Masculinity and counselling in the Pacific



MEN account for more than 90 per cent of perpetrators of violence against women, and targeting men becomes critical when developing solutions, particularly when attempting to change ingrained attitudes that promote and perpetuate gender inequality. What about the men, one might ask? has afflicted the feminist movement.

Seeking help may be perceived as a “weakness”, making men reluctant to seek counselling. Men may find it difficult to verbalise or share their feelings with others due to difficulty expressing emotions, as well as the ingrained belief that they should “man up” and deal with it themselves. Some people object to the idea of being reliant on medications or therapy to function or feel happy. Though most men would not hesitate to seek medical attention for a broken ankle or to take blood pressure medication, some men may be concerned that they will be perceived as weak or broken if they require therapy or medication to treat depression or anxiety.

Seeking help may be perceived as a “weakness”, making men reluctant to seek counselling. Source: MENTAL ILLNESS ADVOCACY/GOOGLE

Fijian political activist as well as Fiji Women’s Crisis Centres co-ordinator for over 36 years, Shamima Ali, 70, stated that the patriarchal society in the Pacific has created an idea that men are always supposed to be in control and are not supposed to seek help as it is seen as a weakness.

Majority of the times it is very much involuntary. The Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre noted that during the pandemic many men accessed their helplines as a result of job losses, mortgage, stress and suicidal thoughts. Since then there has been a steady increase in men seeking help. About 3 per cent client based were males when COVID-19 hit Fiji.

Bottling up feelings may lead to suicide in extreme cases. The anger and frustration of not being understood may also lead to unwanted violence against women and children. Bad habits like excess alcohol intake and drug abuse may also occur. In the long run causes trouble for the nation as a whole through high crime rates.

The Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre established a male advocacy program in 2002. The main aim was to get men as allies for women’s human rights. Mrs Ali explained that through the program the exploration of masculinities was put forth.

“Here, men learn and try to change their behaviour and thinking which will later help in influencing other men,” she said.

The male advocacy program is based entirely on human rights, accountability, exploring masculinity and accepting basic principles. A pertinent challenge that is faced is the unboxing of the religious and cultural context surrounding counselling.

“The aim is to reel in traditional leaders, religious leaders, police officers, policy makers, health workers and anyone who is willing to understand that this change needs to be made,” said Ms Ali.

Given that the program has been running for more than 20 years, the notable obstacle of constantly keeping in touch with male advocates that are located around the Pacific is a struggle. The worry of clients or advocates falling by the wayside and the irregularity of meetings is also something that the program deals with. Mrs. Ali urges the male population to recognize when help is needed and to not be worried about stereotypes around counselling.

“Everyone needs to talk to someone. Take that step and seek out good counsellors,” she said.

Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre executive director Shamima Ali during a workshop. Picture: FIJI TIMES/FIJI WOMEN’S CRISIS CENTRE

The University of the South Pacific counselling centre at its Laucala campus provides free counselling, coaching and holistic health advice, runs workshops on resilience building for success and facilitates mental health awareness and first aid programs. On campus counsellor Carlos Perera, 45, is a psychotherapist by trade and has been doing counselling for a long time.

Mr Perera similarly states that a main reason why men in the Pacific shy away from counselling is because of the stigma surrounding masculinity and counselling. “It’s a whole paradox where men are taught to not get in touch with their emotions,” Mr Perera said.

He explained that when males are born they have the same emotions as women but they are conditioned to block these emotions and not get in touch with their emotions. As men develop into teenagers this is then reinforced by their peers, elders and church leaders. This is then continued into their lives in university and the work field.

“They can’t help but absorb this behaviour and become someone who doesn’t let emotions affect them.” Mr Perera is happy with the slow but steady increase in the amount of males seeking help post Covid. “We are destigmatizing the fact around counselling being a feminised thing.”

Men are slowly starting to be more comfortable now because they understand that it is for everyone and not necessarily just females. “Since we are making the environment more enabling for them, more friendly, they don’t see it as a threat walking through these doors”.

One of the biggest challenges for Mr Pereras and the male clients he encounters is cracking open a hard shell of emotions and getting them to talk about it.

“It is tough the conditioning stage for men during therapy.” Culture in the Pacific is very male dominated and is another reason why Pacific men steer clear from seeking help. Mr Perera is adamant on setting up a counselling centre specially for men in the near future. “Men need to acknowledge that they need support and reach for it. Don’t be afraid to come in for counselling.”

Empower Pacific collaborates with government departments in a variety of settings to provide a network of professional counselling services when and where people need them the most. They provide relevant psychological, social, and economic services to the people of Fiji and the Pacific by collaborating with the government, NGOs, and community groups. Empower Pacific’s holistic service delivery approach ensures that social work interventions, income-generating initiatives, and adherence to the MDGS ensure that our clients receive the most appropriate service for their needs. Empower Pacific seeks to enhance the full potential of communities by working in partnership with government and other community agencies to ensure a holistic model of professional health service.

Ana Petueli, 57, a senior counsellor with Empower Pacific has worked in the organization for more than 14 years. Ms Petueli agrees that a major reason that males here in the Pacific do not seek help is because of conditioning. “They are mostly afraid that people will look down on them,” said Ms Petueli.

She also noted that working with the hospitals here in Fiji that have referrals for counselling, men are normally told to see counsellors and this is basically involuntarily so they ‘have to’. With the help of awareness Ms Petuelis’ heart is lifted to see more men come in for help. “Trust is built and this is encouraging for men to seek therapy.” She encourages men to take the first step and realize that everyone needs support.

Today’s young men are struggling to find their place in the world. The current cultural climate surrounding masculinity, as well as the lack of positive role models for younger generations, is causing a decline in mental health quality. Men must be taught how to integrate their masculine dispositions into their lives, including how to lead, care for, and love with purpose and commitment. There is an urgent need for discussion about what masculinity is and how we can promote healthy expressions of it; it is my hope that this insight has inspired us all to start having this conversation.


Brittany Nawaqatabu is a final year journalism student at the University of the South Pacific. 






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