Young Mens Initiative: Engaging Men and Boys in the Fight for Gender Equality

Thanks to CARE Action Network for the shoutout to Cohort 1 team, Young Men’s Initiative!

How Young Men Can Change Gender Norms and Support Women and Girls

Engaging men and boys with the Young Men Initiative and CARE

Women’s economic empowerment sustainably lifts women, families and entire communities out of poverty — but only when men get with the program, too. Men and boys have a crucial role to play in achieving gender equality by reversing deeply entrenched norms, traditions and behaviors that for too long have limited women’s opportunities and trapped families in poverty.

Programs like the Young Men Initiative are working to do just that by changing rigid masculine norms, preventing violence against women and promoting gender equality during critical stages of adolescent development.

But how much do they really alter men’s attitudes and communities’ social norms? According to Besnik Leka, CARE’s project coordinator for the Young Men Initiative in the Balkans, “It’s still early days, but we’ve seen reductions in gender-based and interpersonal violence by 25 to 30 percent and big changes in divisions of household labor.”

“One mother called us to ask, ‘What are you teaching my sons? They came home and helped with cleaning. They’re setting the table.’ We tell parents, this is what they’re supposed to do. This is how we change family dynamics.” This is how we change social norms.

Engaging men and boys in gender-based violence

Gender Inequity in the Balkans

An estimated one in three women globally will experience gender-based violence in her lifetime, which includes rape, sexual harassment, assault, domestic violence and other forms of violence that devastates people’s physical, mental and emotional health and perpetuates broader structural inequalities and cycles of poverty.

Surveys conducted in Serbia and Croatia reveal how big the problem is in the region:

  • 60 percent of young men reported having made sexual comments or having touched girls without their consent
  • 18.8 percent of young men say there are situations in which women deserve to be beaten
  • More than two-thirds of adolescents aged 16-19 reported experiencing violent behavior from their partner; about halfsaid they’d been violent towards their partner
  • 65 percent of men reported having been slapped or spanked as children, while 16 percent of men reported witnessing violence by a man against their mothers

Surveys also revealed however, that some traditional attitudes are becoming more liberal:

Engaging Men and Boys

Besnik Leka of CARE's Young Men Initiative Leka is CARE’s project coordinator for the Young Men Initiative in the Balkans. “This is a very patriarchal society with a lot of violence, especially gender-based violence, but at Young Men Initiative, we also address the interpersonal violence young men experience so they understand that patriarchy harms everyone,” Leka said. “We say that, as much as feminism needs men, men need feminism, because feminism saves men from violence too.”

The Young Men Initiative and CARE sponsor gender equality training workshops as part of the curriculums at traditionally male-dominated vocational and technical schools.  “Young men face tremendous challenges but they’re also capable of tremendous growth,” Leka said. The trainings make men and boys aware of how patriarchy can harm them. Leka added that being the sole breadwinner puts a great deal of pressure on men, and that it’s better when everyone contributes to the family, including with household labor. “As more opportunities open up for women to engage in the economy we have to encourage more men to share care of the family,” he said.

While feminism has existed for decades, Leka explained that there hasn’t been much initiative for men to change. “Statistically, men cause most gender-based violence, yet women are asked to empower themselves while simultaneously being discriminated against by men and societies.”

Part of the problem, Leka says, is that men aren’t taught how to change. “It’s taboo for men to talk about certain things, like their problems and emotions. When we actually start talking with men though, about how blocking their emotions leads to stress and violence that harms them as well as women, they’re very receptive. It’s a real eye-opener to learn that young men have high suicide rates here.”  Leka will ask boys and men to rate their emotions from ones they express more freely to ones the express with more difficulty. Most admit they express anger freely, but they’re afraid to show fear.

“As they work through our program, they learn that beauty comes with sharing emotions, even if they’re afraid of unmasking themselves.”

Financial and social inclusion in the Balkans

Social and Economic Inclusion

The Young Men Initiative and Leka also address women’s social and economic inclusion by working to change inheritance attitudes and laws. “Not many women inherit what their parents build. Usually it is given to the son. Even when a woman does inherit something, culturally, she’s expected to give it to her brother. She’s told that a ‘good sister’ doesn’t take stuff from her brother,” Leka explained. The problem, however, is it’s not just about the tangible inheritance. It’s about women’s economic potential.

“In Kosovo,” he explains, “all business and growth is based on banks and loans, but to get a loan, you need collateral. Men can own or inherit cars, houses and land so it’s easy for them to get loans. Without collateral though, women can’t get loans so they’re eliminated from opportunities to start or grow businesses.” Young Men Initiative is helping young men and their families understand the impact of economic progress that takes place when daughters can share inheritances. Simultaneously, CARE is working to change inheritance laws to include children of both genders.

CARE has worked in the Balkan region (Kosovo, Serbia, Albania, Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina) since 1992, helping war-affected people develop sustainable livelihoods. Currently, CARE’s programing in the region focuses on two key areas – gender equality and social and economic inclusion.   

