Confession #121: Where Are The Men?
Not gold but only man can make a people great and strong; men who for the truth and honor’s sake stand fast and suffer long. Brave men who work while others sleep, who dare while others fly…They build a nation’s pillars deep and lift them to the sky.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
This week I chose to be extra observant, but look around on any given Sunday and you will see that our church building is mainly filled with women. Women both young and old, accompanied by their children, fill the pews. Sitting as close to the front as they can, they give their all to the service- singing, clapping, and raising their hands in prayer. The men are typically dispersed in the back. Less engaged, they are usually lower in numbers. With the exception of a few, most of the men in our church sit through the service arms crossed, silent, playing on their cell phones, and occasionally even asleep. Over a few years of watching the women to men ratio in our church I have come to wonder: Where are the men?
Haiti is often referred to as the NGO Republic– meaning we are packed full of non-government organizations here to aid the poor in their own given way. And many of these NGOs, rightfully so, focus on women. Maternity centers, education programs, micro financing companies, fair-trade artisan groups- we have them all. There is a reason for it. The United Nations Develpoment Programme is correct when they say, “Women’s empowerment helps raise economic productivity and reduces infant mortality. It contributes to improved health and nutrition. It increases the chances of education for the next generation.” Give a mama here in Haiti a loan and she will use it to start a business to support her family and send her kids to school. Give a man here a loan and he will more than likely go upgrade his telephone, build an addition to his house, or spend it on booze.
This is not just true of Haiti either. Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn speak of this worldwide problem in their book Half the Sky. Based on their research, in the most impoverished areas of the world where the poorest of the poor call home, an average of 20% of a family’s income is spent on alcohol, prostitution, candy, and soft drinks. According to them, “some of the wretched suffering is caused not just by low incomes, but also by unwise spending- by men. It is not uncommon to stumble across a mother mourning a child who has just died of malaria for want of a $5 mosquito bed net and then find the child’s father at a bar, where he spends $5 each week. Several studies suggest that when women gain control over spending, less family money is devoted to instant gratification and more for education and starting small businesses.” Although that sounds rather discriminatory, it is true. And it is the reason why so many organizations invest in women. Given opportunity and inspiration, women have the ability to create long-term change.
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The central problem of every society is to define appropriate roles for the men.
Margaret Mead, Male and Female: A Study of the Sexes in a Changing World
Understanding the gender dynamics in Haiti is rather difficult. In many ways I applaud Haiti. Unlike most under developed countries, education is equally available (although not free) to both boys and girls. Many well-achieving businesses such as hotels, restaurants, and stores are run and managed by women entrepreneurs. Many women fill positions in the government. And many Haitian homes are run by the woman (as the breadwinner, the mother, and the financial manager). On the flip side, however, it is a rarity to see a woman driving her own vehicle. A husband beating his wife is still considered acceptable by roughly 31% of the population. It is the norm for a woman to have multiple children from multiple fathers. And a majority of women still do not wear pants.
But enough about the women. This blog is about the men. You see, I am worried for the men in Haiti. I am concerned for the examples (or lack there of) that are being provided to the young men I work with. I’m concerned as I watch men step away from their God given responsibilities as fathers, husbands, providers, and church leaders. And more than anything, I worry for this country, which seems to not only accept but also excuse the absent man.
Spurred by observing Hunter through my pregnancy, I recently had two conversations about such concerns- one with a co-worker and one with a young gentleman in our program. Amazed at how present and active Hunter was while I was pregnant my co-worker laughed when I told him Hunter was by my side during the labor process. A devoted father himself, I asked him why Haitian men aren’t more involved with their babies. “If a man was present for the birth of their baby then they may feel obligated to help financially with the baby. So it is easier for them to not be present at all. If they don’t see the baby then they won’t feel guilty,” he replied. This wasn’t a shocking statement. I realize absentee fathers are a universal problem, not just a Haitian one. But it was the way he said it so matter-of-factly that caught me off guard, as if it was a common and acceptable choice.
