Men don’t cry. Or should they? About being a man and mental health

by Nathalie Herzog-Petropaki & Danai Rossalidis

What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be masculine enough? In these times, it seems more urgent than ever to ask ourselves this question and to rethink and change the definition of masculinity. That’s why, in the spirit of today’s International Men’s Day, we want to throw all stereotypes and norms around masculinity overboard. It’s time to create a space for a discussion about men’s mental health and what it has to do with feminism.

So, what does it mean to be a man? 

When we think of a “man”, the image of the classic stereotype comes to mind: a tall, strong and confident person, who drinks beer while arguing about football or politics. We think of the charismatic movie hero who rescues the girl from everything and everybody. And we think of the powerful macho, who smokes cigars in a suit and plays the leading role in every series.

But are really all men like this? Of course, they are not. But our society has formed rules and definitions on how a man should be and what masculinity means. Men are therefore forced to live up to this standard, because there is nothing worse than not being “man enough”. 

Defining “masculinity” at all, implies a binary gender distinction in our society. This means that everything that is not masculine is automatically considered feminine. This gender separation is based on a binary way of thinking that is deeply anchored in everyone’s mind. When we think of the origins of binary thinking, numerous images come to mind: Adam and Eve, Yin and Yang or the myth of the spherical humans from Plato’s Symposium. As a common feature, they are all pairs of opposites that form a unity. In line with this reasoning, one thing (in this case masculinity) can only be identified by its distinction from the other (in this case femininity). Therefore, the man is reduced to his “masculine” characteristics and deprived of all “female” traits.

What does this mean for men’s mental health?

Since society tells us that feminine is the opposite of masculine men must either reject embodying any of these feminine qualities or face rejection within society itself. Clearly, they face a conflict between how they should be and how they actually are. In psychological terms this is called a cognitive dissonance, meaning an unpleasant feeling, a mental discomfort that comes from holding two conflicting beliefs, values or attitudes. People have a tendency to fight against this inconsistency, between what they believe and how they behave, to reduce this discomfort and restore balance. In other words, one can say that men are publicly playing their social role,.whilst on the inside much more is going on under the surface. 

Men’s mental health is affected by the high pressure to meet societal expectations of what a man is supposed to be. Since society expects men to do everything on their own, they are less likely to express their emotions, ask for help or reach out to someone. And all that just because of the fear of being not “man enough”. For example, men are told not to cry and be strong, which leads to them often suppressing their emotions. This is a form of emotion regulation, which is not bad if you do it once or twice but if you are consistently suppressing your emotions, this will immediately influence your mental wellbeing in form of stress, depression or substance abuse. This all leads to the fact that men have poorer health habits than women and a higher suicide rate.

As we all know the stigma around mental health issues and psychotherapy is still very present in society.  This is true particularly for men, because first they are faced with being considered “less of a man” if they need someone’s help and secondly, because they often struggle to express their emotions.

Additionally, men tend to have competitive relationships with other men. It doesn’t matter if it is a family member, friend or a work colleague. Competition and trying to be better than others leaves no space to talk about insecurities and struggles. But this circle of not talking about your feelings is actually very easy to break. It just needs one man to speak out about his struggles or ask a friend for help. The others will immediately understand that they are not the only ones with insecurities and struggles. They will feel less alone and see that others also find it exhausting too to be “man enough” all the time. We need to give men space and room to express themselves and urgently normalize it in our society. 

The man” doesn’t exist 

Lastly, it is not realistic to think that there is only one right form of masculinity. Many studies have shown that only a few men fit this social form of masculinity. However, one of the biggest problems remains that most boys are still raised to think that this type of masculinity is the only right one. This kind of socialization of boys in patriarchal societies is defined as “toxic masculinity” and harms boys and men the most. We all know the phrase “Boys will be boys”. This phrase often justifies everything some men do and is still used way too often. It is time to stop justifying all questionable behavior, because in the end, boys will be what society as a whole teaches them to be

It is up to us to break all stigma around what it means to be a man. Being a man should become a fluid concept that can take on many different forms. We owe this not only to ourselves but also to our future sons and daughters. That is why we would like to continue the discussion about masculinity and mental health until each and every one of us dares to be an active part of it. It is essential that men begin to open up to each other. All it takes is one man, to be brave enough and stand up for other men and hopefully change competitive locker room talks into meaningful conversations. 

All it takes is one man, one single domino piece to tip everything over.

PS:

And yes, we know we are two women writing this article on men and that the reaction to it might be different if it would come from a man’s point of view. So, we’re leaving it up to our male readers to be brave enough to tell us and others what they think, to send this article to another man and be the change!

Digital Love: Why digitalization and dating don’t go together

by Danai Rossalidis

Tinder, Bumble, Grindr, Lovoo or Badoo have long since become part of our everyday vocabulary. Finding love, romance, sex, adventure or any kind of togetherness online is no longer anything new. Dating in the digital sphere has become part of our normality. In times of digitalization and technologization, it seems easier than ever to find the “perfect match”. But why then is the majority of the young population still single? And why do we find online dating more difficult and frustrating than ever?

The age of Tinder and co.: where everything seems possible yet nothing is real

Be it the age of digitalization, global networks and pandemics, frustration with being alone or simply boredom with everyday life: many of us find ourselves facing the seemingly inevitable entry into the vast world of online dating. If online dating used to be laughed at, “swiping” for love has now become almost cult. What makes Tinder & co. so popular? Why do we keep catching ourselves pressing the red flame button in the silent hope for another “perfect match”, while the other 20/30 matches fizzle out in incoherent gibberish or vanish into thin air like ghosts?

