The Boy Child Has Become A Cliche

I have avoided wading into the boy child debate raging online for the last couple of months. Mostly because a good portion is dominated by ignorance. The boy child debate is a reaction to the empowerment of the girl child and the misplaced idea that elevation of our girls has accelerated the demonization of our boys. It does not help that media has mainstreamed these terms and the public is now accustomed to the gender juxtaposition of the enlightened progressive girl outshining the pitiful emasculated poor boy mourning over a lost position.

The articulation of this gender contest follows the same toxic relationship of our politics, think Jubilee versus NASA, where the winner takes it all and the loser can only mourn in the humiliation of defeat. The lack of an understanding of the underlying issues leaves only room for angry outbursts and a deep sense of victimization, depending on which side of the gender debate ones bats from. Men and women emotionally invested in these debates have become rooted in fixed positions. Therefore a man claiming solidarity with women’s rights is a emasculated and any woman who expresses compassion for the plight of men is anti feminism.

The experience of men and women caught in this contest is one of pain devoid of compassion, love, dignity and respect. Many people underestimate the influence of inherited hurts stemming from households where mothers were oppressed and abused and and fathers denigrated and broken. They project this suffering in new relationships, holding onto unrealistic expectations and perpetuate the same blame game they experienced growing up. No one taught them how to heal.

Our gender relationships have evolved over the last three or decades into a supremacy battle. Men are socialised to believe that the strength of a woman will be used against him to his own detriment. Women on the other hand are taught to be independent of male dependency and fight any attempts to need anything from a man. Now that messaging has trickled down to our boys and girls. The girls are celebrated for achievement and the boys castigated as beneficiaries of privilege.

It is important that we do not confuse the issues. The empowerment of women is a simple human rights issue. The systemic oppression of women is historical with roots in an oppressive economic order of imperialism that introduced the notion of private property. Thomas Sankara informed my understanding of this system. Once man was made master over his slaves and land, the woman by extension became the property of man. From a communal system that was based on collaboration and complimentary roles between the sexes, a new order was created that made man the master. The displaced African man  was forced into production farms as labour for the colonial state. The exploited African man, stripped of his dignity would in turn exploit his woman in a new relationship based domination and control.

The plight of the average man is tied to that of the exploited woman. Both are dominated by a system that thrives on the principle of divide and rule. What men are fighting against is not the empowerment of women but the new order of masculinity that screws them from both ends. From a community standpoint, a man is born into the rigid role as provider and protector. The identity of man is linked to having gainful employment. A man without a job or a means to earn a living has no status. The man’s secondary identity is also married to his ability to provide for a woman and by extension a family as measure of respect in society.

The dominant influence of Westernization has compounded male identity in multiple ways. Underneath the angry words are men suffocating from the burden of contemporary masculinity mores. Respect is tied to a job they do not have. They are humiliated as lousy lovers and judged for not living up to a chivalry standard that is as foreign as a Mandarin script. When they are abused, society calls them weak. When they desire, they are horny. When they screw up, they are stupid. When they fail their children, deadbeat. And when he is strong, he oppresses. When he submits, he ceases to be man enough.

The boy child is caught in a privilege trap. He is told he should do better because he is a man. Yet the only brand of manliness he is exposed to is associated with oppression. He hates himself for not meeting the expectations but he lacks to the tools to get out of it. He cannot complain too loudly because men do not cry. They suck it in and man up.

Every story has two sides. Men also suffer from exploitative gender roles and sexism and they too turn to anger when people dismiss their genuine stories of pain.

Oyunga Pala is a Kenyan newspaper columnist. The blog examines the texture of everyday Kenyan life and the challenges of modernity and disillusion. The writings commonly feature the struggle of the Kenyan male to maintain integrity in contemporary society.


  1. If indeed the right argument is how do we proceed from here, then can we start with the notion that the current gender constructs are western and not our own? For instance, didn’t women have the same level of power in the community as men? Didn’t pre-colonial African societies understand and execute democracy in a manner that left none powerless?
    I would like to add this as well: that women in general have been expected to carry the emotional burden that comes with an unequal society through out the time that the property model has been in play. If women were to lay that emotional burden at the door of society, society wouldn’t know what to do with it. Perfect example is the current conversation about sexual harassment. Societies around the world are suddenly confronted with the possibility that women should be treated differently and they have no idea what to do about it. So indeed while there is need to restructure the conversation around the boy child, there is also the need to understand that women and girls should not have to give up their gains.

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