Promoting healthy masculinities is key to gender equality. But how do we achieve this?

By Rodrigo Barraza García | March 5, 2021 | The Americas | Gender Equity

This article was originally published on Girls Not Brides’ blog. It is also available in Spanish.

Rodrigo Barraza García reflects on his experiences working with boys and young men to promote healthy masculinities and prevent gender inequity.

Around the world, gender-based discrimination – that is, social norms and stereotypes that privilege men and undermine women and girls – creates barriers to girls’ education and independence, the unequal participation of women in social, economic, and political spheres, and gender-based violence, including child marriage.

The negative impacts of gender-based discrimination don’t only affect women and girls. A patriarchal model of masculinity based on violence and domination also reproduces and deepens issues that affect boys and men, such as bullying, depression, harassment, and child marriage.

To encourage healthier, nonviolent forms of masculinity that foster characteristics like empathy, care, and respect, social attitudes related to dominant masculinity and gender roles need to be positively transformed.

At Global Fund for Children (GFC), we’ve seen more and more grassroots organizations, donors, regional networks, and other community actors develop gender-transformative initiatives. These efforts have created new spaces for boys and young men to reflect on the impacts of harmful masculinity within their families and communities.

We know that, in order to achieve gender justice for all, boys and men need to be part of the solution, acting as allies in our work for women’s and girls’ rights.

But … how do we achieve this?

A young man participates in a reflection space in a healthy masculinities circle.

A reflection space in the healthy masculinities circle promoted by youth organization OYE, El Progreso, Honduras. © OYE Honduras

Through my work managing a GFC initiative to promote healthy masculinities and gender equity in Latin America, I have come to collaborate with diverse organizations that want to work with boys and young men to advance gender justice, but don’t know how to start.

How do we keep the boys involved? How do we organize the sessions to spark social change? These are the questions I hear most often.

There are no magical solutions, of course.

But, after more than seven years of promoting safe, intimate spaces for boys and young men from different regions, backgrounds, and contexts, I do have some guiding principles to light the fire of social transformation:

1. Healthy masculinities are not a moment of training, they are an individual and collective process for community wellbeing.

Often – and especially when working with boys and young men – institutions and organizations reproduce adult-centred attitudes and try to “teach” young people how to be better men (as if we had all the answers). In this way, we transform gender into a “workshop” to transmit knowledge and concepts that are too abstract and distant from participants’ lives.

Although it’s important to review concepts and definitions related to sex and gender, it’s equally important to invite children and young people to reflect on the realities, challenges and violence they experience every day.

2. Promoting healthy masculinities needs to be a process sustained by care and joy.

Reflecting on our lives and the violence we as men have perpetuated and experienced can be a painful process. It isn’t easy to examine ourselves and recognize our mistakes. So, we need to build spaces based on respect and care where we can truly open up and address these issues.

Young men participate in an activity during a masculinities and youth meeting in Chiapas, Mexico.

Young men participate in an activity during a masculinities and youth meeting in Chiapas, Mexico. © Global Fund for Children

Throughout this process, we must recognize progress and identify setbacks, make room for all possible emotions, and identify opportunities for laughter and play.

Incorporating art, play and creativity into our interactions allows us to access the world of boys and young men, and connect with them in a deeper way. At the same time, we can try out new ways of being and connecting as men, and plant the seeds of a better world.

3. Healthy masculinities start with the individual.

Generally, I’ve had most success when I structure a session on healthy masculinities around three key moments, introduced by the following questions:

Diego, a young Tzeltal Indigenous member of the Chiapas Indigenous Coalition of Migrants, participating in a masculinities and youth meeting in Chiapas, Mexico.

Diego, a young Tzeltal Indigenous member of the Chiapas Indigenous Coalition of Migrants, participating in a masculinities and youth meeting in Chiapas, Mexico. © Global Fund for Children

In this way, we can foster gender justice and contribute to ending one of the largest global pandemics we face today: violence against women and girls, of which child marriage is one manifestation.

The promotion of healthy masculinities, which begins internally, can then become social wellbeing.

4. Promoting healthy masculinities is not only something you do, but also something that defines you.

Facilitating a space for promoting healthy masculinities requires responsibility. It isn’t about “transmitting knowledge” or “being an expert,” but about creating a safe space for shared reflection and continuous learning. As facilitators, we must fully commit to the group to build trust and collective dialogue. We must be the first to share, reflect, and learn. And we need help from our peers to continue doing this.

Because personal actions send the strongest message, facilitators must embody their values, serving as role models by building better relationships and removing violence from their own lives.

There is still much to do, but at GFC we’re committed to supporting and learning from the local organizations we partner with. These organizations – in countries like Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico – are creating safe spaces for boys, developing youth-led and culturally-based programs, and promoting comprehensive sexuality education to achieve gender justice.

All of us can be part of the change. And I’m glad to see that boys and young men are playing an active role.

For more information on working with boys and men, see Girls Not Brides’ brief on male engagement in ending child marriage.

Header photo: Reflection space in the healthy masculinities circle promoted by youth organization OYE, El progreso, Honduras. © OYE Honduras

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