Posted by: aasheim | October 22, 2009

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE A MAN…?

… And how can men and boys play a greater role in promoting gender equality, including the prevention of sexual and gender-based violence and HIV/AIDS? These were the questions discussed amongst UNHCR staff, partners and refugees in a regional workshop held in Nairobi last week.

As Moses Mbugna, the facilitator of the workshop, sees it; “the reality is that the majority of victims of violence are women and girls, and the majority of perpetrators are men”. Moses believes that this is a trend that has come about because boys themselves have witnessed violence and have been taught that violence and dominance is a part of their role as a man. Society and culture contribute to the construction of a male role in young boys, and to their subsequent engagement in violence as adults. In many cases, the behavior even reflects that of their fathers and grandfathers. Moses therefore highlights the importance of “constructing positive male roles for boys from a very early age, and ensuring the involvement of men and boys as key part of UNHCR’s programmes on sexual and gender-based violence and HIV/ AIDS”.

The social construction of masculine and feminine roles is also familiar to the workshop participants, who work in refugee camps in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Djibouti and Uganda. “In Somali culture, when a boy is born, a sheep is slaughtered, three gunshots are fired into the air, and the family members exchange greetings using the words shax shax (good news). When a girl is born, no celebration needs to take place”, says Abdirahman Farah, a Community Services Officer working in Ethiopia. Based on the identification of these social constructions, the workshop participants systematically analyzed how gender roles are assigned and constructed from birth, throughout childhood, adolescence, married life and old age, and how these roles can be linked to gender inequality and violence.

Those particularly vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence, as can be seen from the very high rates, are refugees. As Dr P. M. Njogu, the Senior Regional HIV/AIDS Coordinator at the UNHCR Regional Support Hub in Nairobi says, “discrimination and economic hardship often leads refugee women and girls to be involved in sex work”. Refugee women and girls are also frequently exposed to rape, as well as domestic violence perpetrated by their intimate partner. “Domestic violence all over the world is still considered to be a minor issue”, says Menbere Dawit, a Community Services Officer in from Kenya. “It’s therefore difficult for the community to interfere”, she says, “If you step in and do something, you get involved in that person’s family business.” The change therefore has to come from a shift in attitudes and a heightened awareness within the community.

Moses sees an opportunity to create this shift through increasing the involvement of men and boys. Based on his experience, men and boys who have previously been involved in violence are often good advocates and can contribute to actual shifts in attitudes and perceptions in a community. Young boys who have grown up with and witnessed violence should also be approached, he says, as “they can be sensitized and act as agents of change”. As a pedagogical theory says ‘’an effective school teacher is one who involves his most disturbing student in the class in disciplining others’’. The thinking is that the student will then feel empowered and become part of the solution. As Abdirahman suggests, “UNHCR can play this role by involving the perpetrators (in most cases men and boys) as the corner stones of its work against sexual and gender-based violence”.

From the three-day workshop, each country team created an action plan and a way forward to prevent sexual and gender-based violence in their context. The message was clear; Involve men and boys in the struggle. Because being a refugee man also means that you can play a great role in leading the way – towards safer, more equal and more peaceful refugee communities.

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