Positive and negative masculinity

Gender equalitySocial issues


  1. Introduction

In Mali, the Personal and Family Code states that women must obey their husbands. The husband is considered the head of the family and has parental authority. The same law allows polygamy and sets the marriage age at 18 for boys and 16 for girls. Yet the country’s constitution clearly states that all its citizens are born free and equal before the law. This contradiction is the result of the weight of custom and religion, which are always used as a reference point when passing laws. In most Malian cultures, this inequality between men and women is evident from childhood.

Boys, who are expected to be the heads of the family, are taught to be physically and mentally strong, hardworking, and meticulous. At the same time, girls are psychologically prepared to be mothers and housewives. Viewed as mentally and physically weak, they are taught to do the housework, look after the children, and be dependent on their husbands. Tasks are thus divided according to gender. Especially in rural areas, this approach has historically had a major impact on girls’ education. Many parents believe that women are made to stay at home. Such practices bring us to the concept of positive and negative masculinity.

  • Positive masculinity is a concept that promotes gender equality and the empowerment of women. It takes into account the attitudes, roles, and responsibilities of men and women and focuses on how laws and policies can support and protect this equality in law. In the management of the family, for example, positive masculinity encourages an equitable division of tasks between husband and wife. In married life, it encourages complementarity rather than dependence of one sex on the other. This rule applies everywhere, including in public and at home. Men and women are seen as beings with emotions, strengths, and weaknesses. Positive masculinity fights against all forms of injustice and violence against one gender, especially women. It sees men as being at the centre of these changes, as men are generally the perpetrators of violence against women.
  • Positive masculinity, unlike negative masculinity, does not see sexual or physical virility, lack of emotion, self-sufficiency, or dominance as the hallmarks of a “real man.” Instead, it sees these qualities as possible sources of physical aggression, violence, suppression of emotions, isolation, hyper-competitiveness, lack of empathy, and violation of the right to equality. These attitudes can also lead to sexism and chauvinism. Positive masculinity is committed to combating these problems
  • Negative masculinity, also known as toxic masculinity, is based on inequality between men and women and women’s dependence on men. In this worldview, roles and responsibilities are clearly divided between men and women. Negative masculinity includes gender stereotypes and sexist, misogynist, and even homophobic behaviour that is perpetuated through the education of boys. They are taught not to be afraid, not to cry, to be strong, and not to express their feelings. They are also encouraged to fight if they have to. And in line with this concept, it is frowned upon for a man to help a woman with household chores such as cooking, washing, and looking after children, which are considered to be women’s activities. These inequalities deprive women of their rights and prevent them from being empowered or from contributing fully to society. Negative masculinity overestimates the importance of male virility while encouraging hyper-competitiveness between men. It sets standards that disregard the differences that may exist between men. This social pressure pushes some men into sometimes dangerous excesses as they try to show off their masculinity.

Why is this issue important to listeners?

  • Article 2 of the Malian Constitution of 2023 states that “all Malians are born and remain free and equal in rights and duties. Any discrimination based on social origin, colour, language, sex, religion, or public opinion is prohibited.”
  • However, in Malian society, women do not have the same rights as men in terms of access to economic resources, control over land and certain types of property such as livestock, financial services, natural resources, or inheritance.
  • Women’s empowerment is frowned upon. It frightens men, though it is an opportunity for society as a whole.
  • Mali has adhered without reservation to all relevant treaties and conventions, the most important of which is the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
  • According to UN Women-Mali, 39.1% of women in Mali have suffered physical and/or sexual violence at the hands of an intimate partner during their married life. Also, 20.9% of women have experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence within the past 12 months. UN Women-Mali also found that 53.7% of girls experienced early marriage, while 88.6% were subjected to female genital mutilation.
  • There is no legal basis for gender inequality and gender-based violence.
  • The pressure of negative masculinity on men can be a source of mental health problems such as depression and stress.
  • A 2023 report states that 23% of men aged 25 to 34 feel that they sometimes have to be violent to be respected. One in five (20%) of the same age group think that they have to brag about their sexual exploits to their male friends and a quarter of them think that there is too much media coverage of sexual assault.

Key information

  • Negative masculinity or male dominance is a social construction, rather than a fact or nature. But, some of the behaviours and attitudes associated with negative masculinity are supported by social institutions, and by customary socio-cultural and religious practices.
  • In Mali, 45% of women aged 15 to 49 have experienced physical or sexual violence. Almost half (49%) of women aged 15 to 49 who are in a union or have been separated from a union have experienced emotional, physical, and/or sexual violence at in their lifetimes. Among the women who have experienced physical and/or sexual violence, 68% have never sought help or told anyone about it. Only 19% had sought help to put an end to the situation.
  • In Mali, the number of reported cases of gender-based violence (GBV) rose from 2,021 cases between January and July 2019 to 2,981 cases between January and July 2020, an increase of 47%. The data shows that 99% of those affected are women and 36% of GBV is sexual violence.
  • In Mali, women earn 57% of what men earn for the same work.
  • Worldwide, nearly 2.4 billion women of working age do not enjoy the same rights as men. These include equal opportunities in recruitment and equal pay.