The normal process of online dating is as follows: you match, text for a few hours or days and then meet for a coffee or drink. After that, there are two scenarios: in the first one, you have been fooled by the photos or the physical appearance of the person and now find yourself in front of someone with whom it just does not “vibe” at all. Then the date is brought to an end as quickly as possible in order to (hopefully) never meet the person again. In the second scenario, a certain “connection” is noticeable and a sympathy for the counterpart is present. Unfortunately, this is often hindered by the spasmodic pressure that it must be a date. If you are lucky this can be overcome and the date may end with a smile, a goodbye wave, even a kiss or a night together. What comes next is unfortunately not so pleasant. In that moment one of the other 20/30 matches has decided to respond and we are back to scenario one: someone “ghosts” the other and as fast as the flame ignited it is extinguished.

These apps promises an unlimited selection of possible partners and the possibility to find either your great love or the next adventure, on the go and at any time with just one swipe. The speed is fast, the selection large, and the responsibility small. So, it seems to be a perfect fit for the needs of our generation. But with the many possibilities these apps open for us, they also confront us with new, unfamiliar challenges. With a few exceptions where Cupid’s arrow actually hits, many are often left frustrated by rejection, disappointment and unmet expectations. What also negatively affects our dating experience is the insidious behaviour that online dating evokes in us. We are under constant pressure to keep someone’s attention due to the selection and pace, or we get bored quickly and don’t give anyone enough time. We want to give someone attention and win them over, but at the same time not seem “needy” in fear of not being cool enough. And we only let ourselves get involved with a person as far as we don’t run the risk of getting hurt. Furthermore, we never invest 100 per cent on a single person, always having at least one more up our sleeve in case it doesn’t work out with the first one.

At the same time, it’s very limited to really get to know or even like someone based on five to six photos and a few text messages. Online dating is still a bubble of impersonality, where we can be who they want, wear a mask and not really have to face anyone. Hiding behind the screen means never having to take responsibility for your actions.

Between a swipe, a match and a text, honesty, openness and real feelings are left on the sidelines.

Big Data meets Love: how do we fall in love in the future?

We are already in a time where our social behaviour lags behind technological advances. Cultural changes are slow and gradual. New dating apps, however, are popping up rapidly and in huge numbers. We find ourselves caught between new technologies and outdated norms. In an environment of unlimited possibilities and no guidebook, we often lose ourselves. Despite being acutely overwhelmed by digitalization and its consequences, we will have to deal for better or worse with further digital advances in the future. Some futuristic science fiction films and series such as “The One” show us what this could look like in terms of our dating behaviour.

In the series “The One”, through a genetic test people have the opportunity to find their “perfect match”, the one great love with whom they would like to spend the rest of their lives. What may sound completely suspicious and futuristic at first is not so far from our reality. A study by the zukunftsInstitut shows that in the future we will be able to get more and more suitable partner suggestions based on Big Data. This works based on more data collected about our usage behaviour not only online, but also in the physical world. This is then compared and matched with other users. These matching mechanisms based on our individual activities online and offline are called “behavioural matching”. At the same time, the amount of data is increasing enormously due to increasing networking, which leads to an improvement of matching algorithms and should lead us even closer to “the one”.

The film “Her”, on the other side, gives us another view of our possible dating behaviour in the future. In the film, the main character Theodore falls in love with “Samantha,” an operating system that has been adapted to him. He communicates with Samantha and experiences how quickly she learns about him and his social interactions. From then on, she becomes more and more human to him. Based on intense communication between the two, an intimate relationship between human and operating system develops. The film shows the direction in which technology and love can develop. It points out how an extreme technologization of our private lives and especially of our emotional world can lead to a distancing from reality.

How does one love today?

You can rant and rave about Tinder and co, but at the end of the day, we are all social beings who long for affection, tenderness, and human contact – and we do it via online dating. We cannot escape technological developments. Therefore, we need to change them according to our preferences and needs. Our dating behaviour should not be the bad product of their emergence. Much more, our personal behaviour needs to change. This does not have to mean deleting all apps in order to get to know someone in “real life” like “in the good old days”, even though that is of course also great. No, it means a more conscious approach to dating apps. This means being respectful, tolerant and open towards the other person. And most importantly being truthful to yourself and others about what you expect from dating. There is no golden rule on how to behave exactly. Dating expectations are individual and different for each person. Therefore, you should give every new acquaintance the chance to express themselves and respond to them honestly.

We have to be aware that behind every profile there is a person who has not yet given up hope of finding love. And what could be more beautiful than a person who believes in love? That’s why we need more honesty, mindfulness, the courage to express our feelings, and more “real life” in the digital sphere!


The radicalization of politics

By Christian Ewert and Raphael Capaul

On that fateful Tuesday, November 8, 2016, the United States elected Donald Trump as their President. Four years later, there is no doubt that he was one of the most radical and aggressive incumbents the USA have ever seen. Standing out not only for his inclination for authoritarian rule—as demonstrated by the 2019 Ukraine affair and his involvement in the recent breach of the Capitol—but also for his degrading rhetoric toward women, minorities, and political opponents.

Donald Trump was not reelected in the 2020 presidential election. But of course, there are still other countries run by rather radical actors. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro is in power and has to face re-election in 2022. In the same year, elections are also due in Hungary, where the Fidesz party headed by Victor Orban governs. And the Law and Justice Party (PiS) leads the governing coalition in Poland, at least until the next regular renewal of the Sejm, the lower house of the parliament, in 2023.

However, it is important to acknowledge the unique circumstances in which the next elections will take place: A global pandemic threatens health, the markets, and social cohesion. Climate change endangers the survival and prosperity of all people. The EU and the UK have yet to cope with and fully process Brexit. Mediatization, privatization, globalization, and conflicts between more traditional and more progressive values and lifestyles are creating new political arenas, new winners and losers. Geopolitical conflicts between the USA and China will determine international politics for the foreseeable future. And demographic changes continue to deplete social security and pension schemes. Each one of these political, economic, and cultural crises is difficult enough to handle. If they occur together, they reinforce and amplify each other.

