining features of restrictive masculinities in the private sphere. For each of these defining features, this chapter investigates their consequences for women’s empowerment and provides evidence of gender-equitable alternatives.

Norms of restrictive masculinities uphold unpaid care and domestic work as the domain of women and stigmatise mens active participation (Greene, Robles and Pawlak, 2011[8]). Not only do femininities play a role in women’s involvement in unpaid care work, but masculinities, particularly restrictive masculinities, uphold unequal divisions of household labour. Women can affirm their feminine identity through care and housework, whereas men can affirm their masculine identity through avoiding this work (Bittman et al., 2003[9]; Thébaud, 2010[10]). In the United States and Mexico, for example, in 2017, 46% and 41% of men, respectively, reported that society tells them that “a husband should not have to do household chores” (Heilman, Barker and Harrison, 2017[3]). Also in 2017, in Burkina Faso, 81% of respondents declared that childcare and domestic work is women’s prerogative, and 28% of female respondents and 40% of male respondents thought that a man who stays at home to take care of his children and the home is less of a man (OECD, 2018[11]). Similarly, 69% of respondents disagreed with the idea that unpaid care and housework should be equally distributed between women and men when both have paid employment outside the home (OECD, 2018[11]).

While women have taken on more paid labour since the start of the 20th century, men’s contribution to unpaid care and domestic work has not increased enough to compensate for this change (Latshaw and Hale, 2016[12]; Thébaud, 2010[10]). In fact, evidence shows that men in heterosexual relationships whose partner earns more than them may actually take on less of this work (Bittman et al., 2003[9]; Latshaw and Hale, 2016[12]; Sevilla-Sanz, Gimenez-Nadal and Fernández, 2010[13]; Thébaud, 2010[10]) (see Chapter 2, Section 2). This has been interpreted as a way for men to reaffirm their masculinity and to compensate for deviating from traditional gender norms, and thus allowing them to maintain their “authority with minimal responsibility” (Bittman et al., 2003[9]; Thébaud, 2010[10]; Uchendu, 2009[14]). This suggests that the division of labour within the household is not perfectly linked to unequal bargaining power or one-to-one exchanges – as assumed by the family economic literature – and that gender norms play a significant role (Browning and Chiappori, 1998[15]; Thébaud, 2010[10]). The fact that care, and the domestic sphere in general, is understood to be feminine constitutes a critical barrier to the valuation of this work and men’s greater engagement in unpaid care and domestic work (Hanlon, 2012[16]). Indeed, in 2020, 8% of respondents in Colombia and 42% of respondents in India reported that it is acceptable “to let women do the majority of housework, childcare and elderly care” (Focus 2030 and Women Deliver, 2021[17]). Similarly, in 2017, 15% and 16% of respondents in the Czech Republic and Lithuania, respectively, disapproved of a man doing an equal share of household activities as a woman (Eurobarometer, 2017[18]).

Legal frameworks uphold the expectation that unpaid care work is feminine, and thus it is not “men’s work”. In 2019, 60 countries1 had legal frameworks that did not provide women with the same rights as men to be the guardians of their children (OECD, 2019[5]). Furthermore, only 39 countries mandate paid paternity leave, compared with 173 countries which mandate paid maternity leave (OECD, 2019[5]). While paternity leave entitlements are a relatively recent phenomenon – among all Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, only three2 had legislated paternity leave in 1970 – progress in legal reform has been slow (OECD, 2020[19]). The persistent discrepancies between leave for mothers and fathers send a clear signal that societies believe caring for children is predominately a task for women and that they condone restrictive masculinities’ vision of detached fatherhood. Moreover, even when policies are in place that allow men an allotment of leave, the entitlements are short and the majority of men do not take full advantage of them. For example, in 2009-10, 31% of working men in India took no leave after the birth of their most recent child, whereas 77% of Chilean men and 60% of Croatian men reported the same (Barker et al., 2011[20]). Furthermore, as society expects men to prioritise their career over their private life, fathers benefitting from paternity and/or parental leaves may face stigmatisation (Dahl, Løken and Mogstad, 2014[21]) (see Chapter 2, Section 4). In the 27 countries for which data are available, on average, 18% of respondents declared in 2019 that a man who stays home to look after his children is less of a man, and this was as high as 76% in Korea (Ipsos, 2019[22]) (Figure 3.2).

