Leogane, Haiti — Several years ago, a lanky young Haitian named Erickson Elisma had a very different outlook on his relationships with women. He occasionally hit his girlfriend, although he claims they were usually “accidents.” He forced her to have sex with him, even when she declined.
For Erickson, 28, such behavior was just what men did. He had no idea he was participating in gender based violence against women.
Erickson lives in a town called Leogane — the epicenter of the 2010 earthquake that uprooted more than 1.3 million Haitians including Erickson and his son and girlfriend from their homes.
On a warm afternoon, I recently met Erickson at a CARE program site that focuses on addressing sensitive topics such as gender based violence through building community groups. After the earthquake, stories about horrifying rape and sexual assault incidents in the tent camps quickly dominated the media headlines. But long before the earthquake shook their communities, violence against women was already a problem.
We sat on a hill top under a wooden pavilion, where we caught a glimpse of a peaceful side of Haiti: the rolling green hillsides, a gentle breeze and the rhythmic hum of occasional motorbikes whizzing by. These are the peaceful moments that are often overshadowed by the overwhelming poverty, chaos and stench in the tent camps less than a half mile away.
Erickson shared how a year ago, he joined a “father’s group” consisting of about 25 men from the community, who met and continue to meet — every Wednesday to talk about violence against women. Once he learned about the warning signs and consequence of the behavior and how traditional gender roles limited both him and his girlfriend, he changed his outlook. “It’s helped me to see women are equal compared to men,” he said.
As the head of advocacy for CARE and a father of two children, I found in Erickson’s story yet another piece of evidence that engaging men and boys is necessary to achieving gender equality and putting communities on a path out of poverty. He told us his participation in CARE’s group helped him understand that sex without consent and hitting women was wrong. He said the program helped him see that women and men should both be able to earn and spend money, and that men should also share the responsibilities of looking after the children and that as equals they could work together to build a better life.
At my poverty-fighting organization CARE, we have programming that reaches over 122 million people, with a heavy emphasis on women and children. We know that deep inequalities between men and women are a major driver of poverty and injustice around the world. Poorer women and girls in most societies face multiple disadvantages due to discriminatory norms and practices in wage gaps, educational achievement, health, and access to finance and as a result are denied the opportunity to fulfill their potentials. Many of the women I met in Haiti face such challenges daily.
However, changing men’s and boy’s attitudes, behaviors, identities and relations is a key condition for progress on women’s and girl’s empowerment. Addressing gender-based violence requires the actively involvement of men and boys not only because they are largely the perpetrators of such violence but also because they act as community leaders, policymakers, service providers, advocates and change agents.
Research has shown that attitudes around gender are formed at an early age, internalized throughout childhood and adolescence and passed from generation to generation. So it’s heartening to see the transformation in Erickson, who is now raising a son of his own.
Today Erickson is a leader striving to end violence against women and girls in his community. He educates other men about the warning signs and dangers of gender based violence. He also encourages other young men and to join the “father’s group.” Perhaps, most importantly, he plans to live his life as an example for his son. When it comes to gender equity, after all, Erickson, his son and the other men and boys of Haiti hold half the solution.
David Ray, is the Head of Policy and Advocacy for the humanitarian organization CARE USA. This month, he traveled to Haiti, the poorest in the Western hemisphere, to meet Haitians affected by the earthquake. To support men like Erickson, please check out The CARE Action Network, or CAN, a group of CARE supporters working to educate our nation’s leaders about issues of global poverty. To learn more about CARE, please visit www.care.org.