It can be difficult to identify the exact moment that we are touched by change. But Ali Raad, a secondary school teacher from the Lebanese village of Baalbek, can trace one such moment to a community discussion, arranged by a local NGO. “I didn't know what gender was really about until I attended the training,” he recalled, referring to the work of the NGO, KAFA (Enough) Violence and Exploitation. “The approach helped me question and challenge myself and what I believed in. Suddenly, all I had learned from my conservative society started to shake.”
Raad works to further that change through the Baalbek Men's Forum. The Forum is part of a broader initiative to mobilize young men around issues of gender-based violence, and is led by Oxfam GB, a grantee of the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women, along with KAFA, its local partner. For Ali, understanding how violence against women is both part of a bigger picture and a process of personal reflection and change, has meant pushing his own boundaries. “We learned to distinguish different types of violence, and I realized that I practice psychological violence myself,” he said. “After the workshop I did research and realized that many people were practicing violence without realizing it.”
Through the Forum, Raad and his team are working to confront often-unquestioned and deeply rooted social norms, while learning the power of the collective and discovering themselves as leaders. With other young men's organizations, peace builders, students and leaders, they gather to discuss violence, and its links with traditional notions of masculinity. They have crossed across borders too. One peer-exchange visit to India allowed them to meet with and learn from young men in similar campaigns.
The Men's Forum is now recognized as a promising model for the way it has steadily opened up sensitive issues. Although it was initially designed to involve high profile people, including religious leaders and politicians, the members adapted their strategy as they saw their message taking deeper root among their peers. “Change-makers are young people and people with influence like school teachers and university students”, Raad says.
The power of its hand-in-hand approachis evident. In one village, Raad remembers the reaction of people to a KAFA video called ‘Latifa and Others', and the discussion that followed. “People cried; it created a revolution in the village,” he recalled. “People were confronting their village religious leaders about the issues. Only six months later, talking about violence against women there is normal.” The Ministry of Social Affairs has now signed a Memorandum of Understanding with KAFA on using the approach in two other areas of Lebanon.
Meanwhile the broader Oxfam GB/KAFA programme generated unprecedented force in 2010 when it launched the White Ribbon Campaign in Lebanon – the first in the Middle East and the North Africa region – during the annual international 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence initiative. The campaign focused public attention on a national bill that addressed intra-family violence, and as part of it, male university students from four universities in Beirut crafted messages about the long term benefits of a gender violence-free society, which were posted on billboards across central Beirut. The domestic violence legislation was eventually supported by 128 members of Parliament – including a remarkable 50 per cent of the male legislators- prior to parliamentary debates. The bill remains with a special parliamentary committee, yet it now has more Lebanese campaigning behind it than ever.
Raad remains practical about the path to a violence free society. “It will always be a long-term effort, because there are centuries of tradition behind these social roles,” he says. “But the first step is to let people know about all types of violence and make violent masculinity a shame in our society.” And this is a challenge that he, and many of the young men and women around him, are taking head on.