GENDES is a civil society organisation based in Mexico City that uses a gender perspective, with a focus on masculinity, to drive reflection, intervention, research, and advocacy. Its main goal is to promote and strengthen equitable and egalitarian relationships that contribute to social development, creating a just society for all.
Mexico is enduring one of the most violent periods in its recent history, and as violence spikes in general, so does violence against women and girls. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) has voiced growing concerns about a public security strategy that aims to tackle the organised crime 100,000 lives in the last decade. This strategy, together with ongoing corruption and impunity, has intensified an entrenched pattern of discrimination and violence against women, rooted in patriarchy and in minimising and ignoring this phenomenon.
In Mexico, seven women are murdered each and every day – a number that has not changed in years and that shows no signs of falling. One in every three woman over the age of 15 old has experienced at least one kind of gender-based violence – the most prevalent being psychological and emotional violence, often inflicted by their partners and family members.
Among its many projects to prevent and address such violence, GENDES works directly with male aggressors through re-education groups in several states of the Mexican federation, in two other Latin American countries – Panama and Uruguay – and in California, USA.
Re-education groups for men who commit violence
On four days each week, GENDES hosts 2.5 hour group sessions for men who have used violence against their partner. Two psychologists work with them to redefine their understanding of masculinity and identify their triggers. The sessions aim to dismantle their aggressive tendencies and teach them better ways to deal with their emotions so that they can build relationships based on respect and equality while, most importantly, avoiding violence of any kind.
At the start of each session, participants sitting in a circle introduce themselves and state whether they have committed any violent acts since the previous session. If they have, facilitators urge them to reflect on what happened by explaining what kind of violence it was – emotional, verbal or physical – and how they can prevent it happening again.
This is a space that is free of judgement: once a man has reflected on his actions, he asks for support, and all respond with the phrase “I’ll support you.”
The facilitators guide the men through several activities. Today, they introduce a new skill called ‘retreat’. Men are urged to ‘retreat’ when they are arguing with their partner and feel that the anger or frustration might tip over into violence. They ‘retreat’ for at least an hour to reflect on the situation, process their emotions and compose themselves, before a more productive – and safe – conversation with their partner.
One woman recognised the value of her husband’s retreats, noting: “He used to accuse me of being the violent one with him but not anymore. Now, he sometimes retreats and returns much calmer.”
Facilitators emphasise, however, that retreats should not be used to evade issues between the couple. Instead, they encourage men to explain this skill to their partners and their need to use it during disputes. Over time, the man should be able to deal with disagreements immediately, without the need for a retreat, understanding his emotions and expressing himself without violence.
While the men who have been coming to the sessions for some time are positive about them, newcomers can find it hard at first. One experienced participant recalls his early days, saying: “At first I felt disoriented. I thought that this space would not help me, that it was not for me.”
And while some take responsibility for their actions, others struggle to do so. One member says: “It is hard for me when they [the facilitators] confront me and criticise how I think, and I am working on that since I’m not used to talking about how I feel or expressing my emotions.”
With time and a willingness to resolve their issues, many men begin to feel differently. As the same man notes: “As the sessions went by I realised that [the other men] were also going through conflicts due to the violence they exercised. I realised the damage that I had caused my partner and I also knew that there was an alternative so that my family and I could be happy and feel safe.”
One man notes, that with the help of GENDES, “I strive to live in a process of continuous analysis that allows me to establish empathic relationships and accomplish good treatment.”
This approach faces many obstacles in attracting men to the sessions and keeping them coming. First, men may not even recognize the violence they inflict on women as violence at all, because it has been seen as normal behaviour within Mexican culture, as in so many other cultures worldwide. Mexican patriarchal masculinity is not open to recognising its dominance over women and those who are sexually diverse (men and women). As a result, gender-based violence is often protected, tolerated or condoned by an overarching environment characterised by violence. It usually takes a referral from a governmental institution, academic institution or some other civil society organisation – or an ultimatum from their partner – for a man to come to the group for the first time.
Second, men are not accustomed to being confronted in general, let alone about their irrational behaviour and violence. Traditional norms of masculinity have taught them that they are always right, and that a defensive aggressive attitude might get them off the hook if they are confronted. This makes their re-education an uphill battle, but the benefits of doing so are massive once they come to recognise the problems.
GENDES advocates for progressive public policies, through networking, alliances and connections within congress, decision makers and high-ranking civil servants. More than 560 men were reached by this specific programme in 2018 alone. And we are now working closely with many governments from Mexico’s Federal States, with at least six of them understanding the importance of this methodology and putting in place different routes to prevent and eradicate gender-based violence. The introduction of the group session in these states has been seen as a success, not just because of the dissemination of this approach, but because local and federal institutions are increasingly including a masculinities approach in their gender perspectives, and developing laws and infrastructure to work with men – as well as women – to build an egalitarian society free from all kinds of violence.
About the author
Yair Maldonado Lezama is an international relations (BA) and development studies (MA) practitioner with experience in a diversity of topics and in a wide array of contexts: gender equality, masculinities, youth, sexual and reproductive health and rights, always under the human rights umbrella. Having worked in Switzerland, Mexico and India, he is now Coordinator of the Public Positioning program in GENDES where he contributes to strengthen their efforts to mainstream working with men towards gender equality and eradication of violence against girls and women.