Crisis favours radicalization

A situation of crisis favours the radicalization of politics. To be precise, radical actors are always present in democratic societies, but they profit more than moderate actors from unresolved challenges and insecurities. This can be explained by, on the one hand, the growing disappointment and disenchantment of citizens with moderate or “mainstream” politics. For instance, virtually all governments of Western democracies have made painful political decisions in recent years. These include most notably the strict austerity measures implemented in connection with the last economic crisis, but also the restrictions on personal freedoms enacted in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. All of these measures have created strong resentments and criticism. Moreover, and despite these measures, many political problems appear to remain unsolved. Deforestation continues at an alarming rate, fossil fuels are still being burnt which contributes to global warming and climate change, and pension schemes have to rely on fewer and fewer contributors to support more and more retired persons; these are just some of the persisting policy problems of course. Finally, many people fear or are directly affected by a declining socioeconomic status.

Out of this disappointment and fear, voters are increasingly turning to and into radical actors.

On the other hand, radical actors know how to profit from crises. They try to convey or intensify the “mood” of crisis through a rhetoric of emotionalization, simplification, and negativity. And indeed, the voter turnout shows that Bolsonaro, Fidesz, and PiS know how to play their cards. Trump, for instance, received more votes than any other sitting President before him in spite of his failures to control the pandemic.

Is the radicalization of politics inevitable?

Considering the many crises we face and the implications they have on voters and politics, is the radicalization of politics inevitable?

The answer is no. For one, the USA have shown on November 3, 2020, that radical actors can still be “kicked out” of office. And in addition to this, history has shown that radical actors can de-radicalize themselves, and become more moderate.

The Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) exemplifies such de-radicalization. The party was a junior member of a coalition government from 2000 to 2005. During this period, FPÖ came closer to the policy positions of the leading centre-right coalition party, the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP). FPÖ’s convergence was indeed so substantial that its moderate wing, consisting of ministers and members of parliament, seceded and founded the new Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ). Another example following a similar trajectory is the Norwegian Progressive Party (FrP). It was represented in government along with established “mainstream” parties from 2013 to 2020, and also departed from its radical positions. Massive internal tensions and debates among the more moderate and radical members were the result.

It seems like a paradox: Radicalism in times of crises leads to electoral successes, and yet at least some radical actors de-radicalize and become more moderate. How come?

Many factors shape a political actor’s development. It certainly makes a difference whether this actor is in opposition or part of the government. In opposition, it is possible to agitate and criticize the government and the “corrupt elites.” In government, there might be no time for this because it is more urgent to actually “fill potholes” and “fix sewage systems,” as political scientists Tjitske Akkerman and Matthijs Rooduijn have put it. Apart from that, in many democratic systems, it is necessary to form governing coalitions and engage in compromises with other powerful political actors. If the incentives of joining a governing coalition are compelling, radical actors might be tempted to leave their radical positions.

The outlook is thus ambivalent. Given the current political challenges and crises, it would come as no surprise if Bolsonaro, Fidesz, PiS, and others would continue their winning streaks at the urns. Nevertheless, the election of Joe Biden and the de-radicalization of both FPÖ and FrP have shown that political radicalization is not a one-way street.


  • Christian Ewert, PhD, is a lecturer in political science at the University of Zurich (Christian.Ewert@uzh.ch)
  • Raphael Capaul, MA UZH, is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for Legislative Studies, University of Zurich (Raphael.Capaul@rwi.uzh.ch)

Why people believe in conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories have been around for as long as we can remember. From the “Flat-Earth-Society”, denial of the moon landing, crop circles to climate change denial. We are all searching for answers to events that shape our society. Especially for the ones which are not sufficiently explained yet. Since the outbreak of Covid-19, not only has there been a particular increase in conspiracy theories, but also an increased belief in them. They have quietly found their place in our everyday lives, creeping into our private conversations, conquering the front pages of print media, and littering the Internet and social media. But what are conspiracy theories? Where do they come from and why do we believe in them?

It is probably most helpful to begin with a definition of this looming phenomenon. Researchers K. M. Douglas, R. M. Sutton, and A. Cichocka of the School of Psychology at the University of Kent provide the following definition:

Conspiracy theories are: «explanations for important events that involve secret plots by powerful and malevolent groups”.

They illustrate, for example, the condemnation and distrust of an individual or group towards the activity of the government. History shows that predominantly in times of crisis and periods of uncertainty, people adopt a more critical stance and desperately seek answers. Thus, it is not surprising that no-vax theories and COVID-19 denial are gaining increasing support. But what makes people believe in such seemingly absurd theories? We want to get to the bottom of this.

So, why do we believe in conspiracy theories?

To reveal the reason behind the phenomenon and break down its complexity, it must be analyzed from a psychological perspective. We are attracted to conspiracy theories because they satisfy deep psychological needs. Based on these needs, three dominant motives can be identified that provide an explanation for the tendency to believe in conspiracy theories.

  • The epistemic motive addresses the human desire for knowledge and certainty. During major events that shake our society, people look for the why behind them. It is a natural pursuit to find a truth and a sense of security. Times of great change and uncertainty particularly evoke this need in many people.
  • The existential motive is the answer to a need for power and control. People do not like to feel powerless. In times of crisis, conspiracy theories provide the missing information here and give back a sense of control and autonomy in order to feel powerful and secure.
  • The social motive illustrates the classic psychological need to feel good about oneself. On an individual level, this means feeling confident through access to information that others do not necessarily have. When people believe they know the truth, they feel superior and unique. This is exactly what increases their self-esteem and makes them feel good about themselves. Such a dynamic can be observed not only in individuals but also in groups.

To illustrate these motives, let’s take the example of a very dominant conspiracy-theory group: QAnon, also known as “Q”.

