Program Fosters More Gender-equitable Attitudes in Post-conflict Balkans

Article Date

09 June 2014

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

When President Obama recently declared that, “real men don’t hurt women,” he joined an ever-increasing number of activists, programmers, policymakers, and world leaders calling on men and boys to be allies rather than obstacles in ending violence against women and advancing gender equality.  These calls have, in recent years, led to a growing number of programs that engage men and boys in re-defining what it means to “be a man” in relation to peers, partners and society as a whole.

Given this relatively new area of programing, there is a tremendous need for evidence to identify which approaches are effective in changing young men’s attitudes and behaviors. To generate this evidence, it is crucial for researchers and program experts to work side-by-side in a spirit of true collaboration and partnership.  

ICRW has been part of such a partnership for the last seven years. Working closely with CARE International Balkans, Promundo, and local youth-serving agencies in four countries in the Balkans region, ICRW has contributed to the adaptation and improvement of a group education program seeking to foster adolescent boys’ adoption of healthy, nonviolent lifestyles and gender equitable attitudes.

ICRW’s study released today, “Be a Man, Change the Rules! Lessons from CARE International Balkans’ Young Men Initiative (YMI),” presents key findings from this unique partnership, pinpointing YMI’s successes and challenges in working with adolescent boys.

The program’s focus on adolescent boys is important, as this life stage represents a pivotal moment in the socialization process when attitudes and behaviors are still developing. This is particularly important for youth living in communities emerging from conflict, like the YMI participants who were born during or immediately after the Yugoslav wars and grew up during a tumultuous post-war recovery. Not surprisingly, interpersonal violence is common among this population, as are views of masculinity that encourage partner violence, homophobia, and peer aggression.

ICRW’s Role in the Partnership

ICRW’s engagement with YMI started in 2007 with participatory research to understand prevailing attitudes about what it means to be an “ideal man” in project communities. These findings informed the design of a voluntary, after-school intervention for adolescent boys, which ICRW assessed across five cities in the Western Balkans over a two-year period, from 2009 to 2010.

Boys who attended this first, after-school phase of the program showed promising changes, but ICRW’s evaluation also concluded that the voluntary nature of the program significantly limited participation rates.

ICRW, CARE and partners concluded that for meaningful change to take place, participants needed greater exposure to a more intensive intervention. CARE and the implementing partners responded by working with Ministries of Education in project locations to make the program a compulsory part of the curricula in participating vocational schools. Eight to ten hour-long YMI sessions, led by trained facilitators, were integrated into the regular class schedule over the academic year, with a focus on gender attitudes, sexual health, alcohol and drug use, and violence. The team also added optional weekend-long residential retreats where boys participated in interactive, team-building activities related to the program’s themes. 

ICRW evaluated this expanded version of YMI, which was implemented from 2010 – 2013 in four vocational schools (one each in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina; Zagreb, Croatia; Belgrade, Serbia; and Pristina, Kosovo). The new “Be a Man, Change the Rules” report concentrates on the findings from this second, four-site phase of the research. 


The YMI team’s approach to the evaluation is unique in that after each academic year, all of the partner organizations met to discuss the evaluation results and determine how to improve both the design and evaluation of the program. This iterative process of reflecting on the findings yielded many valuable insights about the program’s implementation process as well as YMI’s effectiveness.

In terms of implementation, the vocational high schools proved to be opportune locations to deliver a gender-transformative program to adolescent boys. School officials, teachers, and – most importantly – students, were receptive to YMI activities and welcomed the opportunity to be a part of the program. Participating students also clearly valued the program and viewed it as relevant to their lives; many boys expressed strong admiration for the facilitators, whom they described as positive role models. 

The research also points to some impressive gains of the program, which engaged participants to critically reflect on harmful norms about masculinity and to challenge these norms by “changing the rules” about manhood.  Survey results show that many students expressed more flexible views about masculinity, as well as about gender roles and sexual diversity, after the eight-month program. In Pristina, for example, more than half of participants (58 percent) disagreed that physical strength was the most important quality for a man after participating in YMI, whereas less than a third (31 percent) held this view before the program.  A participant from Pristina interviewed after the program noted: 

To become a man here in our country, we smoke cigarettes, we drink alcohol… Now [I realize] all the smoking and alcoholic drinks do not make a man, but the opposite of a man … I changed my opinion through these trainings … Those values which we discussed have changed all the rules.

In addition, the evaluation revealed that the program boosted participants’ knowledge about sexual health, an important finding given that the average age of first sex among sexually active boys in the study was between 14 and 15.

The findings about violence were mixed. Overall, YMI had no measurable effect in reducing participants’ violent behaviors against peers or intimate partners. In Pristina, however, there was some evidence that the intervention stemmed an increase in peer violence over time, which occurred in the other sites. Boys in Pristina also were more likely to report trying to stop a fight among their peers after participating in the program. These positive findings may reflect the addition to the Pristina program of extra school sessions on violence and that about half of Pristina participants attended a residential retreat, a higher percentage than in the other three sites. The residential retreats offered a more immersive environment than the classroom, allowing the facilitators to lead longer, more in-depth discussions. These retreats were especially effective at helping participants question dominant gender norms and internalize new ideas – especially related to sensitive topics such as homophobia and violence.

A behavior that proved resistant to change was alcohol use, which—with the exception of Pristina— is ubiquitous in the study communities.  There was no change in reported binge drinking among the students surveyed in Belgrade, Sarajevo, or Zagreb, perhaps reflecting the tendency toward increased experimentation during this stage of adolescence.

Looking to the Future

Reflecting on ICRW’s role in the partnership, Gender and Evaluation Specialist Sophie Namy notes, “Our research has facilitated improvements in the program model, thereby strengthening the work of the youth facilitators who are expending tremendous effort to challenge existing gender norms and change their communities for the better.”

Speaking to the effectiveness of the approach, Namy adds, “We’ve seen how the YMI model provokes genuine reflection about ‘what it means to be a man’ in a highly patriarchal context still recovering from war, and, most importantly, how this questioning can lay the groundwork for students to reject violence and adopt more equitable beliefs.”

ICRW envisions that the release of the “Be a Man, Change the Rules!” report will spark greater action in engaging men to be allies in curbing violence against women and gender inequality, thus bringing us closer to the type of “real man” that President Obama has championed. 

To read the full report, click here.