Shifting young men’s attitudes about gender in the Balkans

Article Date

15 October 2013

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

“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.”  – Young Men Initiative participant in Kosovo

Masculinity in the Western Balkans – being considered a “real man” – is frequently linked to physical toughness, economic success, the protection of honor, and holding power over others. These rigid gender norms often place untenable expectations on young men and continue to perpetuate homophobia as well as discrimination against women and girls.

Experiencing, witnessing and perpetrating violence is an all too common reality for boys growing up in this post-conflict environment, which is still marred by the violent breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It’s against this challenging backdrop that the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), CARE International-Balkans, Promundo and regional partners are trying to make a difference by engaging youth in an innovative program to reshape harmful gender norms and essentially change the rules about what it means to be a man.

The program is called the Young Men Initiative (YMI) and is adapted in part from Promundo’s Program H, which was first developed in Latin America and the Caribbean. YMI targets boys ages 14 to 18 through school-based activities and media campaigns that aim to trigger critical reflection about gender norms and promote healthy, non-violent lifestyles. Operated by CARE and its partners across the region, YMI has been implemented in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia. Importantly, the program takes place in vocational schools that have a reputation for high levels of violence and are often comprised of economically disadvantaged students.

ICRW has a long history with the YMI project, beginning with participatory research in 2006 that helped guide the development of the program curriculum. ICRW has been involved at every step since then, working closely with CARE to bring our research findings to bear on each subsequent roll out of the project. My colleagues and I are now finalizing our evaluation of the second phase of YMI, and today I’ll present our preliminary results from Kosovo at the 2013 Sexual Violence Research Initiative Forum in Bangkok, Thailand.

We are particularly encouraged by our Kosovo findings, which build on prior evidence that YMI can effectively promote more gender equitable attitudes and cultivate intentions among young men to remain non-violent, even in challenging situations. For example, the percentage of students who disagreed with the statement, “I will start fighting if someone is disrespecting my friends or family,” increased from 42 percent at the beginning of their school year in the fall of 2012, to nearly 67 percent after participating in the program. We are also excited to share results from Kosovo because it represents the most recent site where YMI took place. The program there was carried out by the Peer Educators Network, a local nongovernmental organization, and has benefited from several years of prior research and fine-tuning. With that, we’ve applied a more rigorous evaluation design to help us to confidently assess YMI’s impact on students.

Our discussions with boys participating in YMI confirm that they greatly value what the program offers; many describe it as a meaningful opportunity to help “set them on the right path.”  Students are also quick to acknowledge that the structure of the program – whereby peer educators facilitate interactive exercises and group discussions in the school – helps to create a “safe space” to learn about sensitive topics. Throughout the year participants undergo regular classroom sessions dedicated to a range of topics including homophobia, sexual and reproductive health, substance abuse, sexual violence and conflict resolution. They also can participate in voluntary activities such as enrolling in a “Be a Man” club or attending residential trainings where issues are discussed in greater depth.

One YMI session that we found to be especially salient is focused on labels and power in relationships. During the workshop, boys participate in role-playing that aims to invoke a feeling of being powerless or stereotyped.

“We line up in two groups, and look opposite at each other, you know, like mirrors,” a boy from Sarajevo said about the activity. “And now this one has the honor of being a ruler, and the other one was a servant, and he has to do whatever the first one is doing … You really see how it is when someone rules over you, and what is the feeling when you rule over someone.”

This kind of experiential learning technique can help to emphasize different forms of violence and the consequences of unequal power dynamics. Our interactions with young men suggest that such exercises can leave strong impressions.  “What I have learned most … I had always thought that somehow, you know, physical violence leaves some major consequences,” a student from Sarajevo told us. “Later I realized that somehow the verbal violence leaves the biggest consequences, because, I don’t know, bruises will heal.”

These promising outcomes of YMI may well have lasting, positive consequences for young men as they transition into adulthood. And, ultimately, for future generations in the Balkans.