Two imaginary scenarios inspired by real cases: Negative and positive masculinity

The story of Daouda and his neighbour Ali:

  1. Daouda lives with his wife and only son. He is about 60 years old and retired. He firmly believes that men and women should play different roles according to their gender. This belief is a heritage that he jealously guards and passes on to his children. However, Daouda’s son has many difficulties with his wife. Lack of communication is his weakness and he rules his family with an iron fist. He is not very present for his family and does not accept his wife’s lucrative activities. According to him all she has to do is cook for him, do other household chores, and look after the children. But the husband does not believe that he is violating his wife’s rights, or preventing her from developing and being happy, and that his behaviour is a kind of psychological violence. Unfortunately, the wife eventually got tired of all this pressure and asked for a divorce.
  2. The son of Daouda’s neighbour, Ali, has the same problem with his wife. The couple can’t agree on how to run the family. But unlike Daouda, Ali believes in the benefits of communication. He is in favour of a positive masculinity that respects women and their rights as human beings. The father asked the son to change his approach and communicate more with his wife. He also told him to help his wife, to ask her for help when needed, and to accompany her in her various projects. By following this advice, the couple’s problem was solved. They were able to communicate more and both of them enjoyed their rights.


Dispelling myths

  • By nature, men are physically stronger than women: This myth is constantly present in Malian society. However, the physical strength of a person, man or woman, depends on several factors. These include muscle strength and bone density. The latter refers to the quality of the bones in terms of calcium accumulation and strength, and is related to diet and exercise. But strength has nothing to do with gender. Not all men are strong and not all women are fragile.
  • It is the man who has to take care of the woman: There is no justification for this statement, as Mali’s constitution defends the equality of men and women before the law. Marriage does not mean that one partner is dependent on the other. Throughout Mali’s history, some women have fought against colonialists, while others have successfully managed certain areas. They were far from being women who were solely devoted to domestic tasks. The idea that women should be dependent on men is a social construction. Male domination has been supported by traditions, customs, and religions for so long that it became widely accepted by both men and women.
  • Women cannot keep secrets: Throughout human history, men and women have all committed acts of betrayal and revealed secrets. Being able to keep a secret has nothing to do with gender. It’s just a matter of personality, upbringing, and choice.
  • A woman cannot be a good leader: This myth had its heyday, but it’s now a thing of the past. Today, women have occupied practically every position of responsibility and have achieved good results. There have been women heads of state, prime ministers, presidents of parliaments, members of parliament, heads of NGOs, entrepreneurs, and project leaders, to name but a few.

Consequences of negative and positive masculinities

Negative masculinity: Negative masculinity has harmful consequences at all levels of society.

  • At home, it leads to a lack of communication and violates women’s rights through abuse of power and violence of all kinds by men. When a man puts too much pressure on his wife, it can play on her mental health and prevent her from fulfilling her potential. Negative masculinity overvalues male empowerment and normalizes bullying. When men feel that they have to prove their masculinity at all times, it can damage their self-esteem and limit intimacy and cooperation between men and women. And all this can have consequences for children’s mental and physical health and education.
  • In school, it leads to injustice against girls, marginalization, gender-based violence, and loss of self-confidence, and girls dropping out of school. Telling boys not to ask for help, not to cry, and not to show their emotions can lead to social isolation and affect the quality of their relationships with others. The acceptance of negative masculinity means that few measures are taken at school to combat gender-based violence.
  • In the workplace, negative masculinity is a source of arbitrary appointments and discriminatory practices against women. It deprives women of their rights and robs them of their potential to be agents of change. Because of negative masculinity, few measures are taken to protect women in the workplace. It also encourages men to overwork, preventing them from spending more time with their children. Expecting a lot from men is a source of pressure that can affect their work performance.
  • In politics, it leads men to take less account of women’s needs in political discourse and social projects. It also leads to fewer appointments of women to positions of responsibility, and less advocacy on behalf of women.

