June 1, 2014

Why I #challengeattitudes in the Balkans

Saša Ostojić, a participant in the Young Men Initiative, asks: Who is a “real man” in the Balkans?

The global image of Balkan men is not a good one. Decades of war and conflict have created a picture of us as very violent and aggressive.

In truth, lots of things are going against us. The attitudes and behaviour of the current generation of young men have been influenced by the fact that we were born during or immediately after the Yugoslav wars – while our parents were, of course, directly exposed to war. Throughout the region, society remains patriarchal, militarised versions of male identity and behaviour are ever-present, and tensions around socio-cultural and political identities continue to exist.

“Be a man, be strong”

As a young man in the Balkans – in common with all my friends – I was exposed to the influence of society and of my parents. As a 15-year-old kid, it was very difficult to understand what a real man is and how real men should behave. As I grew up, I was exposed to various messages, such as: “Be a man, do not cry”; “Real men don’t cry”; “Be a man, be strong”; “Real men are brave”; “You need to be dominant”.

Young men in the Balkans are brought up to believe that they have to be dominant. So, when a young man finds himself in a situation where a woman is more successful than him, or more capable than him, he feels that his male pride has been called into question. Young men in these situations often try to regain their pride in the wrong ways, by expressing aggression and violence.

A different experience

Personally, I was not aggressive or violent, but my involvement in the CARE-supported Young Men Initiative helped to reinforce my non-violent attitudes, and build me in the direction where I thought and felt I should go.

When I was young, I was involved in some school projects regarding democracy and human rights. I had a big interest in that field, especially in non-formal education. When I heard for the first time about the Young Men Initiative I was a first grader in high school.

The school psychologist told us about a research project into gender-based violence and gender equality, and of course I volunteered to take part. It was quite a different experience from anything I’d done up till then. Later it turned out that this was just the beginning of my journey into the world of violence prevention.

Changing minds and attitudes

It was not always easy. In the beginning it was very difficult to explain to my peers, and even my parents, what I actually do and what is the purpose of my engagement. Usually I had to listen to them tell me that what I was doing was a complete waste of time. The support of my best friends, and of course, the support of people from Perpetuum Mobile [CARE’s partner organisation] who conducted the project, was crucial in my decision to continue to work.

Now, I can proudly say that I have included many of my friends in the project, and what is most important is that they have changed their minds and attitudes, and have got really involved in participating in civil society and reaching out to others.

Change is possible

Of course, every story has two sides. Realistically, it is very difficult for young men in the Balkans to challenge notions of what makes a ‘real man’ when there is so much pressure from the media, society, and their peers. Even the idea that masculinity is not a form of innate behavior is new to generations of young people growing up in the Balkans.

However, my experience shows that change is possible. As a young man involved in this initiative, I had a chance to work with different organisations on many levels, including the national and international level. One good example of recognition of my work is that I was put forward to be a member of the United Nations Secretary-General’s Network of Men Leaders, representing Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Be the change you wish to see

To be in the same network with many influential people from around the world is for me a great honour, but also a great responsibility and motivation to continue to do this work and contribute to the prevention of violence in my country and in the region. We need to continue to engage men and boys through initiatives like ‘Be a Man’ if we are ever going to rid ourselves of harmful prejudices about masculinity in the Balkans.

As Mahatma Gandhi said: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”