Young men and women across the region are joining clubs to learn how to rewrite long-held rules in favor of respect and nonviolence.

If you look in a dictionary, you will find that “to man up” means “to show firmness or courage when faced with difficult situations.” Look around yourself, and you will see that men and boys are often exhorted to “be a man” – in other words, not to be emotional and not to allow others to see them as weak.

Convinced that the traditional view of masculinity is harmful to both men and women, a group of civic activists in the Balkans had the idea to twist these ideas into new meanings. “Budi muško,” as both phrases translate into Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian, is the name they chose for an informal educational program that aims to engage young people in discussions about gender roles, promote positive masculinity, and prevent violence. “Be a man, change the rules” is their motto.

The pilot phase of the “Be a Man” program started in 2006 in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, and Croatia under the guidance of the international development organization Care International Balkans as part of its regional “Young Men Initiative.” Over the next few years, it took in more communities and expanded to include Kosovo and Albania.

Machismo, Patriarchy, and Violence

Encouraging macho behavior and traditional gender norms are unwritten rules in Balkan countries. The 2012 “Man and gender relations in Bosnia and Herzegovina” survey indicated that a significant percentage of respondents had stereotyped ideas about gender roles and a certain degree of tolerance toward violence against women. About 52% of men agreed that housework and taking care of children are women’s most important tasks. Nearly a quarter of the total sample of 1,684 male and female respondents said that there are certain situations when a woman deserves a beating. 

Schools are an obvious place to nip these attitudes in the bud. However, according to the children’s ombudsman in the Republika Srpska entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the number of reports of peer violence in schools is rising. The ombudsman’s 2020 annual report states that schools often don’t recognize the problem of peer violence, much less take action to deal with it. Teachers lack the skills to tackle the problem and communication between schools and parents is either insufficient or counterproductive, with school staff and parents blaming each other instead of talking, the report said.

“Professionals who work with young people in various ways are not sufficiently trained and do not know enough about all the variations and types of violence,” says Srdjan Dusanic, a professor of psychology and current dean of the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Banja Luka.

Additionally, he says, “educators are overburdened with numerous other obligations, and they do not have much energy left for in-depth work on these problems.”

Bosnian media often report on individual cases of peer and gender-based violence among young people. Both sexes can be victims of peer violence, while girls and young women are more exposed to psychological violence in schools and in partner relationships. The consequences of violence on mental and physical health are numerous, and it is imperative to work on its prevention in schools, experts say

Peers Helping Peers Deconstruct Stereotypes

Recognizing that achieving gender equality requires the active participation of both young men and women, the clubs began to recruit female members starting in 2013. Photo by Ajla-Ena Burnazovic.

Fighting back against this grim data, the “Be a Man” initiative puts respect and nonviolence on the pedestal. The program centers around activities at Be a Man clubs, where young people reexamine gender norms, talk about how to prevent violence, address harmful stereotypes, and promote healthy relationships that are based on respect and equality. 

A network of youth-focused civil society organizations in the Balkans runs the clubs, where young people can take part in workshops and training activities or assist in awareness-raising events. The NGOs cooperate with local schools to reach as many young people as possible and persuade educators to revise school policies and practices. The clubs promote their activities and recruit new members through social networks and public events.

Most club activities are based on the “Y Program,” an educational curriculum developed by Care International Balkans. The program is modeled after Program H of the Equimundo Institute in Brazil, where Care International also works. Launched in 2002 and now used in more than 30 countries, Program H covers topics such as youth health, violence, and drugs through informal educational workshops led by fellow students, youth workers, and teachers in schools. 

Adapting this knowledge to the Balkans, Care International developed a manual for the Y Program, with plenty of scenarios and case studies for activities on understanding gender equality, bullying, non-consensual sex, body shaming, domestic violence and other topics that young people often deal with. Club members – mainly young people between 14 and 19 from different local schools – meet weekly to talk about these issues and design activities to promote gender equality and nonviolent lifestyles in their schools and communities.

This June, around 80 young people from Banja Luka – Bosnia’s second biggest city and the capital of the Republika Srpska entity – met to learn more about sexual and reproductive health and addiction-related diseases through informal discussions and quizzes. Young volunteers also distributed condoms to their peers. The event was one of the numerous public activities run by the city’s Be a Man Club, which began operating in 2008. 

Banja Luka is one of eight Bosnian cities that host Be a Man clubs, among a total of 34 clubs running in the Western Balkans. During the program’s first years, club membership was predominantly young male students. Recognizing that achieving gender equality requires the active participation of both young men and women, in 2013 the clubs started to recruit girls and young women.

“I think the activities of the Be a Man club are extremely significant for contributing to the promotion of gender equality and non-violence in my community,” says Banja Luka club member Mia Selena Lerch.

Now 18, Mia joined the club three years ago when she started high school. By hosting a range of activities, from workshops to camps, the club helps raise awareness of these topics and provides a safe space for conversation and exchange of opinions, she says.