While paternity leave uptake remains low, there is significant support for policies to allow men to better balance work and family life. For example, in 2019, more than 58% of people across all 27 surveyed countries reported agreeing or strongly agreeing that “employers should make it easier for men to combine childcare with work” (Ipsos, 2019[22]). Moreover, evidence from Nordic countries shows that father-friendly initiatives, together with widespread acceptance of men’s involvement in caring practices, can lead more men to take paternity leave (Lund, Meriläinen and Tienari, 2019[23]). Indeed, in 2013, for every 100 children born in Sweden and Finland, more than 70 and 80 individuals, respectively, claimed publicly administered paternity benefits or publicly administered paternity leave (OECD, 2016[24]). Further evidence shows that taking paternity leave can have a lasting impact on fathers’ engagement in unpaid care work and women’s employment (Amin, Islam and Sakhonchik, 2016[25]; OECD, 2019[26]).

Even when men do engage in unpaid care and domestic work, the division of tasks reveals gendered associations. There are numerous tasks within the category of domestic work, including cleaning, cooking, washing clothes and maintaining the home. “Women primarily do the tasks that traditionally have been thought of as ‘women’s work’ (e.g. cooking, laundry, housecleaning), whereas men primarily do ‘male’ tasks (e.g. yard work, auto maintenance)” (Greenstein, 2000[28]). Across all four countries with available data, in 2017, more than 90% of women reported cleaning the bathroom and cooking in the previous month, whereas men’s participation in these tasks varied (El Feki, Heilman and Barker, 2017[29]). For example, in 2017, between 6% of men in Egypt and 26% of men in Lebanon reported doing laundry in the previous month, but when it came to cooking, men appeared to be more engaged (El Feki, Heilman and Barker, 2017[29]). In the same year, between 27% of men in the Palestinian Authority and 64% of men in Lebanon reported that they had carried out this task in the previous month (El Feki, Heilman and Barker, 2017[29]). A common rule in the household division of tasks emerges from this kind of analysis: “the greater the social orientation of a task, the more feminine; the more technical orientation of the task, the more masculine” (Barker et al., 2011[20]).

When it comes to unpaid care-related tasks such as childcare, there are clear divisions as well. In 2017, the vast majority of fathers reported playing with their children several times or more per week; however, when it comes to changing diapers and cooking for their children, a significantly smaller percentage reported carrying out these care tasks (Barker et al., 2011[20]; El Feki, Heilman and Barker, 2017[29]). Social norms and practices such as this gendered task division sustain each other, and attitudinal data show that in the majority of countries with available data, more than 50% of men agree that “changing diapers, giving kids a bath and feeding kids are a mother’s responsibility”3 (Barker et al., 2011[20]; van der Gaag et al., 2019[30]).

Unpaid care work is essential to the functioning of society, and this work mostly falls on womens shoulders when men conform to norms of restrictive masculinities. Globally, women undertake 75% of unpaid care and domestic work (OECD, 2019[5]). In 2019, in terms of time, women globally averaged five hours of unpaid care work per day, compared with just two hours for men (OECD, 2019[5]). Each moment women spend on unpaid care work represents time that could have been spent on paid work, pursuing entrepreneurship, improving skills or pursuing education (Ferrant and Thim, 2016[31]; Ferrant, Pesando and Nowacka, 2014[32]). The time burdens of unpaid care work perpetuate women’s lower rates of labour force participation and may push women to seek flexibility by working part time or in informal jobs. While doing so might allow them to better negotiate the “double burden” of paid and unpaid work, it also negatively affects their advancement opportunities, job security, remuneration and savings (Ferrant and Thim, 2016[31]; Ferrant, Pesando and Nowacka, 2014[32]). The struggle to balance work and home responsibilities can lead to “occupational downgrading”, where women choose jobs that are low paying and for which they are overqualified (Hegewisch and Gornick, 2011[33]).

Gender-equitable masculinities encourage active participation in unpaid care and domestic work. In societies where gender-equitable masculinities take root, unpaid care work is recognised as essential to the functioning of society, and men’s engagement in this work is not just accepted but is expected. Moreover, the distribution of this work shifts, with men taking on their fair share, thus allowing women more time to devote to their careers, well-being and interests. While targeted interventions which engage men and boys in unpaid care and domestic work have shown that attitudinal and behavioural change is possible (Barker, 2007[34]; Doyle et al., 2018[35]), large-scale redistribution of this unpaid work between men and women has yet to take place (OECD, 2019[5]). Nevertheless, there is great potential for policies to effect major change in this area and beyond, as “[t]here is a direct correspondence between sharing power in more public domains and sharing the care and drudgery of domestic life in the family domain” (Kimmel, Hearn and Connell, 2005[36]).

