From ‘engaging youth’ to youth leadership – reflections from the first Latin American Forum on Masculinities in Adolescence and Youth

It was great seeing all the young faces in the room. I felt like I was being spoken to. Hearing that there are lots of people working on this in the region gives me hope.

Camilo Montoya, 17, Nicaragua/United States

The first ever Latin American Forum on masculinities in adolescence and youth took place in San José, Costa Rica, from 29–31 July. The forum ran parallel to the 7th International Colloquium on Men and Masculinities Studies and provided a space for people of all ages to come together to discuss youth and masculinities in the region. On the final day of the forum, a youth statement was collectively developed and presented to the colloquium, which urged action on the key issues faced by youth in Latin America today, including increased religious fundamentalisms, the militarization of society, lack of investment in education, and climate change.

In an exciting step for youth mobilization around masculinities in the region, 38 youth activists from 14 countries formed the Latin American Masculinities and Youth Network (affiliated with MenEngage Alliance) in order to connect people in the region that are working on these issues and share successful experiences, resources and campaign materials.

There was a feeling of profound frustration expressed by many of the young people present at the regressive political direction the region is taking. Despite this, there was a determination to unite as like-minded people around a cause and to act urgently and collectively to find common solutions.

There were several powerful personal testimonies from young men who have participated in programmes fostering critical reflection on masculinities and gender norms. When young men are encouraged to reflect on how their behaviour and attitudes affect others, and when they are given the space to express their emotions freely with their peers, it can have a truly transformative effect on their lives and the lives of those around them. It is important to develop an understanding of how these experiences of personal transformation can support wider societal changes, especially for the benefit of women and girls – and people of diverse gender expressions – as well as men and boys themselves.

One common theme throughout the forum was the need for youth-focused initiatives to be developed and led by young people themselves, in order to  reach youth on their own terms and in their own language. Participants agreed that the meaning of ‘youth leadership’ in a patriarchal, adult-centric world needs to be deconstructed further. Young people want to be given opportunities to take leadership roles but are wary of being appointed ‘youth leaders’ or ‘changemakers’ as a token gesture, without being given the tools and resources needed to effect real change. The young people present stressed the need for intergenerational dialogue and a move away from a patriarchal, vertical style of leadership, towards more horizontal, collective action. 

Young people in my country are rarely given leadership opportunities. In this machista society there are some things we as young people can’t change, but there are changes we need to make among our own generation and importantly for the generation that comes after us.

Jose Ignacio Barahona Diaz, 23, Costa Rica

I like the idea of youth leadership, but this is a job that we need to all do  together. We all need to construct more horizontal and equitable relationships, with respect for autonomy and freedom. There shouldn’t be just one visible leader – everyone needs the tools to get the message across and deconstruct the baggage of patriarchy together.

Juan Daniel Gomez Perez, 24, Colombia

The diversity of youth in the region was repeatedly highlighted. While it is often assumed that young people are more progressive in terms of gender equality than older generations, this is often not the case. In fact, many of the fundamentalist groups gaining influence in the region have successfully mobilized young people for their cause, and reaching these young people was identified as a key challenge for the masculinities field.

Men’s place in feminism was also up for discussion at the forum, with many participants warning against the so called ‘pedestal effect’: the privileges men often receive through engaging in feminism which can end up reinforcing existing patriarchal structures.

Historically it’s been women who have fought against the system, and as a man I have not had this experience. So I consider myself an ally but without trying to steal the spotlight.

Franklin Gomez, 24, Dominican Republic

I consider myself profeminist. As men, we don’t have the same experiences as women, we have a duty to reflect on our privileges but it’s not the same struggle, so calling ourselves feminists is taking visibility away from women.

Juan Daniel Gomez Perez, 24, Colombia

The forum in Costa Rica provided an inspiring demonstration of the energy and passion that young people are bringing to the work for gender justice. From exploring new ways of mobilizing, to revealing different perspectives on how we think about gender identities and sexual orientations, young people are often the ones leading calls for action. This comes at a time when young people often face new and evolving forms of violence, harassment and inequality, such as those exacerbated by social media and other new technologies.

As an alliance for engaging men and boys in these issues, we must work to create space for young voices. That means going beyond engaging young people as program beneficiaries, and working together to create intergenerational dialogue and partnerships. Only by working together across generations can we find the solutions we need to realize gender justice for all.

By Sinead Nolan, MenEngage Alliance Program Officer and coordinator of the MenEngage Alliance Youth Working Group, and Jonathan Fuller, MenEngage Alliance Communications Assistant.

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