Gary Barker: The 50% Solution to Gender Violence and Injustice
Gary Barker is founder and executive director of Promundo, an internationally recognized NGO established in 1997. Promundo works nationally in Brazil, Rwanda, and the US, as well as globally. Its base of operations is Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where it carries out community-based work, research, and advocacy to engage men and boys in gender equality; to prevent gender-based violence and violence against children; to reduce homophobia; and to empower and achieve the rights of women and girls. Promundo also serves as global co-Chair and Latin American coordinator of the MenEngage Alliance, a worldwide network of NGOs and UN agencies working to engage men and boys in gender equality, and MenCare, a global campaign to promote men’s involvement as caregivers.
In just a few words, Gary, who are you?
I am an activist-researcher on engaging men in gender equality and violence prevention.
Activist-researcher: I like that! Tell me more about your work in the world.
We’re trying to engage men as allies in achieving gender equality, overcoming gender injustice, and reducing violence both in high-violence regions and in post-conflict settings like Rwanda.
You can say that masculinities are destructive in their essence or you can see masculinities as socially constructed and open to change. We tap into voices of peace and resistance, finding men and women who believe in equitable and diverse versions of what it means to be men and women. Wherever we start, in any part of the world, the first process is mapping the voices in the community, however weakened they may be, who strive to build peace and, particularly in our case, to transform violent and homophobic versions of masculinity. Then we enhance their voices, so we’re always building on the strength that already exists in that community and the new ways of living are not imported from outside.
I have family ties to Central America and Mexico and I spoke Spanish from a young age. I went into the Peace Corps in Honduras in the late 80s and started working with street children, trying to do family support so kids don’t end up on the street or in institutions where they don’t get the kind of care they need. In Honduras, stories were so often about the harmful behavior of men at the household level, whether drinking, migrating for work, or being drawn into the many conflicts, leaving women precariously holding things together. Our first wave of work was pointing a finger, saying something’s wrong with that, but we moved quickly to asking how can we change it so men also are empowered.
From there I moved to Rio, and as life happens, stayed 15 years. I had the opportunity to meet some really interesting community workers and activists and I was very taken with the Paulo Freire approach of consciousness raising and empowerment. Working in the favelas in Rio, I got interested in men’s reactions to the drug traffickers and how the traffickers were vying for the hearts and minds of young men. I saw that even young men who didn’t participate in gangs were rooting for the home team, for “our gang,” but I also saw that the gang culture was the minority and there was a silent majority of young men who wanted to be anything but gang members and who were open to new ways of being men. It was easy to turn on a microphone and get the macho and the homophobia, the “gotta put my girlfriend in her place,” but these voices were co-existing with voices for justice. I wondered, how could we design programs and carry out advocacy around these positive voices?
So when I moved to Brazil, I found a very interesting moment. It was the post-dictatorship and a progressive policy environment (particularly following the 2003 inauguration of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva), with a vibrant civil society emerging, and I wanted to be part of applying that new energy to engaging men.
Tell me what it looks like when things are working at the community level.
I’d refer to micro-communities. The settings where we work in Rio are favelas, some with 120,000 people, some 400,000―big settings. The ability of our initiatives to transform life in those contexts is both vast and limited. We work with a cohort of usually young men and young women who become peer outreach workers or community activists, building an approach for change together. We’ve developed a Program H for men (H for homens in Portuguese and hombres in Spanish) and a Program M for women (for mulheres in Portuguese and mujeres in Spanish) to do consciousness raising and engage other community allies. There’s a big focus on gender and violence, how we construct these gender norms, how we construct gender equality and gender inequality and how we can achieve change collectively. There are activities with parents so you engage men as early as possible, prenatally when you can, around equitable childrearing, nonviolent, nonsexist childrearing, always understanding the context people live in―understanding that parents use violence not because there’s some evil streak in them but because of the pressures in the environment. Here’s a mother who wants to bring her nine-year-old son in from outside, where bullets are flying. She’s afraid, and sometimes a slap is faster than words. We’re going to help that mother find sources of strength and then work collectively with others in the community, so the bullets aren’t flying.
It’s working at the individual level and also reaching out to create networks of support, both formal and informal―whether it’s a day care set up by the city or one in a woman’s home; a sports league run by the city or one the dads set up―trying to connect up the services and supports that exist for families and improve life in the community. We’re often doing just one or two, given the complexity of it, but ideally we’re doing it on many levels simultaneously and also advocating with state, municipal, and federal governments to introduce alternate norms and change the service delivery structure so that policies support the change we seek.
Here’s an example: The Ministry of Health has a men’s health initiative at the federal government level that has adopted our approach, so now they have a program around engaging fathers. We say, here are radio and video spots you can use. We go to the Secretary of Human Rights and we say, here are the things we have done, from t-shirts to magazines to communications. Take it, put your logo on it, it’s yours! At the same time, we continue to work at the community level.
What is your greatest fear or concern? What frustrates you?
Just one? [smiling] Well, there’s growing attention within the women’s rights field to the need to engage men as gendered, as shaped by gender norms. A big concern for me is that this has to be more than a fad―Rah Rah Rah and let’s go on to the next thing, without appreciation for the revolutionary aspect of this work. I want to see real transformation of men and masculinities fully embraced, not just inviting 5, 10, or 20 men who already get it to sit on a panel somewhere or talk to other men who are already convinced.