Unlike restrictive masculinities which emphasise fathers’ roles as financial providers, gender-equitable masculinities promote expanded understandings of fatherhood and male involvement in caregiving (Johansson, 2011[37]; UNFPA/Promundo, 2018[38]). Becoming a father can mark a critical turning point in the lives of men, and also often involves changing habits and routines as well as navigating new social expectations (van der Gaag et al., 2019[30]). Where gender-equitable masculinities are more widely accepted, societies come to expect fathers to be actively engaged in caring for their children. Evidence from countries such as Australia, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Indonesia, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States suggests that it is becoming more common for fathers to exhibit “caring masculinities and interchangeable parenting roles” (Cederström, 2019[39]; van der Gaag et al., 2019[30]). Indeed, on average, 85% of fathers across seven countries surveyed in the Helping Dads Care Research Project (2017-2019) reported agreeing with the statement: “I will do whatever it takes to be very involved in the early weeks and/or months of caring for my newly born or adopted child” (van der Gaag et al., 2019[30]).

Dominance in household decision making represents a way for men to exercise power over women and other members of the household. Decision making is an expression of power, not just in the form of individual agency but also “power over”, which forms the very basis of gender inequalities (MenEngage, n.d.[40]). Being the main decision maker and having the final say in household decisions means having disproportionate influence on family affairs, relationships and the activities of other household members. Hence, dominating decisions in the household enables men to exert power and control in the private sphere and over other individuals.

Norms of restrictive masculinities include the expectation that men have the final say in household decisions. Being a “real” man notably implies being in control of decisions in the private sphere. More than 80% of respondents in Niger, the United Republic of Tanzania (hereafter “Tanzania”) and Central Uganda reported that most people in their community expect men to have the final say regarding decisions in the home (Levtov et al., 2018[41]; Spindler et al., 2019[42]; Vlahovicova et al., 2019[43]). In 16 out of 25 countries for which data are available, at least two-thirds of men agreed that a man should have the final word about decisions in his home (van der Gaag et al., 2019[30]) (Figure 3.3).

Legal frameworks can reinforce men’s role as the main decision maker in the household. In some countries, national legislation upholds men’s control over the private sphere and encourages the continuation of restrictive masculinities. Indeed, in 40 countries, the law does not provide women with the same rights as men to be recognised as the head of household, thus sending a strong message about men’s superiority over women in their households (OECD, 2019[5]).

The norm of restrictive masculinities associated with male dominance in household decision making can undermine women’s agency and curtail their empowerment opportunities. If men adhere to these social expectations encouraging them to have the final say in household decisions, they enjoy greater decision-making power and influence over family affairs than other household members. Large proportions of men and women reported that men dominate decisions that affect other household members. Nearly one-third of study respondents in Tanzania and Ukraine and more than three-quarters of male respondents in Azerbaijan and Central Uganda believed that men have more say than women in important decisions that affect them (Levtov et al., 2018[41]; UNFPA Ukraine, 2018[44]; UNFPA/SCFWCA, 2018[45]; Vlahovicova et al., 2019[43]). In circumstances where men have the final say, the consideration of women’s preferences depends on the approval of their husband, who may choose to override their concerns. If women’s convictions and preferences carry less weight in decisions than their husbands’ do, it is difficult for women to assert themselves in the household and pursue their own goals and ambitions. This has important implications for women’s individual agency and for gender equality in society overall (Greene, Robles and Pawlak, 2011[8]).

Masculinities equated with male dominance and leadership in the household may also facilitate and legitimise the use of violence against women and children. Having the final say means having a veto in household decision making. This powerful position gives a man, as the head of the household, the capacity to define what can and cannot be done by other household members. Furthermore, violence may be used as a means to punish those who disregard a man’s decisions, thus serving as a tool to preserve or re-establish male power when it has been challenged. Rigid social norms in the private sphere seem to condone the use of violence if women do not obey their husbands’ decisions in various contexts (OECD, 2019[5]).

Unlike restrictive masculinities, gender-equitable masculinities do not expect men to be the head of the household or have the final say in household decisions. Gender-equitable norms promote joint household decision making and grant men and women equal decision-making power and freedom to choose for themselves. Gender-equitable masculinities do not operate in a framework which assigns fixed roles to men and women in the household. Characterised by flexibility, norms of gender-equitable masculinities encourage dynamics where men and women communicate with each other and overcome the gender binary. This means that both men and women influence family and relationship affairs without predefined power imbalances and the pressures of male dominance.

