Working with youth

Young men as during mid to late adolescence in the Western Balkans demonstrate many developmental risks and experience challenges in their everyday life. This is a critical stage in development for adolescent boys in the Western Balkans, especially in regards to social and peer influences. Young men are testing and formulating their attitudes and behaviors around manhood based on these influences. Regional tensions and the economic crisis exacerbate an uncertainty over the future for boys in general. For many, their daily experiences include violence as both victims and perpetrators. In addition, many hold non equitable attitudes and behavior around gender which impacts their relationships and puts them at greater risks for non healthy lifestyles. The region continues to be confronted with youth violence, from nationalistic and political related to gendered and homophobic, to school wide bullying. Patriarchal societies are heavily influenced by religious institutions. Political elites and the media continue to promote an unhealthy version of masculinity for young males – often with negative consequences for girls and women throughout the region.

Since the breakup of the former Yugoslavia and the wars that ravaged the region, a culture of violence has become part of the everyday life experiences for many youth within the Western Balkans. Youth are particularly at risk for experiencing violence within their homes and from peers, and violence perpetrated by teens appears to be on the rise. In a report from UNICEF Serbia & Montenegro, a survey reported that every child has been exposed at least once to some form of violence, and that peer violence was one of the most common forms of abuse

  1. The media in many countries in the Balkans has increasingly been reporting on incidents of youth violence. Boys are facing bullying in schools, as well as in settings of youth culture scenes (such as music clubs and sporting events)
  2. A recent study of teen dating violence in Croatia shows that more than two/thirds of the adolescents aged 16-19 reported experiencing some form of violence behavior from their partner, and a little less than half of the respondents stated that they were violent at least once towards their partner.
  3. A recent household survey carried out with 2000 women and men ages 19-60 in Croatia similarly showed the high rates of witnessing and experiencing violence in their home of origin: 65% of men interviewed in the survey reported being slapped or spanked as children, and 16% of men reported witnessing violence by a man against their mothers in their homes of origin. In the same study (IMAGES), 29% of men said they suffered violence from a teacher at school, 77% percent said they were bullied or harassed in their school or neighborhood growing up and 64% said they touched, harassed or said sexually derogatory things to girls when they were growing up.
  4. Such emerging trends provide a disturbing and challenging context for young people as they decide what constitutes appropriate norms, attitudes and behaviors for themselves and their peers. Furthermore, these young men represent the first generation born during and immediately after the break up of Yugoslavia and thus have come of age in a time of tumultuous post-conflict recovery in which attitudes about gender and militarized versions of masculinity are evident. Given the growing concern in the region – where occurrences of gendered and peer violence appear to be on the rise – it is imperative that civil society and governments understand more about the gender norms, and attitudes and behaviors related to sexual activity and violence among young men, as well as on intervention approaches that can effectively address these issues.

Establishing the Need for an Intervention with Young Men

With limited data available about the current experience of young men in the Balkans, much of foundation for the Young Men Initiative (YMI) was drawn from a Participatory Learning and Action (PLA) exercise conducted with young men in April 2007, as well as from the experience and insights of project team members in four Western Balkan countries. A few key PLA insights from young men in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia provide important background YMI’s interventions and evaluation:

Young men identified some of the characteristics of “ideal” men, including: physical strength, protection of honor, defending strong opinions, strong character, being successful in everything, participation in masculine activities (sports and drinking), sexual virility, lack of cowardice (i.e., not ‘acting like a woman’, in their words), being heterosexual.

Young men across the four countries identified home and school as the two strongest social spaces influencing masculinity. Within these spaces, young men are strongly influenced by parents, siblings and peers groups. Peers are particularly important in shaping a young man’s sense of the social “dos and don’ts” of being a man.

Young men listed and categorized types of violence into physical, psychological (emotional) and sexual violence. Violence among peers seemed to be the most pervasive, with most violence of this nature occurring at school, in the street, or in other public places. Many young men expect their peers to join in fights to maintain allegiance to the individual or group. Violence against sexual minorities, especially gay men, was widely mentioned with general feelings that the victims deserved the violence.

On the issue of power relations, most young men felt the need to retain authority over women, although some emphasized shared power. Young men almost unanimously opposed the use of violence against women and said it was almost never justified because women are weaker. At the same time, slapping, hitting or otherwise “disciplining” a woman was not always perceived as violence. Such force is most often portrayed as a last resort when women have not responded to other efforts by men to exert control.

Regarding the key causes of violence, young men identified the following: exposure to family violence; exposure to media violence; individual feelings of inadequacy; stress related to economic security and jobs; alcohol and drugs as a catalyst; and expectations of masculinity.

When asked what some of the characteristics of men who do not use violence, young men indicated the following: gaining maturity and self-control, and recognition of consequences; seeing verbal responses and restraint as showing greater strength; and having boundaries to promote self-control. When asked about the consequences of not using violence, many young men said they would expect to experience more violence as a consequence, especially among peers.

In addition to its focus on violence, YMI aimed to improve sexual and reproductive health outcomes. Key behaviors such as increased condom use and health seeking reflect entrenched attitudes and norms that govern relations between young men and women. Recent research in four Western Balkan countries shows that, and while condom use at first sex is relatively high (73.7% for boys), consistent condom use is less common and access to other forms of contraception and SRH information is low.5

To further contribute to understanding the situation of gender, sexuality and violence in the region, CARE-NW Balkans also supported the Center for Education, Counseling and Research (CESI) to work with ICRW to implement the International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES) in Croatia. Using a household sample of 500 women and 1500 men ages 19-60, the survey provided further evidence and insights on support for inequitable gender norms. Among other things, the research found that nearly 30% of men said they had ever used any form of physical violence against a female partner, 11 percent of men reported having had sex with a sex worker and 17% had been involved in a fight using a weapon or firearm. As noted earlier, a majority of men reported having experiencing some kind of violence from peers, in the home or in their schools. This data, as well as the PLA findings, serve to highlight the context of violence and gender inequitable norms that are prevalent in the region.

Building the Information-Base on Young Men in the Western Balkans

The picture emerging from YMI data highlights several priority issues for these young men:

  • Young men are increasing sexually active within this age range, but have limited understanding of sexual and reproductive health;
  • While condom use at first sex is relatively high (compared with young men in other countries), there is a need to increase consistent use of condoms;
  • The majority of young men are engaged in multiple risky behaviors, including smoking, drinking alcohol excessively and, to a lesser extent, using drugs (mostly marijuana). In addition to carrying their own risks, such behaviors can be a factor in risky sexual and violent outcomes and often part of a peer culture;
  • More specifically, there is a strong association between alcohol use and violent behaviors and such behaviors are in turn related to a specific culture of masculinity and part of peer cultures;

Peer violence is a concern for these young men, both as individuals and as members of gangs. Young men clearly turn to their peers for support, including for support in fights and in turn are willing to fight for their peers, and encouraged to fight by their peers. This finding suggests the challenges and need to intervene at the level of peer culture (and the wider societal views that fuel peer culture), rather than focusing only on young men as individuals.

Violence against women is low, but may increase as young men become more sexually experienced and enter into different types of relationships. However, support for violence against women is relatively high, particularly when women’s behavior is seen as effecting men’s honor. Again, this suggests the prevalence and challenge of changing those norms around male honor.

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