QAnon

QAnon is a U.S-based group that has been spreading conspiracy theories since 2017, often with a far-right political undertone, and that has grown in popularity in recent months. The group’s central claim is that a Satanic elite of pedophiles is kidnapping children, murdering them, and creating a rejuvenation drug on their extracted blood. Their goal is to fight this global elite, which they call “The Deep State” or “The Cabal.” They support a Republican political leadership under Donald J. Trump and believe in the notion that Democratic politicians like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are plotting a coup to turn the U.S. into a dictatorship, thereby threatening U.S. representative democracy. The information this group believes in supposedly comes from “Q”, a mysterious figure who posts cryptic clues online. QAnon is partly responsible for the conspiracy theory on “Pizzagate”.[3]

In order to better understand this grouping and its background, its intentions can also be examined in terms of the three motives mentioned above.

First, its members exhibit an epistemic motive in that they appear to provide protection from this global elite and state that they are fighting them to prevent the demise of U.S. democracy.

Although the identity of Q is unknown, QAnon supporters are convinced that Q is an individual or individuals who have access to highly sensitive data that reveals the truth. Q’s audience is encouraged to piece together and interpret important information from the few encrypted messages that are published, which have numerous gaps. This creates the dangerous illusion that Q is providing valuable information when in fact very little is being revealed. This the conspiracy’s existential motive: give its followers the feeling of being superior and of having more information and thus more security and control.

Additionally, there is a social motive within the group dynamic. QAnon uses the acronym WWG1WGA, which stands for “Where We Go One, We Go All”, as well as the proclamation “We save the children”. With these wordings, they are stating a humanitarian cause and seeking support. Their signature phrase “Trust the Plan” also speaks to the deep psychological need to believe in something given and to feel safe. This gives Q extreme power and entices many people to join the grouping. It is therefore important to recognize the group’s motives and intentions in order to better assess its intentions and information.

Who believes in conspiracy theories?

We are currently living in an age of information overload. One can find a supposed explanation everywhere and for every topic. However, assessing this information correctly and differentiating between reliable and deceptive sources is not always easy. Education helps us to better assess such sources. In fact, less-educated people who have a lower tendency to think analytically are more susceptible to conspiracy theories. People who feel powerless and are disillusioned also have a higher tendency to believe in them and age equally has an influence here. And younger people show a higher risk of being exposed to misinformation and incorporating it into their belief system. Additionally, character traits such as narcissism can exacerbate this. The correlation between narcissism and belief in conspiracy theories lies in the need to feel superior and unique. Evidence has shown that a certain type of personality is more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, however, we are all potential targets for misinformation.

Misinformation as the fundamental problem

One explanation for the increasing support and number of conspiracy theories may be related to the increasing use of social media. Through the Internet, it is easier than ever to get information. It has fundamentally changed the way we communicate and access information. Unfortunately, it has also increased the spread of misinformation. Nowadays, you can meet like-minded people and find support much faster via the Internet. This can polarize attitudes towards conspiracy theories and reinforce opinions that often have no factual basis. 

Addressing this problem is a major challenge. Given the fact that one can’t stop this information overload, what we have to change is the way we deal with it. Once a conspiracy theory is spread and we have formed an opinion, it is almost impossible to break it. The problem of misinformation must be addressed in advance. Research has shown that a pre-warning for misinformation can prevent people from believing in conspiracy theories. This means that confronting people with factual information before they are exposed to a conspiracy theory makes them more resistant to falsehood. We should therefore be aware of the dangers of misinformation and be conscious of how we should handle information and its sources in our fast-paced environment. Investing in early education could be a good approach to this problem, so that no conspiracy theory may fool us anymore.  

Find out more about the danger of false information and its threat to liberal democracy in our previous article: False information: a dangerous threat to liberal democracy.


De-stigmatising a natural body function: let’s talk about menstruation!

On May 28th we celebrate menstrual hygiene day to raise awareness on the importance of menstrual hygiene management and to change negative social norms about menstruation around the world.  Why is it the 28th of May you may wonder? The answer is simple: The average menstruation cycle lasts 28 days, during which girls and women have their period on average for 5 days. Menstruation is still considered a taboo topic all over the world even though it is a normal biological process that is key to maintaining the reproductive health of women. 

The Stigma around Menstruation

Menstruation is not openly discussed and dealt with secretly all over the world.

Lack of education on this matter, however, has fatal consequences. Women and girls worldwide face numerous challenges in managing their menstruation. In many cultures, they are perceived as dirty and impure while menstruating. This leads to many restrictions for girls and women when they have their period. For instance, drinking milk, preparing food, interacting with people or refraining from performing religious rituals are just some examples. Women are forbidden to bathe or cleanse themselves properly during these days, which increases the threat posed to their health due to lack of menstrual hygiene. Furthermore, they also are afraid to go to school or work since often these places lack facilities like clean water, soap, and washrooms.

In addition to exclusion from social, cultural and religious activities, hygiene sanitary products can be unavailable or unaffordable. Globally, a minimum of 500 million women experiences period poverty every month. Menstruation products are extremely difficult to access because of their high cost even though they are a vital necessity. They are still perceived as luxury products and in many countries, they are subjected to the value-added tax (VAT), also known as the “pink tax”.

The importance of menstrual hygiene

The lack of education on this matter and the cultural shame attached to menstruation leads to the use of unhealthy ways to collect menstrual waste. Girls and women are forced to use old clothes, rags and sawdust as an alternative to sanitary hygiene products. Clothes used as sanitary napkins are often washed without detergents and dried indoors, out of shame and fear of superstitions related to menstruation. This often means that the clothes remain damp, which can lead to infections. Period poverty and forced poor menstrual hygiene can pose various physical health risks such as reproductive and urinary tract infections, high incidents of genital rashes and a high risk for cervical cancer.

Additionally, many lack access to safe toilet and handwashing facilities with clean water. According to UNICEF, 2.3 billion people lack basic sanitation services and in Least Developed Countries only 27% of the population has a handwashing facility with water and soap at home. Managing periods at home is, therefore, a major challenge for women and adolescent girls who lack these basic facilities.

