‘Readings in Nonviolence’ features extracts from our favourite books, pamphlets, articles or other material on nonviolence and related areas, or reviews of important works in the field (suggestions and contributions welcome)
Men in action on gender-sensitive active nonviolence
By Rob Fairmichael
Having reached three score (but not ten) years, I have had many profound experiences in my life, but one that certainly stands out is being involved in a sandwich course run by the Women Peacemakers Program (WPP) in the Netherlands and Philippines in 2009-10. Nineteen men came together from seventeen countries for two periods of a fortnight, with work to do at home in between, on the topic of gender and nonviolence (“Overcoming violence – exploring masculinities, violence and peace”). It turned out I was the only ‘Western’ participant on the course, the magic words ‘Northern Ireland’ (conflict zone) earning me a place, other participants being from Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. It was a fantastic experience. I wrote up the first half of the course in these pages, NN 176.
WPP published this year (May 2013) “Men and Women working as Partners for Gender-Sensitive Active Nonviolence” with thirteen of the men involved reflecting on their lives and on their work since this training, plus comments by women peacemakers. The full publication is available Here . Also see the general WPP website. WPP is based in The Hague/Den Haag. WPP’s monthly newsletter, Cross the Lines, is available on the website. The following extract is used by kind permission of WPP, and of my brother Ruben Reyes Jiron himself.
I know these men and I find their experiences and work very inspiring. Trying to work out whose piece to use in this ‘Readings in Nonviolence’ slot was a difficult decision because I could have used any of them. I intended in this introductory piece to refer to some of their achievements, many extraordinary, in war-torn, post-conflict and other countries, some particularly associated with machismo, but I realised I couldn’t do that without making this introduction inordinately long, and it is meant to be an introduction rather than an article. I went with Ruben’s piece not only because of what it says and portrays but based on its relevance to Ireland. No, Ireland is not Nicaragua, Northern Ireland was never Nicaragua, but some parallels stand out. Another comment I could make is about the role of in-depth training, learning, and reflection in ‘moving things on’; WPP was seeking to build male allies in the work and I think they really succeeded.
There are many issues to do with gender and violence but the straightforward link between masculinity and violence is not one that men in this part of the world have dealt with. So I feel that we can learn from Ruben’s account below, and if you are interested in the topic I would recommend reading the whole publication, reference above. So over to Ruben – but if you are interested in work on masculinity and violence in Ireland, INNATE would be interested to hear from you, and there are a couple of organisational links with Ruben listed at the end.
by Ruben Reyes Jiron – Nicaragua
Ruben Reyes Jiron lives and works in Nicaragua. He has a BS in Psychology from Iowa State University (USA) and a Master’s degree in Violence and Mental Health from the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA) in Nicaragua. In Puntos de Encuentro, he is a member of the Capacity Building and Networking Team (LIDERARTE) and he has a great deal of experience as trainer in a leadership training program for young people, involving dialogue across differences in gender, age, ethnicity, sexual identities, etc. He is also one of the founders of the Association of Men against Violence in Nicaragua, and has about 20 years of experience in gender work with men. As part of his work with Puntos de Encuentro, he is currently a member of the Coordinating Committee of the Masculinity Network, a coalition of more than 20 organizations working in the field of gender and masculinity in Nicaragua.
When I decided to participate in the WPP ToT [Women Peacemakers Program / Training of Trainers] on gender-sensitive nonviolence and masculinities, I already was an engaged activist and practitioner in gender and masculinity work. Most of my work on masculinities focused on sexual and reproductive health and rights, domestic violence, and HIV/AIDS prevention. Issues such as peace and conflict transformation were not included within my approach to masculinities. I wanted to explore this new area and learn more about the link between gender, masculinity, and peace work.
The link between masculinities and peace is relevant within the context of my country, Nicaragua. Not too many years ago, we were a society destroyed by a civil war. My teenage years took place within the context of this war. We had a revolutionary Sandinista government, which came into power after overthrowing the Somoza regime and ending its 40-year dictatorship. Within the first year of the Sandinista government, many of the surviving soldiers of the former Somoza army and other right-wing political leaders organized themselves in a contra-revolutionary militia (the Contras). The Contras were politically and financially supported by the US government.
In order to fight the Contras, the Sandinista government drafted a law for mandatory military service, forcing men aged 18-25 to serve in the military for two years. Since we were in a state of war, serving in the military meant being willing to fight and to put yourself at risk. In order to make this law appealing to young men, the Sandinista government used traditional gender discourse in their strategy: “By joining the Sandinista Army and serving your country, you will become a real man.”
Even though I felt supportive of the Sandinista government at that time, I was not willing to fight in that war. Nonetheless, as a young man, I was legally obliged to become a soldier. So I did join the army, but I asked to be trained as a military nurse instead of a soldier. Serving as a nurse in the army made me feel good. I thought that taking care of the wounded and ill soldiers was a very useful thing to do, though at the same time, I also felt “not man enough”, as I was not willing to risk my life in order to defend my country. I was afraid to fight. I felt ashamed of myself and carried this guilt with me for many years.
