Podium: Challenging new times for men

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The Independent Culture
KJELL MAGNE BONDEVIK

From a speech by the Prime Minister of Norway to a gender conference in Oslo

UP UNTIL now the debate on gender has been dominated by women. It has taken time for us as men to realise that equality concerns us just as much. We want to be part of this debate and we want to state our terms. How do we want ourselves and other men to be?

I believe that men have an important contribution to make in the continued development of a society characterised by equality and equal worth. However, this should not be at the expense of us as men, nor at the expense of women as women, for that matter.

I am not a "man who fixes things around the house", yet I am proud that I can make use of the best of my abilities at home, at work and among my friends, and not least in the football group that meets on Friday mornings. That's when we test our strength. That's when we can let loose the boy within.

The pressure of dividing one's time between work and family life also affects men. One of the roles of men that has been discussed the most, therefore, is how we want men to be in relation to our young children. "Masculine care" was not a concept when I became a father. The writer Anne Cath Vestly had only just begun her "adult education project", with her series of children's books about Aurora, whose father stayed at home while her mother went to work.

But I do have fond memories of my experience as a father of young children and teenagers: taking them to kindergarten and school, taking part in voluntary communal work and parents' meetings, taking them skiing and to football matches, saying evening prayers and singing with them - experiences which I wouldn't want to be without. Perhaps not all of them are equally "masculine"!

Fathers of small children still work the longest hours. Nor should we conceal the fact that men are entering a domain which many women consider their own. The goal should be to divide domestic tasks between two equal adults.

The paternity quota is one example of an initiative which motivates parents to distribute responsibility for childcare more equally. The quota, which entitles the father to four weeks' paternity leave, is designed to involve more men in the care of their own children, and is a successful measure: 78 per cent of fathers used their paternity quota in 1997.

Out of regard for the majority of children, it is important to encourage fathers to spend more time in the presence of their children and caring for them. Fathers and mothers are not supposed to replace each other. They are supposed to complement one another.

How do we want other men to be in relation to our sons and daughters? Having safe, good role models in kindergartens and schools is vital. Just under 7 per cent of employees in kindergarten are men. This reinforces the notion that men are missing from a child's upbringing, and it underscores the need to boost the status of caring professions in relation to men's career choices.

One topic that is not often debated publicly is the lives of elderly men.

Grandfathers and great-grandfathers - what do we really know about their everyday lives? We hear bits and pieces about men with good pensions, or lonely, sick, elderly men who break down completely when their wives pass away. We have the impression that the social networks of elderly men are not that well developed, and that elderly men's spouses are often the only person that they really know. These are only two extremes, however.

In our search for new knowledge about men, it is easy to suppress the unpleasant aspects of male life.

On Friday evening, I visited the Church of Norway's Urban Mission, to see their work for prostitutes in Oslo. It was a challenge for me, as a man, to meet these women and hear from their own mouths stories of abuse from early infancy. I have to admit that it pained me.

We are all against violence. But what are the links between violence and care?

Research into male behaviour suggests that a majority of men who commit acts of violence, both on the street and in the home, have had a violent upbringing. Many men experience problems due to a break-up of the family, the distribution of custody, financial matters and unemployment. Eating disorders were, for a long time, regarded as a women's problem. Today, we know that men, too, can have such problems.

Men are in a variety of roles: we can be spouses, fathers, sons, brothers, uncles, grandfathers, bosses, colleagues, football coaches, men in love, and neighbours.

It is a paradox that, in our information society, we lack a good deal of knowledge about the everyday life of men.

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