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CUBA: (Some) Men Renounce Violence Against Women

Dalia Acosta

HAVANA, Dec 6 2007 (IPS) - Orlando Berrios, 53, works over eight hours a day as a barber in the Párraga district in the Cuban capital, and shares household tasks with his wife, to the astonishment of their neighbours, who regard him as an “odd character.”

Berrios decided long ago to break with the machista pattern of behaviour that boys and men are trained to follow in this society because, he says, “it is built on lies and weaknesses.” However, his point of view is rare on this Caribbean island, where dramas of inequality and violence against women are played out behind closed front doors.

“I’m one of those who practiced silent violence. I don’t fight with my wife or hit my kids, but I think I am sometimes violent. I’m basically a good person, but I have a terrible temper,” Lázaro Berrios, Orlando’s 47-year-old brother, told IPS.

In statements to the magazine Enfoques, published by the IPS bureau in Cuba, psychologist Mareelén Díaz said that “people commonly think that family affairs, and particularly incidents involving violence, are issues that belong in the privacy of the home, even when basic human rights are being violated.”

Orlando and Lázaro learned at an early age to do homemaking jobs in their large family living in a low-income barrio on the outskirts of Havana. “It takes more courage to break with that violent machista culture than to remain engulfed within it,” said the elder of the two brothers.

But they were raised in an environment that taught them “a false concept of manliness,” according to which, “the more women you lay, the more of a man you are,” said Lázaro, who added that his history as a womaniser caused pain to others and himself.

The rampant sexism in this society persuades men that they are physically, socially and intellectually superior to women, which leads men to devalue and discredit women. It also impels men to compete with each other for power and success, and to hide their emotions and feelings at all times.

“We’re not superheroes, we’re just human beings,” Xavier Muñoz, coordinator of Nicaragua’s Association of Men Against Violence (AHCV), told IPS. “We should be aware of this, because we have families at home who don’t want a superman but a partner, father, brother or son who thinks and feels like a human being.”

“Taking on a sexist role not only leads to deterioration of our physical health and exposes us to deadly dangers, it also limits and even atrophies our personal development, and particularly harms our emotions and relationships,” says a document by AHCV, a non-governmental organisation.

Muñoz and Johnny Jiménez, of AHCV, facilitated the first Awareness-Raising Workshop on Masculinity and Gender Violence, organised by the Workshop for the Integral Transformation of the Neighbourhood in the Havana barrio of Buenavista and the non-governmental Oscar Arnulfo Romero Group for Reflection and Solidarity (OAR).

The event was supported by the international NGOs Oxfam and Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA).

The Nov. 27-29 workshop was attended by about 30 men from different neighbourhoods in the capital, including ordinary citizens who came out of interest, religious leaders, and social workers involved in local development projects and community action.

“In spite of all the Revolution’s programmes in support of women and in favour of gender equity, there is still an overwhelming amount of sexist education and domestic violence,” OAR coordinator Gabriel Cordech, who has diagnosed violence in society through a number of studies, told IPS.

“In order to attain a just society, as the government and (ruling) Communist Party intend, we think it is necessary to work for the elimination of existing forms of violence,” he stressed.

Although Cuba still lacks reliable statistics, the authorities have acknowledged the existence of domestic violence, which frequently takes the form of psychological and emotional blackmail.

In Jiménez’s view, “one of the great failings of our (Cuban and Nicaraguan) revolutions is precisely the lack of personal revolution,” because structural changes in society have been given precedence over the transformation of individuals’ behaviour and attitudes.

“Real revolution has to take place within each individual, every person, man or woman, so that social structures can change,” said Muñoz, who together with Jiménez has visited Cuba three times.

The men participating in the workshop committed themselves to analyse the issue in their homes, share their ideas with the community, raise their children to be peace-loving people who will forsake the traditional patterns of violence, rediscover fatherhood as an essential component of masculinity, and also re-read the Bible from a gender perspective.

To break the cycle of violence, “the first thing we have to do is realise that all men are violent, because of the way we are socially constructed,” said Muñoz. “We have to recognise that the basic cause of violence is the power I exercise, as a macho-man, to dominate and control women, nature, and everything around me.”

Jiménez said it was essential “to stop making excuses for violence, because as long as we continue justifying it, we’ll carry on thinking that it’s the only way to resolve conflicts.”

Orlando Berrios, on the basis of his experience as one who has renounced violence, recommended “remembering that our first home was a woman’s womb. The world is quite the opposite of what we were told.”

“One way to unlearn everything negative that we have assimilated is to start sowing a different kind of seed in the minds of the next generation of boys and young men,” said Berrios. “We have to start sowing another kind of behaviour, that is more human and more spiritual and will make us all freer.”

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