An important issue that is often overlooked is menstrual hygiene management in emergency situations, conflict-affected areas or in the aftermath of natural disasters. In such situations, the usual lifestyle of affected individuals changes and they are confronted with additional stress that can worsen their physical and psychological well-being. Provision of fundamental aid such as shelter, food, clean water and medicines is prioritised, however other needs such as safe menstrual hygiene management, the lack of which can have a profound psychosocial impact, are often neglected.

Discriminatory cultural norms, lack of education, limited access to hygienic menstrual products and poor sanitation infrastructure undermine the educational opportunities, health and overall social status of women and girls around the world. As a result, millions are kept from reaching their full potential and are denied basic human rights.

The Link to Child Marriage

The cultural shame attached to menstruation stops girls and women from going to school and work every day in many parts of the world. This means that girls on average miss 5 days of school a month because of difficulties in managing the bleeding and social stigma around menstruation. For example, the absence rate in school in Nepal is 41% and in Kenya even 86% for menstruating girls. Most schools do not include facilities to assist girls during their period. This kind of absenteeism leads to them missing out on lessons and achieving poor grades, which can contribute to parents questioning the value of girls’ education.

Schools can also become a hostile environment for girls entering puberty. They may face sexual harassment on their way to or from school or from their peers or teachers. Parents who fear that school is unsafe for their unmarried daughters may view marriage as an acceptable solution to protect them and their family’s honour. Young girls who do not receive an education are more likely to enter child marriages and experience an early pregnancy, malnourishment, domestic violence, and pregnancy complications as a result. Research has shown that when girls have access to appropriate sanitary products and facilities, and they understand what is happening to their bodies, they are more likely to stay in school and out of marriage.

How to Break the Stigma?

The first step is to normalize menstruation. It is a natural and healthy body function and not something to be ashamed or afraid of. To achieve menstrual equity and break the silence around menstruation we need to strengthen education on this topic as well as improve availability, affordability, and access to sanitary items, particularly in schools and workplaces. We also need to improve the sanitation and hygiene of washing facilities and give women a safe way to change and dispose of soiled products. Educating girls and boys on menstruation at an early age at home and school promotes healthy habits and breaks stigmas around this natural process. Young boys also benefit from menstrual hygiene education. 

Menstrual Hygiene Day is a global advocacy platform that brings together the voices and actions of non-profits, government agencies, individuals, the private sector and the media to promote good menstrual health and hygiene (MHH) for all women and girls. It especially engages decision-makers to increase the political priority and catalyse action for menstrual hygiene at global, national, and local levels with the goal of ending period poverty by 2030. For that to happen we need to work together and challenge social norms, talk openly about menstruation and spread awareness and education. 

Let’s break the silence around menstrual hygiene together!


 Want to find out more about this issue? Here are some useful resources:

How the environmental crisis is already affecting us and who really bears the consequences

We are all concerned about our future and that of our planet. The many issues related to climate change are known to all of us, but we see them primarily as a problem of the future. We do not necessarily pay primary attention to the acute effects and profound emergencies that the climate crisis is already triggering.

The climate crisis is a very complex problem that is unlikely to be solved quickly. It is an issue that will affect us all. However, the current situation is highly unbalanced and unjust: Those who cause climate change and those who suffer the consequences are two different groups of people.

The Sahel: a major victim of climate change

The acute consequences of climate change are already being felt throughout Africa, especially in the Sahel.[1]In this region, more than 3.5 million people have already been forced to flee their homes due to flooding and desertification, and 24 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. Due to temperature increases and changes in precipitation, deserts are forming and rivers are overflowing, forcing the local population to flee. These environmental changes are particularly drastic because the economy of these countries relies heavily natural resources. Climate change threatens agriculture, livestock, mining, but also tourism. These are all livelihoods for the resident population whose economic, social and existential security is now constantly threatened by the consequences of climate change. In addition, their status as developing countries complicates the situation. Access to funding, aid and research projects is severely limited and there is a risk of institutional failure due to additional local armed conflicts. The paradox is that Africa is currently experiencing the greatest effects of climate change yet has one of the lowest greenhouse gas emissions.

The Complexity of the concept of ‘Climate Refugees’

Not only in the Sahel, but also in South Asia and Latin America, people are suffering from the effects of climate change. For the population, migration is often the last and only option. These people are mistakenly referred to as ‘climate refugees’. This term is critical because there is no international agreement on the exact definition of it. There is widespread disagreement on who should be considered a climate refugee and how to resolve the crisis. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) favors the wording “persons displaced in the context of disasters and climate change.” The disagreement over the formal definition of ‘climate refugee’ is very problematic, as those who are forced to leave their home due to natural disasters are not officially considered refugees and thus are not protected under international law. International law does not protect them since they are not forced to flee because of their nationality, religion, or political beliefs. As climate change-affected states are often also developing countries who suffer from violent armed conflicts, several issues overlap and make this definition even more difficult. 

What is certain is that the number of climate refugees has risen sharply in recent years and already exceeds that of armed conflict refugees. At this time over 65 million people are affected, creating one of the greatest humanitarian challenges of this century. This issue requires global political coordination and the affected states cannot and should not bear the consequences alone. 

In fear of the impact of migration on Europe and North America, many financial resources are currently being invested in the migration crisis. This short-term solution may placate the problem, but it won’t solve it. In the long term, there is also a need to invest in concrete solutions to climate change and to comply with global agreements on the environment and greenhouse gas emissions. The UNHCR has an important role to play in being responsible for protecting climate refugees, promoting policy coherence in areas of climate change, research, and activities in the field.

An artistic appeal against climate change

In addition to the UNHCR’s commitment, the Coalition for Art and Sustainable Development (COAL) offers another interesting approach. Their goal is to make the acute problem of the climate crisis visible through art. They call on artists to address the issue of climate change and draw attention to it. Art has the unique potential of opening a personal perspective and addressing our feelings through a visual language. It can lead us to further our understanding of the abstract construct of climate change and strengthen our empathy for the fate of many of those affected. Annually, COAL awards a prize to contemporary artists working on environmental issues. In 2019, the prize was awarded to Lena Dobrowolska and Teo Ormond-Skeaping for their work “You never know, one day you too may become a refugee.” It addresses migration policies in Uganda. The country, which has one of the highest poverty rates in the world but has taken in over 1.3 million refugees is a model for climate refugee policy. In their artistic practice, the artists present a fictional reality of a white middle-class family forced to flee to Africa or South America. In their work, art makes itself apparent as a new tool for educating and raising awareness. They show how art can fight the environmental crisis in a sensitive and peaceful way.


