Male models: Teaching men in Central America about gender and power

In a region with sky-high rates of violence against women and some of the world’s deadliest cities, educational campaigns are trying to change the attitudes of men and boys on what it means to 'be a man.'

Whitney Eulich
Carlos Antonio Rivas, a community health volunteer with the Salvadoran Demographic Association in Las Tablas, El Salvador, leads a group of teenage boys in a trust-building exercise April 21. This is Mr. Rivas's third time meeting with this group of young men, where they discuss topics like machismo, masculinity, family planning, and violence in an effort to create more awareness about, and possibly redefine, what it means 'to be a man.'

The sound of chairs squeaking beneath fidgeting teenage bodies seeps out of a dim, concrete classroom in the northern Salvadoran town of Las Tablas.

Carlos Antonio Rivas, a community-based health volunteer, has just silenced a group of previously chatty boys with a single question: “Why do men act violently?”

It’s Mr. Rivas’ third time meeting with these 15 teens at Centro Escolar Las Tablas, a three-room school situated at the end of a quick-to-flood, bumpy dirt road. He talks about masculinity, machismo, family planning, and violence as part of a program organized by the Salvadoran Demographic Association (ADS), a family planning organization based in San Salvador.

The program is offered to men and boys across the country, and the sessions are held anywhere from community centers to the shaded edges of cornfields.

One gangly student offers up an anxious laugh and an answer to Rivas’s question: “They’re violent so they can prove they’re men,” he says.

“Because they can,” says another boy.

“To show they have power,” a third one adds.

This is a salient conversation in Central America’s northern triangle – made up of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala – where homicide rates are some of the highest in the world. There were 90.4 murders per 100,000 Hondurans in 2013, according to UN data. In May, El Salvador witnessed 622 homicides, the highest monthly tally since its civil war ended in 1992.

Finding other ways to behave

Men are certainly not the only people to use violence – at home, in the streets – against women or men, in Central America or anywhere else in the world. But males do carry out some 95 percent of homicides globally, according to a 2014 UN report.

In a region that’s host to sky-high rates of violence against women, some of the world’s deadliest cities, and a growing incidence of teen pregnancy, more and more organizations like ADS are targeting men and boys with educational campaigns and workshops that aim to change attitudes – from the ground up – of what it means to “be a man.”

“Men have been at the forefront of how political, domestic, and urban youth violence are manifested,” says Oswaldo Montoya Telleria, a psychologist who manages Washington-based MenEngage, a global alliance of NGOs – 36 of which operate in Central America – that is working toward gender equality.

That’s not to say men should be blamed for violence, Mr. Montoya says: It’s a collective responsibility.

“It’s important to support men in finding other ways of behaving and relating,” he says. And that can mean talking about gender and power stereotypes, sex education, and expressing love or emotion.

For 15-year-old Vladimir, the ADS talks in Las Tablas have helped him pinpoint changes he’d like to see in his own life, putting the role of men in his community into perspective.

“My dad is a little machista,” he says, a word that refers to stereotypically stoic, chauvinistic men. “I’ve realized I want to carry myself differently. It’s ok to act differently than my parents.”

Changing policies – and attitudes

The need to focus on men goes beyond gang membership or violence, says Larry José Madrigal, coordinator for Centro Bartolomé de las Casas (CBC), which is based in San Salvador but runs masculinity programs across Central America.

When it comes to creating laws or regulations, men are often still the gatekeepers, he says, an important reason to make them aware of gender dynamics.

The same goes for implementation. For example, there have been some successes in creating policies to protect women or encourage equality in Central America. El Salvador now categorizes femicide, the murder of a woman motivated by her gender, as a criminal offense, and 5 percent of municipal budgets in Honduras are required to go toward activities that directly affect women. But these regulations are not always enforced by the judges or local mayors in charge.

“That’s why it’s important to focus on changing behaviors and attitudes in daily life,” Mr. Madrigal says.

His team leads workshops that target government officials one week and rural farmers or urban teenagers the next.

In the meetings, they try to open participants’ eyes to gender and power dynamics more broadly.

In rural areas, where participants tend to be more religious, one activity requires each participant to pick up a stone and imagine that it represents a woman in his life – a daughter, wife, mother, sister. They’re invited to pray for or think about all the reasons they love this woman. Then, they put the stones in a pile and read a bible verse about stoning a woman who has sinned.

“Then we ask them, ‘How many times have you thrown stones, metaphorically, at these women you love?’ ” says Rutilio Delgado, who works in CBC’s masculinity program.

“The reaction is immense,” with some men weeping, he says. “They recognize the violence, whether physical, emotional, or economic.

“We don’t tell them, they realize it’s there and that they are a part of it.”

Guilt doesn’t create change, though, he says. “We then talk about, what can we do?”

Learning to show affection

A dirt-floored church in the pine-forested mountain town of Azacualpa, Honduras, about three bumpy hours by car from the Salvadoran border, is bustling with activity on a recent Monday morning. Colorful plastic fringe hangs from the ceiling, and three mangy dogs weave their way between the rickety wooden pews and green plastic chairs.

It’s difficult to measure changes in behavior, but groups like CBC are trying. They circle back to communities they work with to document how the men – and often times their wives and families – report changes big and small since a workshop has wrapped.

A team from CBC spent four days in the Lempira region of Honduras earlier this year conducting a series of meetings with leaders from various agricultural collectives. The aim was to raise awareness about the rights of women in rural farming communities and the importance – in the community and in homes – of lending to women and giving them a say over financial decisions.

Now they’re back to gauge the results. Inside the rural church, one farmer, Manuel Jesus Martinez, says that he convinced his collective – one of hundreds in the Lempira region – to give out its first loan to a woman. He’s even considering putting his land in his wife’s name, an example suggested at the workshop as a way to encourage gender equality.

For Bernacio Lopez, the biggest change was much more personal: He now shows his son affection.

“It was uncomfortable at first,” Mr. Lopez says of kissing his 13-year-old son, Arlyn, hello and goodbye. “But, now, he kisses me. It makes me feel loved.”

Little changes count, says Delgado from CBC.

“He is breaking a pattern of how men ‘should’ act with their family and with other men,” he says. “That kind of change can pass down for generations.”

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