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NICARAGUA: Machismo Just Isn’t Cool

José Adán Silva

MANAGUA, Oct 23 2010 (IPS) - As he left a workshop in the Nicaraguan capital about gender equality, Alejandro Silva was forced to confront a show of machismo, ironically, with his fists. He was attacked by classmates who taunted him that he was gay.

Nicaraguan schoolboys in a workshop on masculinity and gender equality. Credit: Courtesy of REDMAS

Nicaraguan schoolboys in a workshop on masculinity and gender equality. Credit: Courtesy of REDMAS

“It was a mistake, I lost control,” admitted the 16-year-old, still embarrassed. It happened last year as he was leaving a seminar titled “New Masculinities and Gender Equality” at a public school in Managua.

He crossed paths with a group of boys from his school, and endured as they shouted obscenities at him and said he was “homosexual and girly.” But he forgot the non-aggression he had learned in class when the teenagers began harassing his girlfriend, who was with him, and when they tried to mark his face with lipstick.

He had deeply ingrained in his mind the workshop’s lesson: “men and women are equal, and to think that men are superior is called ‘machismo,’ and machismo only leads to violence.”

But it came to blows, and although he won the fight, he was left so demoralised and ashamed that he quit going to the workshops that year. Only now has he returned — to a different workshop with similar goals that is taught in his neighbourhood, in a poor district in eastern Managua.

Silva participated with other adolescents at his school in the educational campaign “Ser machista es balurde,” using the Nicaraguan youth slang word “balurde,” meaning that attitudes of male superiority are “not cool.”

The programme is geared towards children and adolescents ages 10 to 15, promoted since 2007 by the Masculinity Network for Gender Equality (REDMAS).

More than 25,000 Nicaraguans have attended various gender equality programmes in the last three years and, like Silva, have started down the difficult road of transforming “machista” behaviours — theirs and others’ — in a society that is based on “traditional” gender roles.

Douglas Mendoza, head of training and alliances at the non-governmental Points of Encounter Foundation and REDMAS coordinator, told IPS that building a new vision of “non-machista masculinities” often clashes with traditional identities that have violent aspects, and those who participate in the programmes often face attitudes of rejection.

REDMAS includes 17 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and seven government institutions in Nicaragua. At the same time, the network is part of MenEngage, a global alliance of NGOs and United Nations agencies that include 500 members in Central America alone.

MenEngage conducts research and works to change policies in order to involve men and boys in the promotion of gender equality, and the health and well-being of children and women.

Mendoza explained to IPS that REDMAS has opened spaces to work especially with children, adolescents and young adults of both sexes, as well as with couples, in the formation of a new masculinity that incorporates ideas of gender equality.

The network has trained 1,500 “promoters” to bring the message to more than 25,000 children and youths across the country. Not just the “Ser machista es balurde” campaign, but also others like “Jalencia sin violencia” or “dating without violence” — again using a slang term (jalencia) that speaks to a younger audience.

The Nicaraguan experience has served as a model for other Central American NGOs, whose representatives have come for training in “new masculinity” projects to adapt to their own countries’ realities.

Attracting most interest are the “Ser machista es balurde” programmes and “school for parents” — gender-focussed training for young mothers and fathers.

Elisa Villavicencio, a 23-year-old woman from Managua, feels that she is a direct beneficiary of the responsible fatherhood campaign, after getting her partner to overcome his hesitation to attend the programme.

“In the beginning he told me that those workshops were for homosexuals, and that nobody needed to teach him how to take care of our daughter,” she said.

“Later, I convinced him to go, and the truth is that he has been changing. Now he even gives our daughter her bath and changes her diapers,” she told IPS, smiling.

These campaigns have the support of several international NGOs, United Nations agencies, Nicaraguan ministries and other local institutions, both public and private.

Ligia Arana, director of the interdisciplinary gender studies programme at the Central American University (UCA) in Managua, told IPS that finding new ways to construct masculinity is becoming a reality in the countries of the isthmus, despite strong resistance initially.

She noted that the starting point for her programme and all the other institutions involved is that “education is the fundamental basis for all human transformations.”

Seminars, courses and graduate degrees aimed primarily at men have contributed to overcoming “the machista viewpoint that historically has linked women’s rights to their biological condition, to biological determinism,” said Arana.

“That model, which situates the man above the woman as a superior being, has been falling apart, little by little, and today that model of traditional masculinity is in crisis,” she said.

A 2005 study by the UCA’s Sociocultural Analysis Centre, focused on Central America, found that in Nicaragua and the rest of the region men have undergone a change in viewpoints and attitudes about the traditional male role.

“Masculinity and Sociocultural Factors Associated with Paternity” was a survey of 1,200 men — single and married, rural and urban — about male representation and behaviour in relation to fatherhood, religion, nature, sexuality, reproduction, family and worldview.

The research found that 90.2 percent of the Central American males interviewed expressed agreement with the idea that men should help in household chores.

Sixty-one percent disagreed with the statement “Men should not express feelings or tenderness” and 96 percent agreed, “If a man impregnates a woman, it is the responsibility of both.”

One of the biggest public safety problems in Central America is gender and sexual violence, according to studies by the UN and institutions in the region.

The UN Development Programme’s report “Opening Spaces for Citizen Security and Human Development” in Central America, estimates that two- thirds of the cases of women murdered in the region are gender based. “Femicides,” as this type of crime is known, are now included in the national legal codes.

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