[1] This affects parts of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Sudan and Eritrea.

Is now everyone nuts? Reflecting on the pandemic, mental health and our political behaviour

We all want to be healthy. That’s why we exercise, eat healthily, wash our hands regularly and stay indoors as much as possible. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us all that health is important. But being healthy means not only being physically strong but also mentally. Unfortunately, this conclusion is not always a given in our society. Furthermore, stigmatization around mental health, makes it even more difficult to focus on it and educate people about it. However, mental and physical health go hand in hand. Therefore, it is even more important to raise awareness about mental health with regard to the pandemic and its long-term consequences.

Since the onset of the pandemic, the consequences on our mental health have been striking. When the new and worrying situation was first announced, there was heightened anxiety in society. As this initial moment passed and the situation seemed to worsen, more negative psychological effects started to emerge. Our cell phones seemed to be beeping non-stop with push notifications, and the conversation about COVID-19 gradually found a place in every aspect of our lives, becoming ubiquitous. We found ourselves in a situation where we were confronted with a surplus of information in the media, whilst at the same time, a voice that could give us an answer to all our questions and fears was missing.

Mental health in a global pandemic 

In addition, the institutional measures put in place to control the pandemic have a negative impact on our mind. People are isolated or quarantined, forbidden from maintaining their social contacts. This can cause post-traumatic stress, depression, and sleep disturbances. Worldwide there are higher levels of anxiety, self-harm, and suicide. Job insecurity, fear of loss of income or unemployment, have also had long-lasting negative effects on mental health. More and more people are thus dependant on the support of psychotherapists and those already struggling with mental health issues, unfortunately, suffer even more. The problem is that this increased demand cannot be adequately met and many people do not receive the support they need in their daily life. 

For this reason it is all the more important to act preventively on a personal level. This includes being aware of the consequences and paying attention to one’s own psychological situation. Just as we are used to taking care of the health of our body, we must do the same for the health of our mind. This includes embracing the situation with COVID-19 and accepting that the pandemic has now become part of our everyday lives and that no one is immune. This is the first step in protecting ourselves. Embracing the situation means adapting to it. The pandemic restricts our social life and takes away our daily structure. This changes our behavioural patterns, which are decisive for any psychological fluctuations. We must counteract this by establishing our own routine and regularity in everyday life. For example, a solid daily structure can be regained by means of a plan. Nevertheless, support should be sought at an early stage as soon as it becomes apparent that the situation is becoming too much for the individual. We need to realize that everyone is experiencing similar feelings and that we all need help and support.

The effects of mental health on political behaviour 

The effects of decreased mental health due to COVID-19 are also evident on a political level. The pandemic stokes fear, which changes not only our personal but also political behaviour. The economic and social uncertainty in which we find ourselves leads to increasing criticism and mistrust in political institutions and their measures. We transfer our dissatisfaction with the current situation to politics, which is reflected in changed political behaviour. As a result, one can observe declining support for mainstream parties and a rise of extremist ones. Distrust in mainstream parties opens the window for the emergence or the rise of extremist parties. For this reason, a surge to the right during the last year can be explained. 

In combination with social isolation, many people are increasingly looking for affirmation and a sense of purpose. In many cases, they do not feel understood and look for support. This makes many vulnerable to far-right groups that exploit this emotionally charged political state and use it for their political agenda. The substance abuse caused by the consequences of the current situation also encourages violence, which causes an even stronger tendency toward radicalism.

As mentioned above, the consequences of declining mental health are drastic in our private lives, but also at the political level. Consequently, the demand for mental health services has and needs to increase. According to the WHO, countries have invested less than 2% of their national health budget in mental health. The pandemic has shown us that this needs to change. Due to this surge in demand, countries are now forced to invest in this sector. This could be a new positive approach to not only raise awareness about mental health but also to start a destigmatization process.


Useful Links:

Why we need to change the way we think about food

Our world is host to an enormous disparity and contrast in food and nutrition security: At a global level, production of most food has increased faster than population growth and now exceeds the nutritional caloric average requirements. At the same time, there are devastating food shortage threats at local levels, especially in Africa, where many new food safety problems have emerged in Low-Income (LI) and Lower Middle-Income (LMI) countries. As of last year, more than 820 million people are suffering from hunger and sub-Saharan Africa is the sub-continent with the highest proportion of undernourished people.

How is it that in a globalized, interconnected world, food security is still such a challenging issue? 
First, we need to keep in mind that food insecurity is primarily a question of access rather than availability. Many components of the global food market are in fact controlled by a limited number of actors and in many areas, small farmers have little access to institutional, legal or financial support and therefore face big obstacles in entering global markets. Second, in several areas, agriculture is the main source of income for local communities and also one of the most vulnerable sectors to unexpected changes such as armed conflicts and environmental shocks. Furthermore, not only is the current system unequal and unjust to small farmers and producers, but it is also based on damaging agricultural practices (soil degradation, water contamination, atmospheric pollution), extremely wasteful, and responsible for an enormous amount of greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, it is socially, environmentally and globally unsustainable.  

In the future, we will be facing an increased population and demand for food. However, in many parts of the world, current agricultural systems will be unable to meet a growing food demand. The challenge of food security is therefore not only to produce enough food but to make it accessible to all, which means combatting poverty and inequality. If things are to change, the world needs to face a complex and intricate dilemma: producing high-quality food in sufficient quantities and at affordable prices, that is equally accessible and has a reduced environmental impact. The solution to this dilemma is a transition to more sustainable food systems. 

