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Championing change for gender justice

Youth activists lead the way

Natasha Harris-Harb Youth Engagement Adviser, UNGEI
  • 08 Feb 2019
  • 11 min

Last year, our 16 Days Campaign focused on school-related gender-based violence (SRGBV) and the role that men and boys can take in standing up to and challenging SRGBV. When developing the campaign we were inspired by Plan International’s Champions of Change programme which aims to promote gender equality by engaging young people in their communities, especially young men. It equips them to identify and challenge gender norms at the root of inequality. The programme is running in over 20 countries and across all the regions in which Plan International works. We were able to glean insights into its impact through an interview with gender champion, Victor Jose Rodriguez from Colombia.

Victor-José-Rodriguez-Colombia-Plan

Victor Jose Rodriguez, 26, is proof that when young men become allies in the fight against gender inequality change can happen. From an early age he has been a leader and role model to young men in his community in Bolivar, Colombia. He is currently a Champions of Change programme facilitator and fierce advocate for gender equality. He describes himself as a cyber-activist whose creativity and critical thinking have enabled him to promote gender justice in all spheres of his life: family, community and workplace.

Victor sat down with Plan International to share thoughts and experiences:

As a young man, what inspired your interest in working to end violence against women?

I am the result of a form of gender violence. After my mother ended her relationship with her former husband, who mistreated her every time he got drunk and would hurt his own children as well as harming her, she trusted another man’s promises.

Like so many others, this man — my father — followed the social rules of sexual domination. All he really wanted was to have a good time with a pretty girl who was feeling lonely. She got pregnant and he left her as soon as he found out.

So what is a single woman, who is pregnant, who has three children and no support from her family supposed to do? She had already made her decision, which she saw as the healthiest, fastest and most practical for all concerned, for her, her boyfriend and for both their families: to have an abortion.

Well, as you can see, she didn’t succeed. Maybe I was meant to come into this world to change her life and the lives of many other women who — just like her — had repeated the same pattern. Since then she and I have experienced many situations of violence, need, abandonment and abuse together. However, she would always tell me: “It’s never right to hit a woman”. This was always her philosophy and this is how she brought me up. I think my mother has shaped me into the man she would like to have in her own life but has not yet found.

All the stories I hear about, which in one way or another are similar to what my mother went through, make me feel connected with the women involved and I feel empathy towards them. It’s as if I have some kind of need or compulsion to help improve the situation.

I believe that we have to do much more. We must put an end to the harmful gender norms, stereotypes and absurd beliefs that have only succeeded in destroying women’s dignity. This is the key to ending violence against women, to stop seeing them as sex objects, to do away with gender norms and harmful stereotypes, to educate boys and girls in an environment of peaceful coexistence and to transform society so that they may all enjoy the same rights and opportunities.

Why is it important for young men to defend gender equality and empowerment for adolescent and young girls and women?

It is of the utmost importance for young men to defend gender equality and women and girls’ empowerment because we cannot go on allowing them to be tortured, raped and even murdered. There is no justification for behaviour based on the beliefs of a sexist and violent society that has always sought to dominate and repress women. Women of all ages are human beings who should not have to hide in order to live their lives and express themselves freely. Women’s empowerment is the goal of the feminist movement, which is working toward peaceful coexistence, and this is an amazing and wonderful thing for men as well as for women.

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What kind of work do you do in your community to challenge harmful gender norms and stereotypes?

I am lucky that my work is about teaching boys, adolescents and young men about the importance of gender equality and women’s empowerment and we use football as a tool for achieving our aims. It’s actually very interesting to see how a traditionally male-dominated sport can be turned into a tool for inspiring hundreds of boys to think about ways of challenging gender stereotypes and sexist behaviours that affect the boys themselves as well as girls.

It’s a mutual learning process. Every single issue that we tackle together is a learning process for me: the concepts I discuss with them as well as the experiences we discuss amongst ourselves. It is a real challenge because we can never forget that we live in a society ruled by a sexist system.

What have you achieved and what barriers/challenges have you faced as a young man to end gender-based violence?

I am a mentor for the 120 boys I work with and seeing so many of them develop a commitment to gender equality and girls’ empowerment is one of my major achievements. I take the message beyond my workplace. I take that message with me everywhere I go. It’s been met with such positive reactions from my friends and relatives that many of them ask me to share this learning process with them.

Although it hasn’t always been easy, being able to take this message to everyone around me and for them to embrace it and become aware of the importance of gender equality has been very satisfying. Sometimes, however, the boys I work with have met with resistance from their own families, friends and schoolmates regarding these new ideas and practices based on gender equality, because changing years of domination and violent practices is not an easy task.

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What advice would you give other young men who want to do the same kind of work?

Never give up, don’t let yourself be influenced by the domination-based system that we live in. This can lead you to fail and when you’re a role model or mentor you can’t say one thing and do the exact opposite, because you’ll lose credibility. The system wants to prevent gender equality from being accepted and will use any opportunity to discredit these new attitudes in order to continue dominating and repressing girls’ and women’s dreams.

Find innovative strategies to attract people and to create spaces for reflection and raising awareness of the importance of gender equality and girls’ empowerment, and to encourage them to raise their voices at every opportunity and in every space where many people can be reached.