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ARGENTINA: Fighting ‘Machismo’ Is a Guy Thing

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Nov 10 2011 (IPS) - An original campaign led by men is getting thousands of men in Argentina to reflect on the abuse of power and commit themselves to helping eradicate violence against women.

The campaign is called “260 men against machismo”, in allusion to the number of “femicides” – a term coined for gender-related murders – committed in this country in 2010, according to statistics compiled from news reports.

The idea is to recruit well-known figures from different spheres, like politics, art, show business, the labour movement, the armed forces and religion, to get publicly involved in the campaign and urge men in their areas or their communities to discuss these issues and sign a commitment against violence.

So far this year, 29 events have been led by cabinet ministers, trade union leaders, and military and police officers, who have addressed subordinates, colleagues and others about the need to question “machismo” and its effects on the lives of women.

The commitment, which has been signed by more than 6,000 men, involves making a day-to-day evaluation of their “machista” or sexist attitudes as well as efforts to change them, and a promise not to be violent towards women.

“It was very interesting to see the defence minister (Arturo Puricelli) call together the joint chiefs of staff, and in a room packed with military personnel, talk to them about machismo, and get them to commit themselves to fighting it,” activist José María Di Bello, one of the leaders of the campaign, told IPS.

The campaign has even reached the federal penitentiary system, where the director spoke with his subordinates, and prison guards later posed for photos holding up signs with the names of the women killed last year by their partners or ex-partners.

“Women have always mobilised to defend other women; female legislators sponsor laws in their favour; feminists march against violence; but we men have always been absent,” said Di Bello, an activist with Efecto Positivo, a group that works for the rights of homosexuals.

“If we want to put an end to violence against women, we men have to get involved and protest against machismo, which is the father of all violence. We want to raise awareness and be part of the solution,” he said.

The campaign has been a success. During the Oct. 23 general elections, posters against “machismo” were put up in voting stations, urging voters to take a picture of the poster and post it on social networking sites.

Di Bello said the first prominent figure to respond to their idea was Labour Minister Carlos Tomada, who called together all of the staff in his ministry for a meeting.

Now many people are calling the campaign organisers to invite them to participate in events, he said.

The idea of getting men involved in the fight against machismo has a precedent, launched in 2010 on the initiative of Darío Witt, founder and head of the Casa Abierta Maria Pueblo para Mujeres, Niñas y Niños Víctimas de Violencia, a shelter for battered women and children.

The Casa Abierta, which provides shelter to 60 women in La Plata, the capital of the eastern province of Buenos Aires, has a hotline, and offers free legal services, training workshops and support for microenterprise.

“For 15 years we have been taking an integral approach to these issues; we have assisted more than 20,000 people, and have helped bring about more than 400 arrests (of men involved in domestic violence) and 1,700 evictions (of aggressors) from their homes,” Witt said.

But he said a change of approach is necessary. “I’m an odd fellow for my gender; many even call me a traitor for working on these issues, and feminists also look at us warily or marginalise us,” Witt said.

“But I think the machista culture perpetuates, legitimates and invisibilises the abuse of power, that’s why we have to take aim against that culture, although without the effective participation of men it will be impossible to change it,” he said.

With these ideas in mind, Witt called on men to demonstrate against machismo at the Obelisco, one of Buenos Aires’ best-known landmarks, in 2010.

About 150 men showed up, falling short of the target of 231, the number of “femicides” committed in 2009. But the demonstration helped give rise to this year’s project.

Di Bello and Alex Freyre of the Buenos Aires AIDS Foundation created the National Institute of Men Against Machismo and proposed a new campaign that would bring in public figures – an idea that helped get the message out more widely.

The National Women’s Council and other agencies and departments of the centre-left government of Cristina Fernández have backed the campaign, to help get it replicated in the provinces.

Freyre and Di Bello are known for their activism on behalf of people living with HIV and the rights of members of sexual minorities. They worked hard to get same-sex marriage legalised, and when the law was passed, they were the first homosexuals to get married.

IPS asked Di Bello if the idea to join the campaign against “machismo” was because, as part of a sexual minority, they also suffer discrimination from those who consider that gays do not fit the stereotype of masculinity.

“Both things came together,” he said. “The inequality around the question of sexual diversity has a lot to do with sexist stereotypes, but we also know a great deal about the vulnerability of women.”

Both he and Freyre have spent years working with HIV-positive women who express their difficulties in negotiating the use of condoms. “We have constantly heard these stories of violence suffered by women,” he said.

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