International Men's Day: In a world stacked against women, here's why we still need to talk about men
Men have run most of the world for most of its history. Men make up the vast majority of members of Parliament, Congress and just about every other political power base across the globe. Men are paid more than women. In parts of the world, men are granted rights that women can only dream of. Men are over-represented in media, the arts, sport and finance. Men dominate boardroom by a ratio of three to one.
So why on earth should we give any space to International Men's Day, which takes place today?
A day celebrating men seems like an extravagance at best, even an insult to everyone's intelligence, given the litany of disadvantages that billions of women face day after day. We must support campaigns against those issues which disproportionately affect women – the horrors of domestic violence and sexual assault, alongside the more ingrained systemic sexism of pay inequality, lack of opportunity and severe under-representation in positions of power.
But this isn't a Zero Sum game. Supporting equality for women doesn't mean we need to be silent on men's issues. In fact, I want to proudly proclaim from the top of my Adam's apple that we should use International Men's Day to talk widely and freely about them. Not because men are better than women, nor because men need to be recognised by a specific day in the calendar. Not even because a special day really changes anything in and of itself.
But I'm keen to use today to spark conversations because there are some challenges and issues which seem to affect men more acutely than women. There are also issues which affect many men but just aren't talked about widely. And if International Men's Day gives us a chance to focus on them and even play a part in addressing them, then we need to take any chance we can get.
International Men's Day may not be perfect – identity politics of any kind makes me nervous – but we can use the springboard offered by the day to talk about some awkward issues.
We could focus on educational attainment, where girls outperform boys, body image, which is reported to be a concern for large numbers of men, or general health complaints, with men being 33 per cent less likely to visit a doctor than women. There may well be many more, but today, let's focus on just two. Suicide and fatherhood.
Simply put, men are far more likely to kill themselves than women. This is a stark and sobering fact. In 2013, 78 per cent of suicides in the UK were men. Thirteen men kill themselves every day in the UK, making suicide the biggest killer of men under 44. These are devastating statistics. Until recently this phenomenon has been talked about very little in public. Fortunately, this is beginning to change. Journalist Owen Jones is among those who've started speaking out. Mainstream media is now describing this as a public health crisis, which hopefully means a wider conversation on the issue, followed by some concrete attempts at improving it are on the way.
We've got to openly talk about these horrendous statistics. We've got to demand more from ourselves – to open up those awkward conversations about mental health with friends, family and churches. We've also got to demand more from those in power, as a coalition of leading suicide prevention charities are doing today. They say, "Every year thousands of men take their lives, more than 4,600 last year alone. Yet the way we respond to each incident has changed little over the last four decades... there are no national plans to act to 'contain' the issue and support those impacted by or enforce suicide prevention plans across the country."
Fatherhood is the second area where we really have to open up a conversation. Around a quarter of children in Britain are now being raised in single parent homes. Fewer than ten per cent of these families are headed by a single father. In other words, in more than nine out of ten cases, children in those homes are growing up without their father under the same roof. Of course, this could be for a number of reasons, and it doesn't mean that every man who leaves the home has done so for dishonourable reasons. However, it's perfectly clear why Pope Francis recently spoke about the existence of a 'fatherhood crisis'.
"Fathers are so necessary as examples and guides for our children in wisdom and virtue," said the Pope. "Without father figures, young people often feel orphaned, left adrift at a critical moment in their growth and development." This is no criticism of single mothers, but is certainly born out by statistics which suggest children in single parent homes can be disadvantaged compared to those with both parents still present. Of course, many, many children from single parent families grow to be well-adjusted and happy. But this doesn't mean that there isn't a big issue here.
The so-called crisis in fatherhood is something precipitated by men leaving. We must begin to talk about why so many men now don't live with their children and the impact that can have in society as a whole. A man's decision not to commit to his his child and the child's mother is a life-changing one – and one that it seems not enough men are taking seriously. There are, of course, no easy answers to this issue – relationships break down. But men must be confronted with the consequences of their actions.
So, three cheers for International Men's Day, not in and of itself, but because we have to talk about this stuff. And if one extra conversation happens today by the water cooler, at a bar, in the school canteen, on a building site, or on the trading floor, then that's good enough for me.