Social norms which encourage joint decision making seem to be evolving in various countries around the world. In Uganda and Zambia, for example, the proportion of women reporting that they alone or jointly have the final say in decisions regarding major household purchases, visits to family and friends, and healthcare increased from 32% (in 2000-01) to 58% and 67%, respectively, within about 15 years (DHS, n.d.[46]). In Jordan, the share of women participating in these three decisions also increased by about 15 percentage points between 2007 and 2017 (DHS, n.d.[46]).

Restrictive masculinities prescribe that a “real” man controls household assets and finances. Men’s designated role as the financial provider constitutes a key component of restrictive masculinities. This primarily concerns the acquisition of money, but being the primary earner in a household is also a powerful position that underpins traditional notions of power and authority (Hunter, Riggs and Augoustinos, 2017[47]). Beyond earning money, men can solidify their authority by controlling and administering household assets. Dominating financial decision making is key to preserving control in the private sphere, as the manner in which household income is spent affects the well-being and opportunities of household members. This may be of particular importance as social norms and practices change with regard to women’s labour force participation. With women contributing to the household income, men may find it hard to fulfil their expected role as financial providers (see Chapter 2, Section 1). In response, men may seek out ways to ensure their place as the head of the household – controlling household finances and resources can be one such way to preserve power in the home (Dolan, 2003[48]). This may concern decision-making authority over household expenditure, including spending on necessities such as food and clothing, as well as long-term financial investments, large purchases and savings.

Legal frameworks in some countries reinforce restrictive masculinities by strengthening men’s authority over financial decision making and legally preventing women from having financial independence. While most countries allow women to open bank accounts in the same manner as men, four countries have legal frameworks that require married women to get permission from their husbands to open a bank account at a formal financial institution (OECD, 2019[5]). When it comes to decision making over land assets, the legal frameworks of 15 countries do not provide married women with the same rights as married men to own, administer and make decisions over land (OECD, 2019[5]). In 30 countries, this is also the case with regard to property and other non-land assets (OECD, 2019[5]).

If men adhere to the social expectation that they should control household assets and finances, women lack equal access to administer and use resources. In many countries, men continue to dominate decisions about household assets and finances (Bannon and Correia, 2006[49]; OECD, 2019[5]). In almost one-half of the countries for which data are available, at least one in three men and women reported that the husband/male partner is the main decision maker regarding large household purchases (DHS, n.d.[46]). In contrast, in only two of the countries for which data are available in the 2016-18 period, one in three respondents reported that the female partner is the main decision maker regarding large purchases (DHS, n.d.[46]). In Uganda, for example, women only make up one-third of owners or co-owners of land, and more than one-quarter of the population supports unequal rights to land for men and women (OECD, 2015[50]). Even in cases where women own assets, men have at least some control over their financial management. In Kenya and Tanzania, for example, less than one-half of women reported that they are able to sell their assets without consulting their husband (Njuki and Sanginga, 2013[51]). For women owners of dairy cattle and sheep in Kenya, fewer than one in ten reported that they can sell their livestock without consulting their husband while more than one in ten women reported that their husband has sole decision-making authority over the sale of the animals (Njuki and Sanginga, 2013[51]).

Furthermore, if women internalise these restrictive gender norms, they may defer financial decision making and underestimate their own ability to manage resources. A majority of female respondents reported deferring long-term financial decision making to their husband in Germany, Hong Kong (China), Singapore, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States (UBS, 2019[52]).4 Indeed, 82% reported doing so because they think their spouse knows more about this topic than they do, while 58% reported that their spouse never encouraged or invited them to be more involved (UBS, 2019[52]). These dynamics indicate that women are likely to be unaware of important decisions affecting the long-term well-being of their household and may lack the skills or confidence to take on a bigger role or manage their finances independently (Hung, Yoong and Brown, 2012[53]).

The control of men over household assets may have adverse effects on family well-being. Women’s management of household assets is associated with positive development outcomes at the individual and household levels (Johnson et al., 2016[54]), and women are more likely to invest in children than men are, including children’s education and clothing (Quisumbing and Maluccio, 2000[55]). Hence, assets controlled by women are more likely to positively affect the next generation (Quisumbing and Maluccio, 2000[55]). Furthermore, men tend to be less likely to allocate money towards daughters and may therefore risk neglecting their needs and aspirations (Nikiforidis et al., 2017[56]).

