Be a Man-Respect Women! Challenging Gender Norms in Bosnia and Herzegovina and across the Balkans

Arielle Juberg – Bosnia and Herzegovina – August 10, 2015

Arielle Juberg, a current PFMH/MSPH graduate student, conducted her practicum with the Young Men Initiative, a program in the Balkans that seeks to promote healthy lifestyles, reduce violence among young men, and prevent gender-based violence.

As a New Yorker, I’m used to keeping track of my time. Six hours of sleep, three hours at work, one hour on the subway; my days are neatly broken up into separate responsibilities and activities. When I read that Public Health and Humanitarian Assistance (PHHA) students were required to spend eight to twelve weeks in an international practicum, I tried to convert this into my hours-and-minutes mode of thinking. Unlike most other certificates at the Mailman School, which measure practicum activity by the hour, the PHHA certificate measures the weeks that students spend completing public health research abroad. Logistics may account for part of this difference; it can be difficult to quantify ‘working hours’ when your job is interrupted by electricity outages or long trips through rural areas. Within a week of my arrival in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I realized that the difference between measuring ‘hours in the office’ and ‘weeks in the field’ is more than just numbers on paper. If we are seeking to contribute positive changes in another country and culture, we must seek meaningful and genuine interactions with individuals and communities outside the environment.

I arrived in the city of Banja Luka in May with few contacts and fewer leads on a place to live. With only ten weeks in the city, renting an apartment seemed unnecessary, while a long hotel stay would be extravagant. Luckily, I found a room to rent with a family whose members included a toddler (I’ll call him Ben). On my first weekend in Banja Luka, Ben, his mother, and I walked through the city. Banja Luka is the second-largest city in Bosnia and Herzegovina, with an estimated population of 200,000. The city is well-known for its parks and green spaces. We wandered into one of the parks so Ben could play. Almost immediately, he noticed a shiny blue tricycle by the playground. Ben is currently infatuated with anything with wheels and quickly claimed the tricycle as his own.  As he happily rode around the playground, the owners of the tricycle, who may have been 3 and 5 years old, took notice. First, they followed him, yelling for him to stop peddling. Next, the older one attempted to stop the bike and pull Ben off. He yelled at his brother to punch Ben. Finally, the younger one cemented himself in front of the bike, grasped the handlebars, and thrusting his head forward, snarled at Ben.

How did a 3-year old and a 5-year old learn to yell, intimidate, and punch? Why were these the first actions they took when faced with the loss of their tricycle? Even as an adult, their immediate and aggressive behavior frightened me. While it may be inevitable that children argue over toys at the playground, their behavior reflects the acts they’ve witnessed and the lessons they’ve been taught.

In many countries, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, boys are brought up to be tough, dominant, and strong. Showing emotions signals weakness, and dominance is determined through violent acts like yelling, bullying, and fighting. I saw this clearly reflected on the playground; when confronted with a problem, even toddlers resorted to physical and verbal violence. This pattern continues as boys get older, with the violence and its consequences growing more dangerous. Young men can be both the perpetrators and victims of violence. In a recent survey, young men in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, reported troubling levels of violence; 46% had punched, kicked, or beaten another young man in their life, 44% had humiliated a peer, and 46% had participated in a group fight in the past [1].

The harmful effects of a dominant masculine ideology go far beyond young men. Just as boys are taught to be strong and forceful, girls are rewarded for submissive and gentle behavior. These conflicting gender roles have been identified as one of the root causes of gender-based violence. Women may experience physical, sexual, or psychological violence when they disagree with a male member of the household or appear to challenge his authority. In a setting where violence is an established means of settling disagreements and establishing dominance, searching for a ‘reason’ for a specific violent act misses the point. When violence is a social norm, the least empowered members of society will always be vulnerable.

How do you change an established social norm? The Young Men Initiative, coordinated by CARE International with local NGO partners, seeks to reduce both interpersonal and gender-based violence by promoting gender equality and a positive, non-violent model of masculinity. The program has been implemented throughout the Balkans, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, Kosovo, and Albania. Through a series of interactive workshops led by facilitators, young men in high schools grapple with topics surrounding gender, gender norms, and violence. Early results show how the program can push back against established norms. In Kosovo, 69% of participants initially agreed that physical strength was a man’s most important quality; after the program, only 42% agreed with the statement- a statistically significant result [2]. Beyond the classroom workshops, the Young Men Initiative has launched Budi Muško (Be a Man) clubs in the high schools. The clubs, which include both young men and women, focus on combatting peer violence and gender-based violence while promoting knowledge of sexual and reproductive health. Budi Muško members plan awareness campaigns, host public events, and learn how to work with their peers concerning these topics. Through these clubs, young advocates work together towards a common goal and most importantly, take ownership of the campaign. In the future, they will be the leaders who work for a more equitable and non-violent society in the Balkans.

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Be a Man Club members from Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina raise awareness about the dangers of drunk driving (photo by Perpetuum Mobile)


Be a Man Club members in Belgrade, Serbia (photo by Center E8)

This is what I’ve learned about going abroad to work for eight to twelve weeks. You may fly to your destination without knowing a soul, but you quickly develop close relationships. While I was in Banja Luka, I could help to protect Ben from the bullies who would punch and hit him for taking a ride on a tricycle. But I wasn’t there for too long, and I can’t protect him as he grows up. By targeting norms surrounding masculinity and violence, the Young Men Initiative can change the society that Ben grows up in. Tricycles will continue to be appealing, and children will undoubtedly still argue over toys at the playground, but violence doesn’t have to be part of this experience.


Be a Man Club members from Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina participate in an event for International Men’s Health Week (photo by Youth Power)


Be a Man Club members in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina (photo by Association XY)


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