Gary Barker pioneered ground-breaking work with young people, in particular disaffected young men, to promote gender equality and prevent violence. Instituto Promundo in Brazil, which he co-founded in 1997, has brought about remarkable changes in young people’s attitudes through workshops, social media, music, videos and toolkits. Promundo’s ideas are now being used all over the world. He is interviewed by Nikki van der Gaag.
How did it all start?
My father was a social worker, which is largely a woman’s profession. I never questioned that care work was men’s work. As a child, violence was part of a boy’s life, in school and in the neighbourhood. I witnessed an incident where a young man was shot right in front of me in the high school cafeteria. The school dealt with it very badly: they barely even talked about it. And I remember thinking, ‘Wait a minute, there is something not right about this. How come we don’t even have a space to talk about this?’
Then early in my career I worked on adolescent reproductive health and rights, which is mostly a woman’s field. There was a lot about ‘Aren’t men horrible?’ and about the things men do that leave young women vulnerable. So I started thinking: ‘I am a man too! There have got to be other men who are thinking, can we do something to transform these ways of thinking about what it is to be a man.’ That was the beginning of my quest.
What are the most effective ways of reaching men – and women – with this work?
While the international women’s rights movement and United Nations conventions were very important to bring momentum to this work, the most valuable and useful insights come from how couples themselves are negotiating equality in their daily lives. There are men in the most gender rigid places, who are willing to question and to speak out loud about how things should be different. Personal stories are more powerful than any manual or campaign.
I can think of one young man in particular. I shall call him João. Most of his family had some kind of drug trafficking connection. At the end of the day he would go home from washing and watching cars in the middle-class neighbourhood where I lived. He knew that if people at night saw a young black man dressed in rather ragged work clothes they would think: ‘He is a thief.’ So he would call out: ‘Don’t worry, I’m a nice guy!’ He had a real sense of humour. He also had a fantastic grandmother who was the anchor of the whole family.
Anyway, his girlfriend got pregnant. Her family didn’t think he was up and coming and therefore they didn’t want him live with her or to have much contact with the child. He made all these efforts to understand their point of view, to let them know that he was there to stay, that he loved their daughter and their granddaughter. I thought: ‘Wow! He has a cousin who was killed by drug traffickers, his brothers are all involved, his father died early from alcohol abuse, and yet he was able to say: “I am not going to be boxed into a corner. I will not be the violent, alcohol-abusing, gang-involved guy that the world expects me to be.”’
There are lots of young men like João who want to do things differently. We have helped many to get out of gangs. They are all very connected fathers. Many are now referred to us by some of the first young people we worked with. That is some accomplishment.
Is violence the major issue here?
For the most part, the world doesn’t make gender equitable men – it spends a lot of time making men who are angry and disconnected and violent. But the use of violence is not something men are happy about. In fact, it suggests how troubled many men are, and their own experience of violence growing up. We need to say: ‘You can’t do this’ and to end the impunity but also to say to men: ‘We understand that the violence you are using is coming from the violence you experienced or witnessed when you were growing up and we would like to offer you some alternative.’ It is when we reach out with two hands, one that serves as a kind of social control and the other that is supportive, that we are most likely to be successful.
Do you feel there is increasing interest in work with men on gender equality?
There is a generational shift happening. There is a generation of young men who grew up with women’s rights as daily reality, and a group of young women who expect nothing less than respect from men. I think that reality is driving our work in many parts of the world. There are more and more women who are women’s rights advocates who say: ‘Of course you (as men) should be here. You don’t have to come and do your introductory remarks on why men should be part of gender. We get that.’ But there is still – and in some cases it is quite healthy – a bit of mistrust: ‘We want to see that your credentials are truly in favour of gender equality and that you are not part of the men’s backlash group.’ These backlash groups are not that big in most parts of the world but they are very distasteful.
What needs to happen next?
We can show you men – and women – who say their lives have changed because of this work, but how to make that leap from stories of individual change into public policy? We need to recognize that this work is not yet part of the mainstream. There is no question that men are going to have to give up privileges if they really want gender equality. Perhaps the hardest part to give up is the work that women and girls so often do for them.
But we haven’t done a good enough job of finding the sugar to go along with the medicine: helping men to understand that there are positive things that come with gender equality – better sex, happier partners, happier children, happier lives for men themselves because their children and their partners are happier. There are win-wins in this and we need to make them better known.
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