Gregory Jaquet works with men’s groups in Costa Rica to teach modern masculinity and non-violent lifestyles. This is what he’s learned.
Author’s Note: This post was first published in French on my own blog last january. It has been kindly translated by my good friend Bob Craven and published here. It also has been published on the French news site of Le Nouvel Observateur, Rue89.com. Read it here.
It’s decided. I’ll be working for the WEM Institute during our two years of volunteering in Costa Rica. WEM is an NGO that works with men to prevent violence against women. It discusses masculinity, sexuality, family life and relationships.
“They ordered my arrest. I knew the prison because I’m a cop. I went to jail and I cried. I experienced true solitude. The prison has become my world. I stayed in my cell 23 hours a day for nine months. At the end, I was afraid to go out. ”
David is 32 years old. He was released three days ago and speaks standing before seventy men. In the sitting room of the WEM institute in San Pedro, a neighborhood of downtown San José, the capital of Costa Rica.
David wears jeans and a dated training jacket. His hair is very short, he does not know what to do with his arms in front of all that audience. He seems uncomfortable. His lip trembles a little and his eyes are wet.
“A year ago, I was violent with my wife. I was sentenced to nine months. After the judgement, I came to WEM workshops for men to learn to manage my anger. I did 45 sessions and I understood many things. And then I screwed up. I broke the controlling order I was under. What I did, and I regret it, is to write a message to my wife’s sister. A message. And they ordered my arrest. ”
David now stands like a policeman before the meeting. Legs apart, hands on hips. He seems to look for his belt, his gun, his handcuff holster to pose. But he’s no longer a police officer. He’s exposed, alone. And he tells his story to the group of men who have chosen to become “better” and to renounce violence by participating in these workshops.
David sweats as he speaks breathing quickly, as if using a technique to hide his stuttering. Spanish is a language that conveys emotions easily, the shades are easy to explain And so the story of David hits the heart.
“In my cell there was a man who got thirty-five years for killing his wife. A murderer. I lived with him twenty-three hours a day for nine months. With a murderer ” David touches his nose, looks down and pauses. He is moved. The assembly is silent. Alvaro Campos, director of WEM who has initiated this session, approaches David and puts his hand on his shoulder. Encourages him to continue. “Toma su tiempo”, take your time, he says. David again, but his voice quavers… “It’s hard when you’re in the prison, you’re a police officer and the prisoners know it” Another pause, David sobs alone. In this room with green walls and trembling neon light, he looks like a sad child.
“I received no calls. All these sons of bitches who were my friends. Not a single call in nine months. My only contacts were my parents. I was released last Monday at 8 am. They picked me up at the door of the detention center of San Sebastian”. David says that the methods of the WEM institute helped him. He finishes. Alvaro Campos returns and applauds, thanking him for his contribution. The sitting men, moved, join in the applause.
Personal Development Group, for men only
“Buenas noches companeros” Good evening my friends. After this testimony, Sr. Campos speaks and organizes tonight’s meeting. “The Christmas season begins. This is not an easy time for those of you who are in trouble. Those who are separated, away from their children. We will try to help you to face these weeks, to help each other.” David has now returned to his seat among the others. Sr. Campos forms smaller groups based on the number of sessions attended by participants at Institute WEM and distributes them in the few rooms available.
Forced by the courts after an episode of domestic violence, forced by their wives or those who have simply joined of their own free will, these men seem representative of Costa Rican society. There are five or six pensioners, twenty people aged between 40 and 60 years old, twenty between 30 and 40 and some younger. Men dressed in sports clothes, blue or work attire.
They came to the Institute WEM which proposes to redefine masculinity, educate new people and prevent domestic violence. “Combating inequality in working with men,” says Alvaro Campos, director of the institute. Intra-familial violence is problematic throughout Latin America. The violent history (military regimes, revolutions and authoritarianism, in turn) and the patriarchal tradition create dynasties of violent men, with their wives and their children. The trivialization of violence due to the actions related to the flow of drugs and gang activities is also a cause of almost automatic recourse to intimidation and the exercise of power.
WEM has fifteen employees, psychologists and social workers and a network of men “Red de Hombres” – fifty volunteers – who work with the Institute to organize activities. Professionals have created a method to work with men on their values, their stories and causes them to offer to commit to be non-violent. This is to address the machismo problem and explain to men by which social construction they are forced to be powerful, virile, dominant and behave so that everyone notices it. Many workshops are organized to deal with these issues. Group sessions like this evening, anger management classes, management of marital separation, courses to learn to be a good father, sessions to discuss masculinity and the male role and so on. In addition, the Institute offers workshops for teenagers and young men who are invited during one-day sessions to consider their roles on the issue of equality and prevention of violence against women. Attendance is impressive. During my last visit to a group session, one hundred twenty men were present!
