Emmanuel Njeuhmeli serves as Senior Biomedical Prevention Advisor at the Office of HIV/AIDS.

On November 19, the first ever International Men’s Day was celebrated in over 60 countries around the world. It was an occasion to put the spotlight on men’s health, improving gender relations, and recognize positive male role models who make valuable contributions to family, community and society. This year, we recognize and celebrate the hundreds of thousands of men in East and Southern Africa who are stepping up for Voluntary Medical Male Circumcision (VMMC) to protect their own health and that of their families.

We also recognize the political, traditional and community leaders who are leading the charge in their countries and local communities. For many communities, male circumcision has cultural significance representing a rite of passage from childhood to manhood. Ministries of Health are working closely with traditional leaders to ensure that male circumcision is medically safe while still respecting the meaning of the tradition. In 2011, I participated in one such ceremony with the Changaani tribe at an “initiation camp” in a remote area of southern Zimbabwe where adolescent boys learn what it means to be a man. Despite the cultural challenges, the Zimbabwe Ministry of Health and Social Welfare (MOHSW) with support from PEPFAR and USAID, and in collaboration with traditional leaders, was able to provide these boys with safe male circumcision services.

In June 2012, I was again fortunate to witness the kind of male leadership we celebrated on Nov. 19. Mr. Blessing Chebundo, Chairman of Zimbabwe Parliamentarians against AIDS, and a group of fellow Zimbabwe parliamentarians, underwent voluntary medical male circumcision to inspire other men in their country to follow suit. Zimbabwe aims to circumcise 1.2 million men aged 13 to 29 years by 2015 with the potential impact of preventing 750,000 new HIV infections.  It will take leading by example, as demonstrated by Mr. Chebundo, to get this done.

USAID and UNAIDS have estimated that VMMC has the potential to avert more than 3.4 million new HIV infections in 14 countries in Eastern and Southern Africa, and save an estimated $16.5 billion in care and treatment over the next  15 years, freeing up resources for other crucial HIV interventions. It also offers a unique opportunity to not only prevent HIV, but improve men’s overall health. VMMC services present an opportunity to engage men who might otherwise never interact with the health system.

While women are likely to learn their HIV status during prenatal visits, there are simply no comparable programs for reaching men. VMMC programs have the potential to offer millions of men the opportunity to learn their HIV status, along with counseling, condom provision, services around sexually transmitted infections, and the rare chance to discuss their reproductive health.

USAID, with PEPFAR funding, is committed to supporting countries in Eastern and Southern Africa to pave the path for an HIV-Free generation by accelerating scale up of VMMC over the next five years. As we work together to roll out this powerful, life-saving intervention in these 14 countries, let us remember the more than 2 million men who have already made the brave decision to step up and protect their health, their family and their communities by getting circumcised.

I wish all of you brave men a very happy International Men’s Day!