The social norm prescribing men’s control over household finances also undermines efforts to improve women’s empowerment. Increased access to empowerment opportunities for women does not automatically improve women’s situation. If men control financial resources, women may fail to achieve economic independence despite the availability of new opportunities through empowerment programmes. Furthermore, improved access to financial resources has, in some cases, led to violent responses among men (Ahmed, 2008[57]). Men can feel threatened by increases in women’s relative independence and resort to physical violence to re-establish their dominance and control in the household (Sanders, 2015[58]). Analysis of a microfinance programme in Bangladesh, for instance, showed that women’s access to microcredit without the involvement of men can exacerbate intimate partner violence and prevent joint decision making regarding credit (Ahmed, 2008[57]). Similar evidence has been found for cash transfers that primarily target women (Manley and Slavchevska, 2016[59]). Involving men in economic empowerment interventions has, in contrast, been proven to avoid violent backlash and improve women’s economic situation (Kim et al., 2009[60]).

Men’s control over household finances can prevent women from leaving their partner in cases of intimate partner violence. If men control household finances, they have the power to prevent their female partner from accessing resources and administrating money. Interference with women’s ability to manage and use economic resources is likely to impede their ability to achieve economic self-sufficiency (Postmus et al., 2020[61]). Women who are financially dependent on their husband are less likely to leave their partner in the case of physical and/or sexual violence (Anderson and Saunders, 2003[62]; Sanders, 2015[58]). Material resources, i.e. income and employment, are important predictors of women leaving abusive relationships (Anderson and Saunders, 2003[62]), and further evidence suggests that women who participate in financial decision making are less likely to experience intimate partner violence in the first place (Akilova and Marti, 2014[63]).

Gender-equitable masculinities are gaining prominence when it comes to financial decision making. These norms support women in accessing and managing financial resources according to their needs and preferences. For example, joint asset management has become increasingly common since the early 2000s (El Feki, Heilman and Barker, 2017[29]). Male respondents are less likely to hold sole decision-making authority over household finances than their fathers did during their childhood (El Feki, Heilman and Barker, 2017[29]). Furthermore, in 2016-18 women were more likely to report joint decision making with their husband on large household purchases than they were 15 years earlier in seven out of eight countries for which data are available (DHS, n.d.[46]) (Figure 3.4). Finally, between 2010 and 2018, 53-95% of female respondents reported that they alone or jointly have the final say in making daily purchases in countries for which data are available (DHS, n.d.[46]).

Norms of restrictive masculinities promote men’s role as protectors and guardians of household members, including the women in their family. Men may be expected to be guardians of female family members, which in turn underpins their power in the private sphere and echoes the belief that women need to be protected and provided for by their husband. For example, more than two-thirds of respondents in Egypt, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority believe that it is a man’s duty to exercise guardianship of female relatives (El Feki, Heilman and Barker, 2017[29]). In Pakistan, guarding and controlling the women in the household – including checking their dress code and controlling their activities outside the home – are considered essential behaviours of a “real” man (Rozan, 2010[64]).

Men’s guardianship role implies women’s obedience. If men are expected to control women’s behaviours and choices, social norms dictate that women should obey them. More than 75% of the respondents in sites across Asia and the Pacific, with the exception of the People’s Republic of China (hereafter “China”), declared that a woman should obey her husband (Fulu et al., 2013[65]). Furthermore, in Egypt and Jordan, the legal framework defines wives’ duty to obey their husbands in exchange for financial maintenance (OECD, 2020[66]). About 60% of respondents in Tanzania and Central Uganda declared that they believe that their community agrees with the statement: a women does not have the right to challenge her husband’s opinions and decisions even if she disagrees with him (Levtov et al., 2018[41]; Vlahovicova et al., 2019[43]). Men’s perceptions of their communities’ beliefs are critical to understanding the way men view what is acceptable and what is expected of them by others. Indicators such as these attest to the fact that norms of masculinities are not only directed by men; rather, they are deeply intertwined with standards and social norms within a community.

This social expectation is reflected in legal frameworks. In 20 countries, married women are required by law to obey their husbands, and in 16 of these countries there are legal provisions and sanctions if women do not comply (OECD, 2019[5]). In 24 countries, the law requires women to have permission from their husband or legal guardian to work or choose a profession (OECD, 2019[5]). Similarly, 17 countries have laws that require women to have permission from their husband or legal guardian to register a business (OECD, 2019[5]). Finally, in 32 countries, married women do not have the same rights as married men to choose where to live (OECD, 2019[5]). These discriminatory laws not only reinforce unequal power relationships between women and men, but also transmit norms of restrictive masculinities from generation to generation.

