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RIGHTS-LATIN AMERICA: Men Have Gender Issues, Too

Dalia Acosta

HAVANA, Feb 28 2008 (IPS) - Although it may seem obvious, the need to involve men in the effort to attain gender equality is not clear to everyone in Latin America and the Caribbean, where quite a few people think it is an issue that mainly concerns the women’s rights movement.

The view that women are the only victims of the region’s dominant patriarchal system hinders serious consideration of the inequalities inherent in social constructions of masculinity, which oppress men with their rigid hierarchies, pecking order and relationships of dominance and submission.

“Until we scrutinise men’s social roles and the concept of masculinity, we’ll just be drawing circles around the women victims of the system,” Julio César González, the Cuban general coordinator of the Ibero-American Masculinity Network, told IPS.

According to its web site, the regional network organises regular “workshops with social workers, university students, police, prisoners, ethnic and racial groups, and local officials, with the common purpose of discussing major men’s issues and problems, and proposing alternative ways in which men can change.”

“If we engage men in the debate, we shall see that we are also victims of social constructions, although we in turn victimise women. There are inequalities among men as well, that is, violence is constantly reproduced and is constantly mutating in multiple ways,” González said.

The university professor, who embarked on gender studies over 20 years ago, is Cuba’s pioneer in masculinity research. When he put his ideas into practice outside academia, however, he encountered resistance from people clinging to the customary stereotypes. But he also developed more harmonious relations with his family and friends.

In his classes at the University of Havana, he finds that what makes the greatest difference is the opportunity for making personal and collective changes, “if there is sufficient motivation to do so. That motivation can come through reflection, a group experience, or something seen in the media or in some public place,” he said.

However, he warned, “an appropriate methodology must be used, otherwise workshops on masculinity can end up simply reinforcing ‘machismo’,” or producing a “sophisticated justification of inequality,” because of mistaken premises in the theory or methodology.

González acknowledges that in spite of the greater visibility of gender discourse in the media and in education, “men have not moved very far from their original position” on the issue. “I see no real changes, either at the local or the global levels,” he said.

According to Isabel Moya, head of the state Editorial de la Mujer (Women’s Publishing House), “the roles of men and women in Cuban society today are often hybrid, with new practices existing side by side with the old ones, because although men are participating more in fathering roles, they are still saying that they ‘help out in the home’,” rather than taking equal responsibility.

“This is an interesting time in Cuba, a period of reconstruction, but traditional values, value judgments and stereotypes about women still carry enormous weight. Fifty years (of socialism) are nothing compared to 500 years of patriarchal Judaeo-Christian acculturation,” Moya said.

In five decades of socialist government, Cuban authorities have promoted full integration of women in areas previously considered exclusively male preserves, which has led to a gradual decline in the social acceptability of machismo as the norm.

Data from the National Office of Statistics indicate that women occupy 43 percent of the seats in the National Assembly (parliament), and account for about 66 percent of the technical and professional workforce. By contrast, though, only 38 percent of top jobs in organisations and 27 percent of town councillors are women.

Tomás Rodríguez, a professor at the Technological University in Guayaquil, Ecuador who is married to a Cuban, has tried to create “fully democratic practices, with equal responsibilities, rights and duties” in his marriage and family life.

Rodríguez, 28, says he thinks it is important not to broach the subject of the battle of the sexes in a confrontational spirit, an approach which in his view is still all too prevalent. “It isn’t about exchanging power roles, but about developing dialogue, openness, respect and, of course, equity,” he said.

“We are not aiming at a society in which women have the dominant role, nor at exchanging a machista society for one that excludes men or confines them to the home,” Argentine journalist Carina Ambrogi told IPS. “We want equality, with differences that are freely chosen, not imposed.”

Ximena Cabral, a journalist and professor at the National University of Córdoba, in Argentina, said that “feminism is regarded as synonymous with radicalisation, and not with a proposal that emphasises politics, inequality, impunity, and all the other issues” raised by living in the strait-jacket of a stereotype.

Gabriela Romero, 33, also from Argentina, views the study of masculinity as promising, “because we think it is the way to draw men into this effort, but we cannot ignore the fact that women are more sensitive to gender issues, and in this area are definitely in the vanguard,” she told IPS.

“We are not trying to achieve superiority for women over men, but to help all persons, men and women, find ways of being fully themselves in society, whatever their sexual orientation, race or disability,” said Moya, a well-known activist for women’s rights in intellectual and press circles on this island. END/IPS/LA CA HD CR CS MD WO/TRASP-VD-SW/DA-BLC/DM/08)

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