5 Minutes of Inspiration: How Married Girls in Ethiopia are Taking Charge of Their Lives

CARE Action Network took a moment to shout out Cohort 3 team TESFA and their work! Reposted here from

How Married Girls in Ethiopia are Taking Charge of Their Lives


“In the past I didn’t even want to be seen by other people, let alone talk to them. Nowadays, I am not scared of anyone. I speak up. I say what is on my mind.” – Mesobua Kassaw, 20, South Gondar, Amhara, Ethiopia

By April Houston

In the Amhara region of Ethiopia, as in other areas of the world with strong patriarchal traditions, women and girls are expected to be quiet and obedient to the men in their lives. Their own needs and desires are less valued than instructions handed down by religious leaders, government officials, their fathers, or husbands. It is not uncommon in these cultures for girls (and sometimes boys) to be married as teenagers. Once married, they often drop out of school and begin having children of their own, although adolescent pregnancy and childbirth comes with high risk of complications and death for these girls and their babies.

Fortunately, rates of early marriage in Ethiopia are on the decline, and the change is coming from members of the communities most impacted by these harmful traditions. CARE launched the TESFA program in the Amhara region in 2010 (“TESFA” stands for Towards Improved Economic/Sexual Reproductive Health Outcomes and means “hope” in Amharic) to unlock the power and secure the future of ever-married adolescent girls. We came back four years after the program ended to see what has changed for the original participants.

What was accomplished?

  • Physical, social, and economic wellbeing improved: Findings from the initial program evaluation conducted by the International Center for Research on Women identified gains in communication between girls and their husbands, decreased levels of gender-based violence, improved mental health, improved knowledge and use of sexual and reproductive health services (including family planning), and increased social capital and support.
  • Girls spread the word (without CARE’s help): A 2017 ex-post evaluation found that all the girls groups in two implementation districts (Farta and Lay Gayint) continued to meet, without any assistance from CARE.
  • Ending child marriage in Ethiopia with TESFA.Financial benefits led to increased independence and empowerment: Inspired by the financial education they received during TESFA, participants created their own income-generating activities, ranging from fattening cattle, poultry feeding, growing vegetables, and selling baked goods and coffee. The proportion of participants with their own savings grew by 23 percent (compared to 3 percent in comparison groups) from the beginning of the program to the end. As their financial situation improved and they were able to buy things for themselves, they also started having meaningful conversations with their husbands about spending (which most had never done before TESFA). One participant told us “spending without planning is now considered ‘old fashioned’.”
  • Girls are exercising their sexual and reproductive health rights: TESFA not only increased participants’ knowledge about sexual and reproductive health, but also the skills, confidence, and mobility necessary to gain access to health services. Girls reported that they feel comfortable discussing family planning with their husbands and decide jointly on how many children they will have and when, and whether to use contraception. The number of girls using a family planning method increased 15 percent over the life of the program.

How did we get there?

  • Start with savings groups: Although CARE had been using Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA) groups to help marginalized women and communities save money and access loans, they had not been tried exclusively with adolescent girls or used to deliver health-related curriculum before TESFA. Many of the girls surveyed in the ex-post evaluation reported “saving money” as one of the top reasons for their participation in the program. (Learn more about CARE’s advocacy work on women’s economic empowerment)
  • Get community leaders on board: To complement the work of the girls’ groups and support their efforts to improve their lives and environment, CARE staff worked with community “gatekeepers” to identify and recruit individuals to participate in Social Analysis and Action (SAA) groups. SAA is a process by which participants explore and challenge social norms, beliefs, and practices around gender and sexuality. Adult members of these groups acted as liaisons between the program and the community and assisted the girls as allies – taking their needs and concerns to individuals with power to address them.
  • Train peers to be educators: Girls’ groups were facilitated and led by peer educators – girls from the community who received training on TESFA content, including sexual and reproductive health and economic empowerment/financial literacy.
  • Work for gender-transformative change: Four years after the conclusion of this phase of the TESFA program, community members have noticed sustained transformative change at the individual, family, and community levels. Acceptance of early marriage has decreased, leading to the interruption of 180 planned child marriages, and freedom of movement for girls has improved to a level they described as “ground-breaking” (aided by supportive government policies and better access to technology).
Ending child marriage in Ethiopia with TESFA.

Circles of Change on the Call Your Girlfriend Podcast

We’re thrilled to hear Cohort 2 Alum, Iman El-Mahdi, on the Call Your Girlfriend Podcast where she shared more about the Circles of Change model for preventing street harassment. Check it out here!  

“We step back from chaos in the U.S. and take a global view. Protests at the World Cup in Russia. The politics of globalization and migration on and off the pitch. In China, the government is cracking down on women organizing online. In Nepal, menstrual stigma risks the lives of women and girls. In slightly better news, women in Egypt are working to end gender-based violence, starting with the men who drive cabs and tuk-tuks.”