Adherence to restrictive masculinities associated with men’s guardianship and control over women reinforces existing gender inequalities in the public and economic spheres. The internalisation of norms of restrictive masculinities regarding guardianship of women in the household is enacted in behaviours that constrain women’s agency. These behaviours include men controlling their wives’/partner’s mobility and defining which activities are permissible for their wives/partners outside the home, including spending time with family and friends and working for pay. More than one-half of respondents in Azerbaijan, Tanzania and Central Uganda reported that men tell women who they can spend time with (Levtov et al., 2018[41]; UNFPA/Promundo, 2018[38]; Vlahovicova et al., 2019[43]). In Brazil, Peru and Samoa, at least 25% of female respondents reported that their husband keeps them from seeing their friends and more than 10% reported that he limits social contact with their family (WHO, 2005[67]). More than one-half of ever-married respondents in Egypt and Morocco reported that the husband controls when his wife can leave the house (El Feki, Heilman and Barker, 2017[29]). Finally, about one in five women across sites in Asia and the Pacific reported that their husband has prohibited them from working (Fulu et al., 2013[65]). These controlling behaviours are likely to reinforce existing gender inequalities in terms of access to the economic and public sphere. If men control and restrict women’s mobility and activities outside the home, they may deprive women of opportunities to contribute to the family income, participate in educational programmes and/or develop social networks. For some men, restricting women’s mobility may also serve as a means to maintain the traditional gender division of labour and preserve control over women’s sexuality by limiting external social contact (Porter, 2011[68]).

Norms of restrictive masculinities associated with guardianship and control of women in the household can deprive women from accessing important healthcare services. Although great disparities exist across countries, data suggest that men’s control over women’s access to healthcare is widespread. In 8 out of 22 countries for which data are available for 2016-18, at least one in three women reported that her husband is the main decision maker regarding her healthcare (DHS, n.d.[46]). In contrast, men are more likely to have decision-making authority over their own healthcare than their female counterparts (Figure 3.5). This may have important implications for women’s health. If men dominate decisions about healthcare, women may fail to have their healthcare needs met. This might be the case for several reasons. First, men may lack knowledge about the female body and hence lack the ability to make appropriate choices (Ganle and Dery, 2015[69]). Second, men might deny women access to healthcare and treatment if they oppose certain practices based on social norms; this might include examinations or treatment by male doctors and nurses. Third, men are, on average, less likely to seek preventive care and treatment (Baker et al., 2014[70]), which not only leads to insufficient uptake of healthcare services for themselves but may also lead to this being the case for their partners. Finally, if men hold decision-making authority over women’s healthcare, they may choose to neglect their partners’ needs if income is scarce or if they seek to spend it elsewhere. In the latter case, denial of healthcare services is inherently linked to control over financial assets (see Chapter 3, Section 3).

The norm of restrictive masculinities dictating male guardianship may also drive the use of violence against women. Domestic violence may emerge as a way to reaffirm men’s control over women. Large proportions of women and somewhat smaller proportions of men consider it justifiable for a husband to beat or hit his wife if she leaves the house without telling him. In ten countries for which data are available for 2016-18, more than 30% of women reported supporting this view (DHS, n.d.[46]).

Social norms that expect men to exercise authority in the home and protect female family members seem resistant to change, yet there are signs that practices are changing. In some contexts in which attitudes towards women’s rights and gender equality are changing, men’s authority in the private sphere and their role as the family protector is barely contested and continues to coexist with more gender-equitable attitudes and practices (Marcus, Stavropoulou and Archer-Gupta, 2018[71]; Wyrod, 2008[72]). Yet, in some countries, including Cameroon, Colombia, Haiti, Rwanda and Zambia, the proportion of ever-married women who reported that their partner insists on knowing where they are at all times decreased by at least seven percentage points between 2000 and 2018 (DHS, n.d.[46]). Moreover, the share of ever-married women reporting that their partner tries to limit their contact with their female friends also decreased in Haiti from 26% in 2007 to 19% in 2018, and in Zambia from 35% in 2000 to 25% in 2012 (DHS, n.d.[46]). Gender-equitable social norms permit both men and women to commute to distant places, develop and maintain social networks, and seek out healthcare services according to their individual needs.

Norms of restrictive masculinities include the expectation that “real” men have the final say in household decisions, including decisions regarding sexual activity. According to restrictive gender norms, men are expected to be proactive initiators of sexual activity, whereas women are expected to respond to their partners’ needs (Dworkin et al., 2009[73]). In 2017, in the Palestinian Authority and Egypt, for example, 87% and 96% of ever-married men and 80% and 84% of ever-married women, respectively, reported that the husband expects his wife to agree to have sex with him whenever he wants (El Feki, Heilman and Barker, 2017[29]). The norms of restrictive masculinities may also lead to the denial of a woman’s right to refuse to have sexual intercourse with her spouse according to her individual desire and circumstances. For example, in Timor-Leste in 2016, only 11% of women reported believing that a wife is justified in refusing to have sex with her husband if she is tired or not in the mood (DHS, n.d.[46]). Furthermore, in 2020 in China, nearly one-half (43%) of respondents reported that it is unacceptable for a woman to refuse sexual intercourse with her partner (Focus 2030 and Women Deliver, 2021[17]) (Figure 3.6). These social norms enable sexual violence, and legal frameworks can play a critical role in upholding these views; in 88 countries, the legal definition of rape does not include marital rape (OECD, 2019[5]).

