Besnik Leka promotes gender equality with CARE International’s Young Men Initiative in Kosovo. In an interview with Maike Dafeld, editor of Balkan Perspectives, he reveals why gender equality is closely linked to dealing with the past, and shares his personal motivations for working for gender equality. A version of this interview was first published in Balkan Perspectives, viewable here: dwp-balkan.org/en/bpm.php?cat_id=6&text_id=2
Maike Dafeld: What does gender equality mean to you?
Besnik Leka: The perception of gender equality has been evolving and unfortunately sometimes it is misinterpreted and misunderstood. Many people confuse gender equality with the empowerment of one gender over another. In my opinion gender equality is nothing more and nothing less than equal opportunities and equal rights for both men and women.
MD: You are one of the few men working directly on gender equality in Kosovo. How did you get involved in this topic?
BL: Gender has been an integral part of my life since childhood. I have three sisters and growing up I never viewed any difference between us although I received more attention as the boy in the family. When I was bullied in school, instead of bringing a man to protect me—as tradition requires—I brought my sisters. My sisters were my best friends and role models growing up. I have three nieces and one nephew, and they keep me inspired to work on gender equality. In the past I have worked on projects related to gender, but mainly focused on women and girls. Today, with great joy and pleasure I work with young men and recently with fathers and fathers-to-be. It is easy for me because I believe in gender equality.
MD: Why do you think it is important to work especially with men on gender equality?
BL: The issue of gender equality has been traditionally perceived as a women’s concern, but men are the main cause of gender inequalities. Mainly because of the way they are raised and the way society expects them to act. The rigid social norms that have shaped the way men act towards one another and women are our main concern. That is why we consider working with young men to be tackling gender inequality at the roots. If you raise boys in an environment where they are expected to show love, affection and care instead of being tough, emotionless, rude and violent, I believe that is when you have taken the biggest step towards dismantling social norms that perpetuate gender inequality and towards building an equal society.
MD: What kind of reactions did you get from men in Kosovo?
BL: Working with young men to promote gender equality was something new for Kosovan society. It was not easy to approach young men, to sit with them and to talk about gender-based violence, health and well-being,…but the longer the project went on the more eager they were. The simple response often was that no one has talked to them about these topics before, as if gender was not applicable to them. Helping young men understand their role and responsibility created more interest, and they even learned how much men and boys benefit from gender equality. I can proudly say that today many of these young men are agents of change. Young people in Kosovo are more open-minded than we think. We just haven’t given them an opportunity thus far to be a part of programs like the Young Men Initiative.
MD: What kind of strategies do you use to promote gender equality and positive masculinity among young men?
BL: We use a number of creative strategies. For example, we have coordinated various formal video products which provide an opportunity for Be a Man Club members to learn performance and multimedia skills while exploring and expressing their views about gender equality and healthy masculinities. We contacted a famous Kosovan rapper called Lyrical Son to collaborate on one of these projects, realizing the huge impact that pop culture can have on young people and wanting to use this influence in a positive way.
Together we made a rap music video about masculinities, dealing with problems in nonviolent ways, and how they can help young men achieve their dreams and not get into trouble. The students really enjoyed it and the video got over two million views, which is not bad for a country with a population of two million! Because of its success, another Kosovan rapper released a song shortly afterwards dealing with a similar topic, and another approached us wanting to make a video. It was a great experience and really shows the power of influencing from the bottom up.
MD: How do you measure the program’s success?
BL: As a new initiative we decided to invest a lot on research to measure the impact of our project. We implemented a baseline study before starting workshops in schools and the “Be a Man Campaign.” Because of the successful results we achieved, we managed to accredit the program with the Ministry of Education as a part of the national curriculum for schools. We started to train and prepare teachers and scale the program all over Kosovo and the region. This was one of my biggest challenges, convincing the Ministry of Education that such programs are necessary in our schools.
MD: How do you think gender plays a role in dealing with the past?
BL: Actually, this is one of the most sensitive issues when dealing with gender, especially in patriarchal societies like Kosovo. The attitudes and behaviors of the current generation of young men in Kosovo and the Balkans are influenced by the fact that they were born during or immediately after the Yugoslav wars. Young men have come of age in a time of tumultuous post-conflict rebuilding. Militarized versions of masculinities are still present, as are tensions around sociocultural and political identities. This broader backdrop plays a fundamental role in shaping young men’s ideas on masculinities. The Young Men’s Initiative enlists young men to make a change in the world they live in, and challenges them to become modern men who express masculinities in a healthy way. It is nevertheless still a great challenge to explain some of the basic ideas of gender equality to people who were raised under such rigid norms.