Almost every day we read about some heinous crime being committed against women in some or the other part of the world. Violence against women is prevalent not just in some countries but it is rampant across countries. It is not limited to one particular political or economic system; it is rife in every strata of every society. Violence against women can be interpreted as an expression which we have inherited from our history and some subversive cultural values which foster discrimination against women. According to a study conducted by United Nations 7 in 10 women in the world experience physical or sexual violence at some point in their life.
There are lot of organizations and governments around the world who are doing incredible work to fight against violence committed on women and gender inequality. One organization that pioneers in working towards ending violence against women and promoting equal rights is Promundo. Promundo’s work is recognized and awarded globally for its path breaking initiative of drawing men into the discussion and engaging with them to end the violence against women. This international organization was the brain child of Gary Barker. Gary is considered as one of the leading voices for gender justice. Gary started the concept of Promundo in Brazil. Today, Promundo has offices in Brazil, U.S and Protugal and representatives in various countries across the globe. We spoke to Gary about his organization’s work and his opinion on the condition of gender justice in the world.
- What inspired you to develop Promundo as it’s concept is quite unique?
When we started Promundo 18 years ago, there were few non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Brazil or anywhere doing direct work with men and boys on promoting positive masculinity and gender equality. There were numerous calls to reach men – from the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994 to the historic World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 – but in terms of concrete experiences at the program, policy and activism level, there was relatively little action.We believed, from our direct experiences in working in violence prevention in favelas in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, that we would only end violence and achieve equality if we engaged men as allies, as voices for change, and as activists in the process. We were also inspired by young and adult men who wanted to be part of the movement and who were already living out equitable, non-violent ways of being men. It wasn’t so much that we encouraged them to change, but rather that their voices inspired us to see the change that was possible.
- How has been your experience of running Promundo especially engaging with men?
On the one hand there is much to be pessimistic about. Our research has confirmed high rates of violence by men against women, by parents against children, and by police against young men; it has shown how poverty and economic stress negatively affect men, women and families; and how inequitable attitudes still prevail in most parts of the world. We work in settings,like Brazil, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and urban areas in the United States (US),where violence, and income and gender inequality are far too prevalent and too severe. To study and act on these issues requires observing some of the worst behaviors of men, and sometimes women. At the same time, we see the change – new NGOs taking on the cause; government officials and policymakers embracing the need to engage men; and men and boys, together with women and girls, recognizing the power of equality and non-violence.
- What has been the strategy of your organisation?
Our work in favelas in Rio de Janeiro, in post-conflict-areas of Africa, and in partnerships in the US and nearly 20 countries, is to identify the voices of change that already exist.Our work begins in any setting by identifying those men and boys, and women and girls, in each community who are already ‘on board’ with equality and non-violence. We then work with them to turn up the volume of their voices. This includes by implementing school-based work with young people though group education and youth-led activism; training of fathers on strategies for involved parenting and hands-on skills; working with police and armed forces to promote non-violent versions of manhood; and engaging men to be supportive partners in women’s economic empowerment. In all of these examples, the motor for change is the men and women in these same spaces who already believe in gender equality, promote sexual and reproductive health and rights, and practice an equal distribution of care giving. Even in the most conservative or traditional places, we find these voices. We then evaluate our experiences, successes,and lessons learned, and work with governments and other large institutions – workplaces, schools, health sectors and the like – to take the approaches to scale, and when necessary, to change laws and policies.
- What are the kind of challenges you faced especially in your initial days of starting Promundo?
Working in high-violence settings means having to take care of our staff and partners; it means that plans can stop at a moment’s notice when conflict or violence breaks out. We also faced skepticism from some partners and organizations that men wouldn’t change, that work with men was taking away resources from women’s rights organizations. We pay close attention to how our work with men – and women – benefits women, and we stay attuned to how involving men must be done in ways that do not harm women, but in fact bring measurable, tangible improvements to their lives, and build on the work that women’s rights groups have been leading for decades. We also continue to carry out rigorous impact evaluations of our approaches because we believe, as an ethical principle, that we must assess if change is happening, how much, and if violence and other power imbalances are, in fact, being reduced.
- You started this concept in Brazil,how have you taken your work to other places like in Democratic Republic of Congo, United States and India?
As noted above, our approach always begins with a mapping of voices of change and equality and supporting local community members to lead the process of change and advocacy. That basic concept has allowed us to build programs that are culturally relevant, culturally specific and highly adaptable to urban and rural settings; at the community level, and inside institutions. We don’t presume to have a magic bullet for engaging men in achieving gender equality. We try to ask the right questions and then provide a space where stakeholders and community members can forge their own gender equality revolution. We offer tools and we spend a lot of time on communications strategies to engage other actors, and to connect partners across countries and sectors.. But the change is locally led and locally driven; it has to be for it to last.
- What has been your biggest learning and what would be your perspective about men in today’s world?
Our biggest learning has been to start by listening to men and women. To arrive in each setting with the understanding that we don’t know what is up with men and women there and that gender relations are dynamic and contextual, and never uncomplicated. We too often make assumptions about men – that they are opposed to gender equality, that they are prone to violence, that they always hold more power than women do. Too many men do use violence, or hold power and abuse that power, but their lives are much more complex than that. The man who is powerful in one relationship, may be powerless in his workplace, for example. We too often push men in the wrong direction with our negative views of them, reinforcing stereotypes that don’t leave room for growth. When we look for the common humanity in women and men, when we look for the best in men and women, we see the change.
I am partly optimistic and partly pessimistic about men in today’s world. There is a younger generation that is more likely to believe in and live equality than their fathers or mothers were. But change isn’t coming quickly enough. We have reduced absolute poverty in the world. But income inequality is increasing. Too many men continue to feel excluded from the paid labor force, to feel alienated from their societies, and turn to violence as a a way to compensate for their sense of identity loss.Too often our responses are punitive rather than restorative, and simply fuel further violence. I’m pessimistic about policymakers who ignore the income and social inequalities that are the key drivers of the violence they seek to end. But I’m optimistic about men in today’s world – optimistic that we have the tools and experience to advance equality – to build on voices of change.
Gary Barker,the International Director of Promundo