What is a sustainable food system? 

A food system includes the related resources, the inputs, production, transport, processing and manufacturing industries, retailing, and consumption of food as well as its impacts on the environment, health, and society. Food systems are strongly interconnected with human societies and, whilst it may be easy to ignore the consequences of our unsustainable food practices now, eventually, the whole world will be experiencing them one way or another.

The disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic have further exposed the fragility of people’s access to goods and services and highlighted critical inequalities. Lockdowns and restrictions around the world have put enormous strains on local, regional and global supply chains and whilst developed countries struggled to cope with a sudden surge in demand and empty shelves, market closures across Africa, for example, have cut off vital access to provisions for local communities and sales outlets to farmers. Across the world, food system workers who already face insecurity and low wages are now the most at risk from economic disruption. Not to mention the millions of people who are living permanently on the cusp of hunger and extreme poverty, who are the most vulnerable to the effects of a global recession. 

A transition towards a more sustainable system would not only mean more equitable access to nutritional foods but it would also reduce food loss and waste, minimize the environmental impacts of production and increase the resilience of many food systems around the world. 
Such a transition could make a significant contribution to inclusive development, improve the quality of life of millions of people whilst also creating a viable environment for fighting climate change. In short, it would be a win-win for all.

How can we make this transition?

Food systems are central to the creation of a more sustainable and equitable world. However, each of us has a role to play in this transition. None of these issues is going to be solved merely through a top-down approach. We have a responsibility as a global community to act together across sectors and international borders to ensure a better quality of life worldwide.

On the governance side, concrete policies need to be enacted to ensure the quality of what we eat and the quality of life of all those who are involved in its production. This means allowing land access to new farmers as well as water rights and investing in risk prevention initiatives and social protection floors to safeguard all those involved in the production of food. It also means certifying supply chains and allowing equal access to resources and markets to small farmers to ensure the social and economic inclusion of civil society. 

The private sector needs to invest in new knowledge, technologies (such as hydroculture and vertical farming) and infrastructure which can lower environmental impacts and improve nutrition worldwide. It needs to cooperate with local communities to build a more resilient food system and invest in agroecology, a system that reconciles the economic, environmental, and social dimensions of sustainability. 

And lastly, we must not forget that there is much that can be done from an individual perspective. As consumers, we have the power to decide what choices we want to make, and we can no longer ignore the impact these choices have. Whether it’s reducing food waste, changing dietary and lifestyle habits or making more conscious decisions in our daily life, it is time for us to act now, to act together and to act differently.  


Gender Equality: a win for everyone

Today, the 8th of March, marks an important date not only for women but for our whole society. We would therefore like to take this essential occasion of international women’s day to talk about the importance of gender equality and why it is a win for everyone.  

The term gender equality has raised more and more attention in the last couple of years. But very often when we think of gender equality, we only think about women and their benefit. In my opinion, this is one of the biggest misunderstandings in history! Gender equality is a better option for everyone because it allows equal chances and rights without discrimination or biases. This means that women can have a career if they want to but also that men don’t need to be the sole breadwinners and can decide whether they want to work full time, part-time or not at all. Ultimately, gender stereotypes are a thing of the past! 

The decision to have children and start a family is a crucial point for many women and men in deciding for or against their career. Since childcare is limited and expensive, young parents often have to decide who will spend more time at home with the children. In the majority of cases the decision falls on the mother for two reasons:

  1. The traditional mindset: which views women as better childcarers.
  2. The pay gap: many women earn less on average than their male companions.

In Switzerland, for example, there is a pay gap of 11.4% and more than half of it is unexplained. Here and in many other countries, only one out of 50 companies has a woman as CEO (SMI-Expanded). Female representation in management teams is below 10% and you mostly find women in the so-called low power positions such as HR and Communication. Iceland takes the worldwide lead with 30% of women CEOs
Consistent research shows that diverse teams bring better results because mixed gendered teams make better decisions and are more innovative. As the world gets more and more complex, there is a demand for many different skill sets. In the future, we will need as many different skills as possible and women bring other skills to the table than men. 

But there are not only business-related topics that show that our society needs to change. Across the globe, many causes keep driving the gap between genders such as uneven access to education, employment and healthcare not to mention the many forms of gender-based violence countless women are subjected to. Many causes of structural inequality such as menstruation, child-marriages and female genital mutilation, are considered a taboo topic in many parts of the world and urgently need to be destigmatized if we are to achieve a more equal world.  

Here are a few facts that clearly depict certain structural inequalities: 

  • Girls and women pay a high tax on hygiene articles such as tampons and pads, whereas condoms for example are not taxed.
  • In developing countries at least 30% and up to 95% of girls are missing school because of their periods and the stigmatization around it, therefore losing crucial steps in their education
  • 80% of medicine in the US is taken by women, but the effect it has on them is mostly unknown, as medical research is mostly conducted on men.
  • Despite ongoing research on birth control pills for men, this product has never been launched on the market because of its side effects. The birth control pill for women has the exact same side effects but has been on the market for decades. 
  • Women have a 47% higher chance of getting severely injured in a car accident because safety features are designed for men

These are but a few specific examples of some of the structural causes of increasing inequality. According to the UN Gender Pay Gap Report, it will take us almost another 200 years to achieve true gender equality if we continue down this path. So, all of us need to take action now! 

What women can do 

Nothing. In the past years women were expected to change in order to fit in a male-dominated environment. But what we should be doing is fixing the system and not women’s behaviour. Having said that, women can be more confident, visible, speak up their minds, trust in their skills, stop pampering their partners and lift up their female friends. 

What men can do 

Equality begins at home. Only if family work is equally distributed, can we have a chance to achieve real equality. Men can divide the tasks and responsibilities at home equally with their partners. Additionally, they can empower their partners in their environment to follow their dreams. It is also crucial that men call out inequality and injustice when they become aware of it, whether in the workplace, at home or in any other context. 