Entitlement to sex with their partners may be linked to the important roles that men play in the household as breadwinners and decision makers. Men’s power to decide when and how often to have sexual intercourse with their wives may be related, at least in part, to their role as financial providers. For example, in Egypt and Morocco in 2017, 33% and 36% of female respondents and 16% and 41% of male respondents, respectively, agreed that if a husband provides financially for his household, his wife is obliged to have sex with him whenever he wants (El Feki, Heilman and Barker, 2017[29]).

In addition to sexual activity, men may be expected to have the final say in reproductive decisions, including the use of contraceptives and, relatedly, choices about family size. Norms of restrictive masculinities prescribe men’s control over family planning, including the use of contraception, and thus permit men to control family size, determine the timing to have children and decide whether to use condoms or not, according to their preferences (Blanc, 2001[74]; Chapagain, 2005[75]; Kabagenyi et al., 2014[76]). Controlling contraceptive use may provide a husband with a sense of power over his wife’s sexuality and the ability to prevent covert extramarital affairs (Kabagenyi et al., 2014[76]; MacQuarrie et al., 2015[77]). In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, for example, men enjoy greater decision-making power than women do with regard to birth control. Specifically, in Lebanon and in the Palestinian Authority in 2017, 20% and 25% of male respondents and 18% and 14% of female respondents, respectively, claimed to have sole decision-making authority over the use of contraception, while only 3% of men and women in the Palestinian Authority reported that women had the final say on contraceptive use (El Feki, Heilman and Barker, 2017[29]). In Burkina Faso in 2018, 38% of respondents reported that the husband makes decisions regarding birth spacing, while 42% reported that this decision was made jointly by the couple (OECD, 2018[11]).

When it comes to avoiding pregnancy, men are often permitted and even expected to be disengaged. While restrictive masculinities prescribe men’s control over family planning, including the use of contraception, its implementation mainly rests on women’s shoulders (Lohan et al., 2018[78]; MenEngage, n.d.[40]; Ruane-McAteer et al., 2020[79]). The belief that avoiding pregnancy is a woman’s prerogative remains widespread and concerns the prevention of pregnancy in both stable intimate relationships and casual sexual encounters (Blanc, 2001[74]; Ekstrand et al., 2007[80]; MenEngage, n.d.[40]). In Brazil and India, for example, more than one in three men considered birth control a woman’s responsibility, while as many as one-half of men in Chile and Rwanda concurred on this point (Barker et al., 2011[20]). Similarly, between 2010 and 2013, 66% of male respondents in Cambodia and 43% in urban Indonesia agreed that it is a woman’s responsibility to avoid getting pregnant (Fulu et al., 2013[65]).

Norms of restrictive masculinity may perpetuate practices that undermine women’s sexual agency and ability to have a safe sex life. In addition to social norms which reproduce unequal power dynamics and dictate men’s control in intimate relationships, norms of restrictive masculinities promote the expectation that men should be sexually active and unambiguously heterosexual (Box 3.2) (Heilman, Barker and Harrison, 2017[3]; Greene et al., 2019[81]). Combined, these norms pose a barrier to women’s reproductive autonomy and physical integrity. The combination of men’s decision-making authority in intimate relationships and masculinities which encourage sexual risk-taking not only adversely affects men’s sexual health, but also women’s sexual experiences and ability to have a safe sex life (Greene et al., 2019[81]; Kane, Lohan and Kelly, 2018[82]).

Norms of restrictive masculinities, combined with ideas of men’s sexual entitlement, may encourage sexual violence and justify the use of physical violence. Pressure to adhere to dominant masculinities and demonstrate sexual activity undermines men’s and women’s sexual agency and can contribute to sexual coercion (Greene et al., 2019[81]). If men feel entitled to sex and/or seek to demonstrate their masculinity through sexual activity, they may override their partners’ individual preferences, committing acts of sexual violence (Box 3.3).5 Furthermore, societies, including both men and women, may justify cases where men resort to physical violence when their wife/partner refuses to have sex. In Guinea and Mali in 2018, for example, 48% and 63% of women, respectively, considered it justifiable for a husband to beat his wife if she refuses sexual intercourse with him (DHS, n.d.[46]). The proportion of men in these countries who hold this belief was slightly lower, standing at 25% and 23%, respectively (DHS, n.d.[46]).