My experience shows one of the most visible ways masculinity is associated with violence and war in Nicaragua. In addition, Nicaragua has a strong culture of machismo and a well-established patriarchal system. Within the machismo culture, most men grow up believing that we are superior to women and that we deserve more. An important element is the normality of men using violence against their partners. National studies have shown that one out of every two women have been beaten by their partners at least once in their lifetime.
Violence associated with masculinity is also related to the inability of men to express their feelings in a nonviolent manner. Within this machismo culture, men are taught that they should not cry or feel scared. A man should be as strong as a rock. Should he ever feel something, he can only feel anger and he should destroy whatever or whomever he’s angry with. As you can imagine, in a country that has been through several wars and natural disasters, people have been through a lot of pain. If men can’t express these feelings of pain and sadness in a healthy manner, they might start to behave violently.
I have experienced the violence of men against women in my private life. At age 11, my father was physically violent to my mother. No doubt my father was a traditional, patriarchal, working-class man, but at the same time, he was also quite a sweet man. He was actually unable to hurt anybody at all. So, how could he do that to my mother? I was angry with my father for many years because of this. This experience led me to think there was something wrong with regular guys like my father. As a result, one of the first things I decided was that violence and masculinity did not have to go together. I could learn other ways of living my life as a man.
During the Sandinista Revolution, men and women worked side by side in the struggle for social justice. Certain women became revolutionary leaders themselves and fought against the dictatorship. Many other women became activists in the social movements supporting the revolutionary government. Some of the men learned to work in partnership with them. Yet, most men continued to frame women within traditional home-related roles, demanding unconditional support from them.
Those of us who learned to relate to women as partners also learned to listen to them. They taught us that gender-based violence is a power issue embedded within the machismo culture. We realized that, in order to build an egalitarian and peaceful society, we had to tackle our culture of machismo. As men, we needed to become allies with women in order to challenge this culture. This meant changing traditional gender relationships and roles and giving up our privileges, so that we can together create a space for alternative ways of being a man and a woman.
I am an active member of the coordinating body of the Masculinity Network for Gender Equality (REDMAS), which is an alliance of more than 20 organizations promoting men’s and boys’ involvement in challenging machismo and patriarchy. REDMAS is a network that includes both men and women working together. As REDMAS, we have organized several campaigns targeting boys and young men. Our first campaign’s slogan was “Acting as a sexist man isn’t cool” and our current campaign’s slogan is “You are my father.” It targets young fathers (under 30 years old) to help them become caring and supportive with their children.
With my participation in the WPP’s ToT on gender-sensitive active nonviolence, I wanted to learn more about peace work and to be better able to link it with my gender and masculinity work. The ToT was a constructive and engaging experience. Both the organizers and facilitators had prepared a very rich, interesting and fun program. With a participatory methodology, the facilitators conducted sessions on gender, feminism, masculinity, and active nonviolence. The facilitators were very good at helping the group to create a safe and caring space for everybody. They also provided a good role model for how men and women can work together as allies.
Together we learned that patriarchy is a universal system, and within this system men learn that they are supposed to be superior to women and entitled to privileges. The patriarchal way of behaving as men is also hurtful to men, because they are supposed to toughen up and to deny and repress any human feelings of vulnerability they might experience. We learned about the need to engage in dialogue and build alliances with women, so that we can work together in the creation of a world of peace and equality.
Through the training I learned that some of the work that I was already doing was not only gender work, but also peace work. For instance, in several of the activities of Puntos de Encuentro, like a youth camp, we are helping young people to engage in dialogue and to build alliances across differences. This is a useful and constructive way of dealing with violence, discrimination, and conflict. We are currently also including conflict transformation and nonviolent communication exercises in our own training of trainers sessions.
Being part of such a diverse and international ToT setting was really inspiring and eye-opening to me. From my fellow ToT participants who live in Muslim communities and in Arab countries, I learned they had many problems with how Western societies are producing and reproducing stereotypes of Muslims and Arabs as savages and terrorists. I could relate to their feelings. As men from developing countries, we have the same experience with negative stereotyping and discrimination by some people and institutions in the developed world. We also talked about the fact that men have manipulated religion to exercise and justify violence against women. However, religion can also provide a ground for men to learn to respect women and to promote a world of peace.
I know there is still a lot to be learned because active nonviolence has a long history as a tool in the struggle for peace and justice. As I continue to learn, there are great challenges ahead of me. Nicaragua’s history is filled with fighting and violence, as well as authoritarian rule by those in power. Even now we are dealing with an authoritarian and oppressive government. Within this context, using violence in the struggle for peace and justice is always a temptation because we, the Nicaraguan people, have not learned much about active nonviolence. It is not part of our history. There is a lot of work to do here.
What is most important for me is that I now feel connected to all those men that I met at the ToT. I know that they all continue to be engaged in social justice issues, and that some of them are constantly putting their lives at risk. Despite the risks, they are committed to active nonviolence and continue to include a gender and masculinity approach in their peace work. I feel inspired by my fellow gender-sensitive active nonviolent men. I just feel inspired by those guys.