A few days later I found myself in a rather extensive conversation with one of our students about dating in Haiti. “It’s so hard to find a good Christian girl to date,” he said. “Even the ones at our church aren’t really that good. Most girls my age are the matrons of their families. They don’t have a father in their home and they have many brothers and sisters (not all from the same dad) that they need to care for.” “So what makes them not good?” I asked. “Girls in Haiti are desperate. Most of the girls I know never knew a father’s love, so when they get my age they go chasing a lot of boys. Most girls I know have multiple boyfriends and they have sex with all of them,” he replied. “I’ve heard in America that it is the boy who is supposed to pursue the girl, but in Haiti the boys can just sit back and wait because the girls here just come to us,” he said with a smirk.
Whether he meant to or not, my young friend diagnosed one of the hugest issues in Haiti to its core: Where are the men?
The teens I work with have all been affected by this manless epidemic. A handful of them have no record of who their father is, even on their birth certificates. Some know a name, but as soon as their mom passed away their father brought them to the orphanage, believing it was not his responsibility to care for a motherless child. A couple of them were born out of their father’s affairs, making them illegitimate, making them fit for an orphanage- a place where the product of an embarrassing affair can be hidden. But no matter what their story, all of them have been abandoned by a man.
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So who’s at fault? What’s the problem? Where are the men?
I think there are a few reasons why so many men are falling short in Haiti. You can blame poverty and desperation if you want, but in the end I don’t think those cut it. Poor men can be strong men. Just see the Bible for a multitude of examples. No, I believe so many men are struggling to be men in Haiti due to three underlying problems: lack of expectation, tampered dignity, and minimal accountability. Let me take a minute to explain each one further:
Lack of expectations: A young boy grows up unable to finish school, so we don’t expect him to find a good job. He can’t find a job, so we don’t expect him to make much money. He doesn’t make much money, so we don’t expect him to be able to provide for his family or contribute a whole lot to society in general. (After all it is the ones with the most money that have the most influence.) And the list goes on. In general, Haiti doesn’t expect a lot from its men. Poverty is too often the excuse as to why men have no obligation to rise up in this society. And when they don’t it is widely accepted as norm.
Tampered dignity: Dignity is valuable. Dignity in one’ s self, one’s family, one’s culture, one’s community, and one’s county is what motives people to help themselves and to help their own neighbors in need. When that dignity is comprised, however, people can easily accept being a charity case.
Now I’m going to try and say this as nicely as I can, but I must be honest. We (the foreigners) who come to aid the people of Haiti too often tamper with the average man’s dignity. We come in and provide for their families for them, we build their homes for them, we pay for their kids’ school for them, we build orphanages and take care of their kids for them, and we come lead in their churches for them. We do these things because we see the need and we care, but behind the scenes we are taking away the responsibilities of the local man.
Minimal accountability: Being accountable to your neighbor is difficult no matter where you live in the world, but it is a rare practice here in Haiti. A few years back I caught a former employee stealing money out of our office. The evidence was clear and even the local authorities agreed she was guilty. However the other employees and children I worked with excused her behaviors. Believing she was cursed to do these things and therefore was not in control over her behaviors, no one held her accountable.
I see this a lot in my teenagers as well. One boy recently lost something of value to my husband. When I approached him about it, I asked him what a mature man should do in this case (hinting that he should replace the lost item). “Well, I didn’t mean to lose it. It was just an accident. So it isn’t my fault,” he replied. And surprisingly enough, the others teens around him agreed. No accountability.
And this lack of accountability translates into a society of unaccountable men. A man here can easily walk away from a child, not work, and have multiple affairs. No one scorns him. Most people here just look the other way, put the blame elsewhere (i.e. lack of money), or contribute it to Voodoo.
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The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?
1 Timothy 3:1-7
Lack of expectations, tampered dignity, and minimal accountability are all contributors to the manless epidemic in so many Haitian homes. But what about the church? Where does it fall into place?
Well, if a man can’t fulfill his God given duty to lead in his own home how can he lead in the church? In 1 Timothy 3:4 Paul says that an overseer of the church must first be able to oversee the affairs in his own home respectfully. For “if anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?”
And this perfectly explains the scene I described above from our church. The men aren’t stepping up and leading in the church, barely even participating, because many of them have no practice even stepping it up in their own homes.
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Working with teenage boys here in Haiti, I have often struggled as I watch the lack of strong male influences in their lives. What kind of men will they grow up to be? Will they provide for their families? Will they commit to their wives? Will they raise their own children? Will they be leaders in their church or just join the other men in the back pew? Can our boys help break the cycle of absent men in Haiti. I pray so. Everyday, I pray so.