Audrey Anderson, Program Coordinator for Because I am a Girl, recently visited with youth in El Salvador. She shares her thoughts on her interactions with the young men she met with after a gender sensitization workshop.
Little boys are not born gang members. They are not born rapists or wife beaters or murderers. But somewhere along the way, they are taught that this behavior is acceptable. They begin to believe the romantic idea that gangs are protecting the villages. With the absence of role models, they begin to solve conflicts the only way they know how – through the violence they see every day.
The truth is that violence against girls continues to happen because we ignore adolescent boys. Perhaps we ignore them because we forget, or perhaps deep down we think that they are the problem. But when they have the chance to be part of the solution, they may thoroughly surprise us.
Recently, I visited one of our gender sensitization workshops which took place in Chalatenango, El Salvador. When I sat with a group of boys following the workshop, what surprised me was not their newfound respect for girls or their genuine commitment to ending violence against girls, although this was inspiring. I was shocked that the boys expressed relief in finally having the option to treat girls as equals.
“Now we are free,” a teenaged boy said. “I know that I don’t have to be the kind of man who hurts my sister.”
I guess I expected the boys to be dragged kicking and screaming into the workshops, or at least have to be bribed to show up. But these boys were ready for it – they had been waiting for something like this.
To be honest, “gender violence” is a euphemism for what many Salvadoran women experience. According to the latest Research Note from the Small Arms Survey, El Salvador has the highest rate of femicide in the world, 12 per 100,000 people. Sexual violence is even more rampant and insidious: it is not uncommon for a 13-year-old girl to be bullied into a sexual relationship with a 30-year-old man.
The machismo influence runs deep in the culture, teaching boys that they are expected to be violent, ruthless, and lecherous. Society is telling boys to be aggressors and telling girls to sit back and take it. An alternative is needed for both.
As a society, it seems we’ve let “gender” become synonymous with “girls” – too often programs aimed at fighting gender violence ignore and exclude boys. And this is a disservice to both boys and girls. Adolescent boys have arguably the most potential for real impact from gender programming. When boys understand the constructs of masculinity and the range of options for expressing it, we have seen that many will enthusiastically choose to protect and empower each another rather than tear each other down. What’s more, they will have the language and the confidence to speak out against violence rather than accepting it as normal.
A girl’s position in society simply cannot be elevated without boys as partners. Teaching a girl to tap into her own power is a wonderful thing, but if her male peers do not respect this power, then it is ineffective at best and dangerous at worst. Workshop facilitators in El Salvador have expressed concern for the safety of girls who begin to stand up for their rights in a hostile environment.
But there is a lot of work to be done. Fifteen-year-old workshop participant, Jonathan told me, “I didn’t realize what gender violence meant before – it just happened. But now I can see how girls are treated. I’m learning how to communicate when there’s a problem without yelling or fighting. But it’s difficult because there are only five boys in my school in this program. When we’re here, it’s easy to encourage each other, but at school when everyone is acting macho it’s really hard to resist.”
Jonathan expressed the desire to have the workshop made available to his entire school. I hope we can do just that because we owe it to Jonathan and his schoolmates who are not yet free from the false expectations of masculinity forced upon them. We owe it to every sister and partner and daughter these boys will have. And we owe it to their sons as well, that they might have the chance to grow up with peace as a viable option.