What companies can do

Companies need to de-bias the system so that women get a fair chance of being a part of it. What does that mean? For example, male recruiters often unconsciously prefer male candidates. To avoid such unconscious bias, a company should have a diverse recruitment team. Another step companies can do, is to offer flexible working models to men and women so that parents can better handle the rush hours of their lives. Paid parental leave for both parents is also another way of ensuring that both members of a couple can continue their careers after having a child. 

What politics can do

Governments need to take more action so as to structurally create a more equal and balanced system. For example, a tax system that rewards households where both partners are working, like in Sweden. Another great opportunity is to offer a good childcare infrastructure. For instance, in Canada, one day in childcare only costs 2 francs, thanks to high subsidies. Equally helpful is the introduction of all-day schools, which allows both parents to work full-time.  

Last but not least the world of Academia and Media plays a big role. The academic world, for instance, needs to develop a system that does not repeat stereotypes, especially in the STEM areas. It should make sure that children do not only see traditional gender roles and gendered professions but rather develop a tolerant and liberal understanding of gender. The media on the other hand needs to stop representing women as sexual objects and start to create new images of women instead. This can be made possible by increasing the share of women’s voices in scientific matters for instance. It can also be very useful in destigmatizing taboo topics and creating not only awareness but also a discussion around them. 

Standing up for women does not mean abandoning the male gender. On the contrary: breaking away from old stereotypes means setting new possibilities for everyone. We must use this day and see it as an opportunity to make the world a fairer, more tolerant and ultimately more equal place not only for women but for society as a whole.


How do we adress the limitations of the international community?

One day, a great friend of mine asked me what the international community should do regarding the crisis between Hong Kong and China (the former being a semi-independent state from the latter). At first, I gave him a personal and emotional answer, but then I realized that passionate responses are mostly useless in these kinds of discussions. I should have based my arguments on a more solid foundation and considered the principles of international law. There is, however, an enormous vacuum in this context. International law is in fact unable to define the role of the international community in conflicts that are limited within the borders of sovereign states. Hence, when we approach the topic, we are confronted with opinion-based debates rather than fixed rules.

Nevertheless, I wanted to provide a more sophisticated answer to my friend and thus, I decided to do some further research. I structured my investigation around one main question that represented the starting point for the entire analysis. The question was: which international agency should play the role of representing the international community amid a border-limited dispute? The most intuitive answer is: the United Nations.

The United Nations 

According to the liberal theory of international relations (which argues that international institutions play a key role in cooperation among states), the United Nations is the international body requested to intervene on behalf of the international community in case of border-confined conflicts. Because of its global recognition, the UN is arguably the only organization legitimized to play a role during an internal dispute.

Even though this perspective seems promising, there are evident structural problems inside the UN which prevent it from ever becoming an institution allowed to intervene in national confrontations on a legal basis. The UN unifies hundreds of countries in one institution, but its security council is governed only by five of them, the well-known veto-powers: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Through the veto power, these countries can block any UN intervention if it challenges their political interests. The UN has faced the possibility of becoming a rule-based institution with the ability to play a significant role in national issues many times, but every attempt has failed miserably because of these dynamics.

For instance, Russia used its veto power against an intervention during the 1999 war in Kosovo. Regardless of the evident violations of human rights in this conflict, Russia blocked any intervention possibility merely because of its political alliance with the Milosevic regime, which was at the head of the Yugoslavian Republic and included Kosovo at the time.

Alternative solutions 

Acknowledging that the actions of the UN are largely limited by structural problems, raises the question as to who is legitimized to represent the international community in these cases. Theoretical and empirical evidence on this topic suggests two possible alternatives: coalitions of the states that have the largest military and economic power or regional actors. Both arguments are based on the assumption that these groups of states may be able to offer the best intervention in different ways. Powerful states have the economic and military power to pressure the country in question. However, many argue that this approach sustains the dominant position of the most powerful countries and maintains a global hierarchy, rather than addressing the real causes of many conflicts. Neighbouring countries, on the other hand, can exercise a stronger political and social influence on the critical country because of their strategic geographical position.

Even though these lines of thinking have their logic, they both fail to provide any kind of legitimacy to these exclusive groups of states that should theoretically represent the international community. Furthermore, the interventions of powerful or neighbouring states that have happened in the past (without a legal basis) have demonstrated that these options can be extremely dangerous. The ongoing crisis in Libya (where the involvement of powerful states such as Russia and France as well as regional actors such as Turkey, Egypt and Jordan is evident) represents a very unfortunate case.

Need for a new perspective

Taking everything into account, it seems that there are many issues related to the presence and activity of the international community in national conflicts. If institutions such as the UN are paralized because of internal, structural tensions, who has the legitimacy to get involved in a national conflict? Should foreign countries have the right to intervene in these disputes and if so based on what? We have seen that the intervention of the most powerful countries can actually cause more harm than good. Regional involvement can also be problematic, considering that neighbouring countries will always have their own agenda and are likely to seek to expand their influence in the area. Recent scholarship argues that there is a need for a more local approach to internal conflicts. However, in many cases the actors involved do not have sufficient resources or an efficient institutional framework to regulate internal conflict.

It seems that the dilemma of who should intervene is far from being solved. Perhaps the most ideal solution is a hybrid approach: the engagement of international institutions with local actors based on equality and collaboration. However, in order to avoid power imbalances one very important thing has to change: international institutions need to be reformed in a way that is inclusive, so that each member has the same amount of power, starting with the UN security council. By redefining the members and the role of the international community hopefully we will be able to find better solutions to global issues.


References

Nardin, Terry (2013): From Right to Intervene to Duty to Protect: Michael Walzer on Humanitarian Intervention. European Journal of International Law 24(1), 67-82. 

Pape, Robert A. (2012): When Duty Calls: A Pragmatic Standard of Humanitarian Intervention. International Security 37(1), 41-80. 

Pattison, James (2010): Humanitarian Intervention and the Responsibility to Protect. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.