Male dominance in reproductive decision making can prevent women from choosing to use contraceptives. Men’s control over the use of contraception may also deny women the ability to opt for suitable contraceptive methods and increases the likelihood of covert contraceptive use (Blanc, 2001[74]). The proportions of currently married or in-union women who reported that they are not using a contraceptive method and do not intend to use one due to spousal opposition ranged from 1% in the Republic of Moldova (in 2005) to 14% in Sierra Leone (in 2008) (DHS, n.d.[46]).6 Furthermore, in 2011, at least one in three men in Chile, India and Rwanda reported that they would be outraged if their wife asked them to use a condom (Barker et al., 2011[20]). Legal frameworks in 16 countries uphold these restrictive norms by legally requiring women pursuing the termination of a pregnancy to have the approval of the father, thus legally codifying men’s final say in these decisions (OECD, 2019[5]).

The norms of restrictive masculinities which condone male dominance in reproductive choices can have adverse consequences for women’s outcomes by minimising their individual agency. Male dominance in family planning denies women equal rights to control family size and birth spacing, which has important implications for women’s ability to achieve sustained livelihoods for themselves and their dependents (Nzioka, 2002[90]; Ruane-McAteer et al., 2019[83]). Social expectations about men’s control in relationships and their disengagement from reproductive care pose barriers to women’s ability to choose for themselves, pursue their economic ambitions and reach optimal health outcomes (Blanc, 2001[74]; Croce-Galis, Salazar and Lundgren, 2014[91]). This issue goes beyond women’s control over their bodies. In light of unequal divisions of unpaid care and domestic work, women often bear the burden of childcare and are more likely to pursue ways to balance work and family life, even if this means taking low-paid, part-time and/or informal jobs (see Chapter 3, Section 1).

Gender-equitable masculinities emphasise equal partnership and respect for women’s right to physical integrity. Along with these norms are practices emphasising joint decision making in partnerships, based on mutual respect and an understanding of a woman’s right to make her own informed decisions regarding her own body when it comes to sexual activity, childbearing and contraceptive use. Under gender-equitable masculinities, men and boys are actively involved in sexual and reproductive choices, but in ways in which they do not dominate. In fact, these norms are already taking root. For example, in Burkina Faso in 2008, 66% of respondents reported that couples should decide jointly on the number of children to have (OECD, 2018[11]). Men who adopt gender-equitable masculinities uphold women’s autonomous choices and base family planning and sexual activity on the mutual consent of informed parties. Indeed, evidence attests to the potential for change in the norms of masculinities related to sexual health and reproductive rights (Ruane-McAteer et al., 2020[79]). For example, in South Africa, the percentage of men reporting that they agreed with the statement: “A man and a woman should decide together what type of contraceptive to use” increased by more than 15 percentage points after participating in a MenCare+ programme (Olivier et al., 2016[92]).

Gender-equitable masculinities which embrace joint reproductive decision making have the potential to improve women’s economic empowerment. Studies have shown that spousal communication about contraception and joint decision making play an important role in women’s use of contraceptives (Ogunjuyigbe, Ojofeitimi and Liasu, 2009[93]; Yue, O’Donnell and Sparks, 2010[94]). Use of a contraceptive method is associated with higher educational attainment and labour force participation among women (Finlay and Lee, 2018[95]). Improved access to contraception can enhance women’s economic outcomes through various channels: giving them the opportunity to delay their first childbearing, determine the intervals between births and limit the number of children they have according to their preferences (Finlay and Lee, 2018[95]). Changing men’s openness to discussing family planning on an equal footing with their wives/partners may thus improve women’s empowerment opportunities.


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← 1. For a list of countries/territories included in all surveys referenced in this publication please see the Annex.

← 2. Belgium, Luxembourg and Spain.

← 3. Data for this indicator were collected over the course of multiple years between 2009 and 2019.

← 4. The size of the sample in each of these countries is unknown, and thus should not be taken to be representative. For more information on the methodology used for this research, see: https://www.ubs.com/global/en/media/display-page-ndp/en-20190306-financial-security.html.

← 5. In conflict settings, restrictive norms that link masculinity to sexual virility, and glorify violence, serve to encourage sexual assault and rape as a weapon of war (Box 3.2).

← 6. Data are available for 45 countries between 2005 and 2010.

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