If there has been a revolution in the lives of women, then there has to be one in the lives of men. We want to make sure that this revolution goes to the roots to patriarchy.
The international development field can be fad-driven, and results-driven in a short-term way. Deep cultural and structural change can get lost in the shuffle. So today, that’s the biggest one. Tomorrow I might say something different.
To take on this mountainous task, what is your greatest personal strength?
I think it’s my ability to bring people together, which I like to think is now an institutional quality for Promundo. After years of doing this, we’re pretty proficient at doing the work together, and I hope I try to live that as the executive director. Our US mindset is so focused on the individual! There needs to be less I and more we. All our key initiatives are multi-partner. They don’t even get off the ground without lots of consultation at the community level, with partner organizations, and with government officials.
My personal belief is that there is no way of doing it alone. With the ambitious mission of transforming masculinities, we must work in partnership.
What is the accomplishment that gives you the most satisfaction?
I could look at the political level, where we have helped get the issue of men as partners in gender equality onto the UN agenda, whether that’s in the Commission on the Status of Women or written into country-level agreements. We have been a key voice with other partners in making that happen.
At the end of the day, though, even bigger is seeing what has happened in the lives of the young men I interviewed as part of my dissertation in 1998-99, who became our first generation of community activists. I’ve seen them over the years, seen them become involved fathers, including some who were involved in gangs at one time. They’re showing in their lives every day that there are other ways of being men; you don’t have to prove your identity by carrying a gun and doing what the gang does, or using violence against a partner. Seeing where they are―those seeds we planted way back when, that are continuing to multiply―is every bit as much a personal motivator as seeing things happen at the global level.
What is the greatest challenge you have met in your life?
It’s creating and holding on to a sense of optimism in communities that have been for years subject to poverty, the negative side of globalization, the insidious effects of violence―whether it’s the direct forms that involve weapons, or the indirect forms, the neglect by policymakers, those who hold the power and resources. It’s overcoming pessimism and trauma, helping people believe there is hope at the end of it all. In Rwanda, or in Brazil, it’s how to believe that change is possible after so many years of sometimes horrendous violence and sometimes just amid the daily drip of violence; that we can change power structures and norms, especially the toxic ways we too often model what it means to be men.
What has surprised you the most in your work?
How easy it sometimes is to topple those rigid, machista versions of what it means to be men. We often have the notion that these are so deeply ingrained and culturally built, and of course they are. It can be surprisingly easy, though; it just takes a nudge at times, at the individual level and even at the collective, to get men to admit that the tough guy thing with the violence and all the sexual conquests never worked, that it’s all a sham, or to get a health sector official to say, ‘Of course we need to involve men.’
The major challenge, of course, is getting that change up to the policy level and getting those policies implemented well, so health providers, for example, treat men and women both as parents who want the best for their children, treat men as allies in the raising of children. It’s changing norms to say it’s not OK to use physical punishment; there are other ways to raise children. It’s harder at those policy and societal levels.
What is your most audacious goal?
That we achieve 50% of the world’s caregiving being carried out by men. When that happens, when we get men connected to the daily intimate joys and dirty work of caregiving in all of its forms, whether for children, or parents, or partners, our psyches change; we believe differently. It’s what militaries and armed groups try to take out of men: the intimate connections and radical solidarity with others that can reduce our use of violence. Engaging men in caregiving throws off the equation and makes that violence much more difficult to use. Of course we must continue all our other work to hold men accountable for their use of violence, and to insure that the justice sector does its job to protect women and all who experience violence, and reduce income inequalities, which are also a form of violence. But caregiving by men is to me a major untapped resource.
The corollary, of course, is that half the positions of power will be held by women, and that will be the other side of the revolution.
We have to be careful not to over-simplify. Men or women can be involved in the care of children and bring them up in regimented or violent ways. It’s not just about numbers, but it’s exciting to think about what’s possible in a world where equality at home and in our intimate lives is matched by equality in the outside world.
It certainly is! Most of our readers are women. What can women do to support this work?
Again, there are levels and levels. Increasingly I want women leaders, in particular, to see men as allies in gender equality and not as adversaries. To be bold enough to get beyond the adversarial―the zero-sum game. At the household level, women are key to changing the mindsets of men. It takes nudging and cajoling. This can be slow work, but it is happening. Men who get involved in this work have women in their lives who say ‘I believe you can do this’ and who expect it, who help the children know it’s not always ‘Mommy, Mommy.’ There’s a flow back and forth of who shares what, shifting those meanings and shaping the daily micro-practices. At the same time all of us need to be involved in overcoming rigid notions of gender, including homophobia and the other injustices that shape gender relations.
Again, we all need to realize that it’s not a zero sum game, not a contest, a fight over the dinner table. That’s what the world wants to put us into: me versus you, my rights versus your rights. The interesting part is doing it as cooperation; as our careers and our causes, not mine versus yours. It doesn’t mean either partner losing your individuality or being in the shadow of the other. All our Venn diagrams have to have a big OUR in the middle, individually or collectively, whether it’s gender equality or achieving peace.
We as researchers have to gather the data and count the minutes. That’s our job, but that’s not what home life should be like. We want to find ways to do this where everybody wins.
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