Campos says that women have changed “In Latin America as elsewhere, empowerment allows them to study, to claim the right to work, to live in society, share the chores. This emancipation was explained to Latin American women in schools, by mothers, aunts and sisters. The men, however, have received no update. There has been no one to tell them that something has changed in the distribution of roles and tasks. Their source of knowledge for how to behave in a relationship, is their father”. Young men from Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Mexico, imitate the actions they have seen – or experienced – during their childhood. “They fail in their relationships” says Alvaro Campos. “Many men who come to WEM do so because they fail in their relationships or to live as a couple, to keep their families. They lose their wives, their children and must pay maintenance when they earn almost nothing.” Costa Rican justice is modern. Intra-family violence is severely punished and home evictions, restraining orders and child maintenance payments are ordered by the courts every day in answer to the complaints of wives and mothers.
Machismo and modernity
Attitudes of Latin American men have not changed a lot since the time of the conquistadors. The exaltation of virility such as the exaggerated trappings of authority and men in the street behaving like cowboys. With their sons, men are often pushed towards crime. They use every opportunity to gain power and control. Men are still wolfwhistling women on the sidewalks, honking and sneering, winking. If all the women in these countries are not yet past the feminist struggle, the distance between the attitudes of these medieval and boulevards machos and modern women of the twenty-first century is great. Huge.
“Hopeless, many men understand that they need to learn something new. Where, then, we suggest they come to WEM. A wife, a sister, a daughter or friends who have heard about WEM on television or in the newspapers. A judge, a guardian, a social worker too, sometimes”, this is Alejandro talking. He is a psychologist and conducts workshops on anger management at the institute .
WEM is recognized by the Ministry of Education and the Costa Rican government as an NGO of “building peace”. The institute boasts a significant presence at the highest levels. “The National Bank asks us to train its employees in gender equality and violence prevention, the Ministry of Justice has commissioned us to instruct judges on gender issues and we work in universities,” says Alvaro Campos. WEM is also involved in the creation of a new sex education program in public schools. Campos said that this mission was hard-won because of the skepticism of the churches, who disapproved of the arguments of the Institute in connection with homophobia, extramarital sex and HIV prevention. In Costa Rica, more than 200 women every day, ask to the authorities to lay charges against a violent husband.
During this evening’s group last December, people are motivated to speak by the organizers. They encourage them to tell their stories, their mishaps. And when a participant faces the challenge, it becomes a therapy session. The rules are repeated at the beginning of the session: “Hablar de mis sentimientos, Escuchar a los otros” Speak what we feel, listen to others.
Alfonso is 28 years old. The facilitator gave him the floor because he does not know him. Yet it is his eleventh session. Alfonso says he was sent here by his wife because he is macho and authoritative. Alfonso was violent with his children and his wife complained of being terrorized. “How did you come to be like this ?” asked Alex, the facilitator. “At home. My grandfather raised me. He hit me with his belt and set his dogs on me when I didn’t do things the way he wanted” says Alfonso. He seems shy, his body closed tight. He holds his scooter helmet against himself and speaks with his eyes downcast. The facilitator does not let the confession drag on: “Now that you tell us about it, Alfonso, what do you feel? “. Alfonso cries silently on his chair. Now in the middle of the group arranged in a circle.
The group will focus on the story of Alfonso for forty minutes. The swarthy young man recounts slowly the violence he suffered as a child. Constant fear from that authoritarian grandfather that wanted to make him hard and strong. A man. The servility of his grandmother under the yoke of her husband. Assisted by facilitators, Alfonso has powerful words “pain in the heart, an open wound. I would tell my grandfather that I need love and no orders or punishments” Using other group members, facilitators depict a human sculpture. Alfonso is responsible for placing men to whom he has entrusted roles: the grandfather, the grandmother and himself. A scene shows the grandfather kicking Alfonso with his belt, the young man protecting his face with his hands. Another shows the grandfather intimating an order grandmother submitted. Faced with this effective representation, Alfonso advances. He says he wants to change this cycle of violence. He says he does not want to be like that. Emotionally drained, Alfonso returns to his place and ends the session curled up, silent.
This confession brings others. In a three-hour session, the stories of these men outside the solid and macho, succeed. Edgar is around 50. He says little at first and then lets go and reveals that he was tortured by his parents who scalded his hands in boiling water when he was six years old. Edgar cries for a long time. There is an awkward silence this time. He says he understands why he became the violent man he knew. His father. “Yo herede del trono de mi padre” I inherited the throne of my father, he said to illustrate effective in terms that he has himself behaved like a dictator in the family he created. With his children. “I advance and move on through these sessions. But my wife and children, who have grown up still say that they are terrified when they disobey. How long will it take me to regain their trust. How long? “.
In the center of Latin America, in this ugly room without heat, men speak of the love of fathers, mothers caresses, children’s games and missing tenderness. The image of the Latin macho man sure of himself is cracked. They are a handful, but WEM makes its way. The idea of questioning masculinity and masculine authority advances.
One participant said, “Here in the workshops, I learned to not want my kingdom. I put limits. I feel better. But it costs me effort. ”
I do not know yet what I will bring to the Institute WEM. The management team is interested in both my experience as a police officer confronted with perpetrators of domestic violence, and my actual stay at home dad experience in relation with the machismo. Workshops for young adults contain theatrical animation sequences in which I could be useful. We shall see. You’ll know. For now, I continue to discover the workshops and group sessions. I have been attached to WEM since mid-December and I attend two or three sessions per week in addition to meetings with management.
Discover and support WEM’s work in Central America on the Institute facebook’s page
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