“In this way, young people get out of their comfort zone and develop their critical thinking,” she adds.

“We pay a lot of attention to each individual. Not only do we give young people the opportunity to make a positive impact in their community, but we help them to focus on their goals, and sometimes even to abandon harmful habits,” says Sara Jelisic, a coordinator at the Perpetuum Mobile Association, the host organization for Banja Luka’s Be a Man Club. 

Perpetuum Mobile and its partners – civil society organizations from across the region, including the Institute for Population and Development in Sarajevo, Centar 8 in Belgrade, and Status M in Croatia – collaborate on the design and implementation of the program, ensuring that it reaches as many young people as possible in their countries.

At the clubs, “young people who may not have anyone whom they could share their story with or the challenges they face daily, get access to a safe zone,” Jelisic adds.

One such example is Dragan Kisin, who as a high-school student used to get into fights, drink, and raise havoc. Dragan, now 23, was raised by his mother after his father abandoned the family. It was by joining the Be a Man Club in Banja Luka that he was able to quit his bad habits and become an advocate of nonviolence among his peers. “I think there’s a good chance that my generation will be the one to change everything in this country, while we are still young and willing,” he said in the prizewinning documentary about his path, Post-war Machismo: Be a Man

Training the Activists of the Future

The Y Program also helped Care International Balkans win an award from the Global Education Network Europe for its efforts to promote gender equality and prevention of youth extremism and violence in the Balkans. 

A study of the Young Men Initiative found that attitudes toward gender norms among youth in Bosnia and Herzegovina have become more open. Photo by Ajla-Ena Burnazovic.

But awards aside, small personal steps toward growth are what count most, according to Jelisic, who says the Banja Luka club’s biggest achievement is to guide young people to make changes in their lives. For many youngsters, taking part in club activities is their first chance to learn about sexual and reproductive health, nonviolence, and other topics on the club’s agenda, she says. Over the club’s almost 15-year history, more than 2,000 young people have participated in its activities.

Nikola Milicevic, now a master’s student in clinical psychology, recalls an inspiring moment when he helped manage the Banja Luka club in 2021. At one club event, the father of a young club member came up and thanked him. Confused, he answered, “You’re welcome, but what are you thanking me for?” The man then told him that joining the club’s activities helped his son to socialize and to achieve better success in school. “That’s when I realized how important and influential this program is,” Milicevic says.

The Be a Man program is the only one in the region that puts boys and young men at the center of its work to prevent violence and address gender inequalities, says Katarina Vuckovic, a youth worker and expert in youth policies.

“It offers numerous opportunities to strengthen the social and emotional intelligence of young men and women, in a way that they can identify with and that lasts in the long term,” she says, adding that it builds a foundation for community activism and leadership and other types of work once club members graduate from high school.

Studies indicate that the program is helping young people acquire skills for developing healthy relationships, says Banja Luka University professor Dusanic, author both of the survey of gender attitudes and of an impact study of the Young Men Initiative.

That study, for example, found that attitudes about gender norms among youth in Bosnia and Herzegovina have become more open. The program also resulted in greater knowledge about sexual reproductive health, and increased responsibility toward contraception, Dusanic says.

“The young people we interviewed showed greater self-esteem, more open expression of attitudes, acceptance of differences, greater empathy, more developed communication skills and critical thinking, and greater resistance to peer pressure,” he continues.

“These changes give hope that the effects of the program will not only have a short-term effect, but will be the beginning of healthier lifestyles for young people,” he says.

Room for Improvement 

The impact study, however, found no consistent progress when it came to alcohol and drug use among youth, as highlighted by the finding that young people consume alcohol and marijuana in the same amount or slightly more than before the survey period. “In some environments, this tendency is part of the mentality and culture,” Dusanic says, adding that “it is difficult to prevent these trends with any program.”. 

For the Perpetuum Mobile Association and its partners across the region, integrating the Y Program into formal education systems is a long-term goal that will enable its sustainability. However, the progress of years-long advocacy efforts to incorporate these activities varies from country to country and even from one part to another part of the same country, as is the case with Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

Club members are mainly young people from 14 to 19 years of age. Photo by Vedran Raic.

The program curricula are integrated into the school programs in different ways, such as through extracurricular activities or during “community classes,” in which students and teachers discuss topics related to the development of the school and class community. However, integrating Be a Man into formal school activities depends on the political will of education authorities, and making adjustments in education systems can be a slow process, sometimes hampered even further amid the chronic political turmoil in parts of the Western Balkans.

How to handle the differences among club members who come from different ethnic, religious, and social backgrounds is another question. “The challenge is to create a balance among different groups of young people, to create a space of tolerance and acceptance of diversity,” Jelisic says.

“Nevertheless, this is a challenge that we can successfully cope with,” she adds. 

Lidija Pisker is an award-winning journalist and researcher living between Italy and the Balkans.