Positive masculinity:

  • Positive masculinity includes respect for the rights of all individuals and encourages collaboration and partnership between men and women. It challenges sexist and homophobic practices, stereotypes, and gender-based violence. It does not overemphasize the empowerment of men or put too much pressure on them to meet impossibly high standards. It allows women to have the same opportunities as men and to contribute to the development of their families and communities. Today, in Mali, some men are fighting this battle alongside women. They are encouraging other men to become more involved in running their families, particularly by helping their wives with domestic tasks, including childcare. And most of the men who have embraced positive masculinity idea say they are happier in their families.
  • At home, positive masculinity encourages both partners to share tasks equally. This creates a framework for communication, cooperation in raising children and a healthy living environment. It helps boys learn to respect women and girls. This can play a part in the fight against domestic violence and other forms of violence against women.
  • In school, it encourages men to defend human rights, promotes girls’ education, and helps to avoid gender stereotypes. It contributes to combating psychological and physical violence against girls. Such a learning environment has a positive impact on the academic performance of both girls and boys. It also encourages school authorities to enact rules that help achieve these goals. At the same time, boys understand that they can express their feelings and ask for help. This can help them avoid social isolation.
  • In terms of public policy, it makes it possible to advocate for greater involvement of women in political life and encourages their election to positions of responsibility. It leads the country to adopt laws against gender-based violence. It gives women autonomy and a sense of security. When men and women work together, they can be more effective in many areas.
  • For women, positive masculinity means respecting women’s rights and addressing their needs. For example, empowering urban women means giving them the opportunity to realize their potential, create projects, and benefit from funding. It also involves giving rural women the opportunity to access land and agricultural inputs, and to raise livestock. An empowered woman benefits her family and society as a whole.
  • For men, positive masculinity reduces social pressure and increases their satisfaction with themselves and others. It increases men’s sense of responsibility to their families and promotes mutual understanding between married couples.


  • Djeneba Keita, married woman, 32 years old, teacher living in Bamako: “Since we adopted the positive masculinity approach, I get along very well with my husband. There’s more communication between us and he supports me in everything I do. I believe that positive masculinity benefits both genders. A man who grows up in this environment has fewer problems when he goes abroad to work or study. He can cook and look after himself.”
  • Seydou Diarra, married man, 45 years old, carpenter living in Bamako: “Thanks to positive masculinity, I now feel like a model husband now. I’m close to my wife and my children. Nothing gives me more satisfaction.”
  • Abdoulaye Koné, married man, 34 years old, entrepreneur living in Bamako: “I have noticed a big change in myself since I became interested in the issue of positive masculinity. I have realized that force and violence don’t solve problems. You have to create dialogue and communication within the couple. And since I have been sharing the housework with my wife, I am spending less. We share our ideas so we can organize our lives better.”
  • Khadidia Traoré, married woman, 29 years old, living in Bamako: “A family is all about mutual help and understanding. Since my husband started helping and supporting me, we’ve had fewer problems running our home. It’s not only the men’s mentality that needs to change. We also need to change the mentality of women, who contribute a lot to the education of boys.”
  • Abdrahmane Sissoko, married man, 41 years old, teacher living in Bamako: “When I was invited to attend a course on positive masculinity, I wondered how important it would be to take a course that went against my own beliefs. I wasn’t used to seeking my wife’s opinion. But after this training I started to see things differently. I communicate more and more with my wife and became aware of everything she was going through. Today, I help her in practically everything she does and we look after our children and deal with our problems together.”

Adiaratiou Keita, married woman, 36 years old, cook in Bamako: “When I got married, family obligations forced me to give up my studies. And I had to fight to secure a job in a restaurant. But everyday life wasn’t easy. My husband was always complained that I was always absent from home. And I problems at work too, because I often came home late and tired. But I was surprised that my husband taking an interest in positive masculinity. His behaviour towards me suddenly changed. Now he’s more understanding and supports me in everything I do.



Contributed by: Issa Togola, journalist, freelancer for Farm Radio International

Reviewed by: Fanta Coulibaly, lawye


Maimouna Dioncounda Dembélé, Country Director of the Centre d’Etude et de Coopération Internationale (CECI), interviewed on April 1, 2023.

Mamadou Moussa Diarra, expert in gender-based violence, advisor on organizational development, Centre d’Etude et de Coopération Internationale (CECI)

Adam Diaw, Director, Association du Sahel d’Aide à la Femme (ASSAFE), interviewed on April 10, 2023

Adama Camara, gender specialist, based in Sikasso, telephone discussion on April 12, 2023.

Information sources

This story was produced thanks to the “HÉRÈ – Bien-être des femmes au Mali” initiative, which aims to improve the well-being of women and girls in terms of sexual and reproductive health and to strengthen the prevention of and response to gender-based violence in the regions of Sikasso, Ségou, Mopti and the district of Bamako in Mali. The project is being implemented by the HÉRÈ – MSI Mali Consortium, in partnership with Farm Radio International (FRI) and Women in Law and Development in Africa (WiLDAF), with funding from Global Affairs Canada.