Navigating adolescence is a challenging period in all cultures. It’s a time when young people begin to find their identity, develop their values and confront the problems of the world around them on a personal level.
I went to Falls Church High School in northern Virginia, where a lot of kids struggled with issues related to drugs, alcohol and dating violence. Homophobia was rampant and tolerated. Kids who identified as gay suffered in relative silence. The wider culture didn’t offer anyone with whom to identify. There was no Glee yet. No Ellen. Young men and women who step outside the gender box they were assigned faced backlash from peers, school and parents.
Today I work with teens in the Balkans, a region still reckoning with wars that killed thousands, uprooted millions, and saw sexual violence used as a tool of the conflict. The oppressive gender-role box that young Americans are finally breaking out of remains is strong and sturdy here. Boys across the Balkans region continue to be socialized to conform to a narrow, hyper-masculine ideal. Boys and men must show strength, be aggressive and the protector.
In baseline research carried out with secondary school age boys in the Balkans by CARE , we found that respondents are surrounded by high levels of violence. This includes violence that they experience themselves, violence that they witness and violence that they perpetrate against others. In addition, among participants who report being sexually active, 15 to 31 percent also indicate that they have forced a girlfriend or ex-girlfriend to have sex when she didn’t want to, or was too drunk to give consent.
In the young men initiative CARE have been working with Ministry of Education, youth offices and NGO’s to promote both school and community based life skills education that promotes positive masculinities and supports gender equality. We want to create an environment where young people can safely operate outside the confining gender box and grow up with respect and acceptance from their peers and the adults in their lives. Through school and community based “be a man” clubs, we’re working with young men to redefine the rules of how a man should act within society. One of our most important tools is outreach through media. In addition to social media, CARE works with popular musicians in the region to spread positive messages through lyrics.
In Kosovo, a newly formed state still struggling with the consequences of a recent war, rigid gender roles are quite typical in households. Boys grow up seeing their sisters carrying a larger domestic chore burden than they have. They also see that their fathers have the final word in family decisions. Our school-based workshops in Kosovo prompted significant 20 percent improvement in gender equitable attitudes among the young men who participated. One young man commented to us, “I used to watch my sisters help my mom and do all the work in the house and I realized that wasn’t fair. My parents at first thought something was wrong with me when I started to help with the dishes and laundry but now they are proud of me and see me as the new man of Kosovo”.
Most young men that I have met in the Balkans want to see a society where all people can live in dignity and with full human rights. They realize something is not right in a society where boys and men have had certain privileges, in the home and in public, that girls and women do not. They know the system needs fixing and want to be a part of a movement that addresses it. One young man in Serbia recently commented at one of the club meetings, “When I am a father, I want my kids to see that I love and respect my wife as an equal partner and that I am involved in their lives 100 percent.”
As we celebrate Father’s Day and reflect on its meaning, I’m filled with hope by this young man’s vision, and pledge to continue working to make his vision a reality.
By John Crownover
Young Men Initiative Program Advisor
CARE International – Balkans