Promundo in Focus: Interview with Gary Barker

By David Michael Newstead
This article was originally published in the Philosophy of Shaving.

Gary Barker speaks at TEDx BarcelonaFor some time now, there’s been growing recognition of the important role of gender in international development as organizations work to improve the lives of women and girls in places like Nigeria and Afghanistan. More recently, there’s also been the realization that men are a critical part of that solution – especially as it relates to women getting an education, earning a livelihood, or being free from the threat of physical violence. But although it’s understood to be very necessary, actually drawing men into that discussion is easier said than done.

Fortunately, I was recently able to speak with the head of one organization that’s pioneering the way forward, helping to engage key populations on these issues. Promundo’s mission statement reads as follows: Promundo works globally to achieve a culture of nonviolence and gender equality by engaging men and boys in partnership with women and girls. The organization conducts surveys in 11 countries, provides trauma-informed care in post-conflict areas, and engages with fathers through a variety of programs meant to end the cycle of violence common in many parts of the world.

In April, I sat down with Gary Barker, the International Director of Promundo, to talk about his organization’s work and the state of gender in the world today.

David Newstead: Promundo is a fairly unique organization. How did it get started originally and how did you first become involved?

Gary Barker: I founded it on paper in 1997. Then, it was up and going by 1999. I’d done work for 10 years prior with street children and sexually exploited children in Brazil. And we kept talking about men, but there were maybe 2 men in the room out of 50 people. So, I realized something was missing, but how do we take that into programs and advocacy? It started with dissertation research on violent and inequitable versions of manhood and grew from there.

David Newstead: How have things gone since then?

Gary Barker: There’s steady and growing awareness in the women rights and development field that men need to be part of the equation. The question is – how? There’s a recognition that it’s necessary, but there are also sensitivities about maintaining the focus on women and girls as well as things like limited funding. That’s part of the reason Promundo started the MenEngage Network to coordinate with those doing like-minded work and to make it clear that we’re a pro-feminist organization. For men specifically though, we’ve seen higher dropout rates among boys, men die 6 years earlier on average, they participate in armed conflicts, face higher rates of suicide, homicide, and incarceration.

David Newstead: So, your organization has plenty to work with.

Gary Barker: Patriarchy, unfortunately, leaves a lot in its wake. But things like caregiving and fatherhood have been shown to inspire positive life changes for men, even former gang members.

David Newstead: A while back, I did this write-up where I asked women and men to say 3 words they associated with masculinity. Then, I listed and analyzed their answers. And I bring it up now, because no one said anything that had to do with weakness or emotion, even though men clearly have both of those. Really, every answer was a variation on the word “strength”. But I mean, even Superman had Kryptonite. And his girlfriend had a career of her own. Didn’t bother him.

Gary Barker: Of course, haha.

David Newstead: So in your view, what approaches have worked well over the last 18 years and what hasn’t when it comes to engaging men on these issues?

Gary Barker: What’s worked well? Building on men who already resist violent and destructive forms of manhood and turning the volume up on their voices. Going to places where men hang out, so fill-in-the-blank: schools, sports, prisons, the health sector. And engaging men together with women, so this isn’t a separate box for men.

What hasn’t worked? Public service announcements against gender violence. Men just turn away from stuff that assumes the worst of men, because men hunger for connections, not for causing harm to others. Engaging with men by themselves doesn’t work nearly as well as engaging men with women as well as community leaders. Then, of course, the thing that really doesn’t work is the one-off session. A single training. The one and only lecture in a classroom. There’s no embedding or progression or sustained interaction.

David Newstead: On YouTube, you’ve talked about the need to scale up your work from small-scale interventions at the community-level to larger public policy goals. What’s an example of what that effort would look like?

Gary Barker: In Brazil where we work, there’s now a prenatal protocol on engaging men, which involved buy-in from the Ministry of Health, training staff, etc. Then, we’re trying to get paternity leave. We got it introduced in the Brazilian legislature in 2007. Currently, there’s 4 months paid maternity leave and 5 days paid paternity leave. In 2015, this effort is alive again and that could become 20 days of paternity leave. That’s the kind of structural policy change we work towards.

David Newstead: Have you encountered any resistance to that?

Gary Barker: Businesses don’t like it. Then, there’s been a little bit of resistance from healthcare systems, because they’ve always got their hands full with their existing responsibilities.

David Newstead: So, do you ever just encounter blatant misogyny?

Gary Barker: The blogosphere makes noise. Then, I don’t know if you saw in the Washington Post recently, but there was an anti-feminist event in Detroit with 200 men (the First International Conference on Men’s Issues). In contrast, Michael Kimmel’s pro-feminist event in New York (the First International Conference on Masculinities) had 700. And our event in Delhi had 1,200. So, anti-feminist views do have to be contended with, especially as they relate to working men around the world who feel threatened economically. But just because things are difficult, feminism isn’t the enemy.

David Newstead: Promundo works in such a variety of contexts. How did you translate your original work in Brazil to other cultures like India or Russia or the Congo? Even the United States?

Gary Barker: Context matters tremendously. For instance, is it a post-conflict country? We always work with local partners. And we always start with a hefty amount of research. Then, we ask individual women and men as well as important community gatekeepers about the situation on the ground. And we map the resisters, the people who already want change.

David Newstead: What’s the most common problem you face?

Gary Barker: Sustainability. The short-term nature of funding and projects and the development field in general. Convincing funders and partners of the time it takes to achieve change. Obviously, poverty and injustice, but on a day-to-day basis, sort of this short-term vision of our funders and policy makers.

David Newstead: Based on your research and your experience, what would you say is the state of manhood in the world today? And do you feel positively or negatively about the direction things are going in?

Gary Barker: Well, 2 steps forward, 1 step backward. I do think there’s slow and steady progression. The younger generation gets it. And women are becoming more empowered at the workplace, in school, and in politics. The step backward is Neoliberal policies and their effects in different countries. Cutbacks on teachers and shelters, for example. Basically, men need to carry babies instead of weapons. But I would say I’m cautiously optimistic.

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