Male aggressors in El Salvador get prison, and masculinity class

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San Salvador, El Salvador – Mario* says he used to be an aggressive, domineering and an arrogant person. When his relationship ended more than two years ago, he threatened to publish intimate photos and videos of his ex-girlfriend in an attempt to regain control.

He did not share the images publicly, but his messages were still a crime under Salvadoran law: online harassment, which carries a four to six years prison sentence in El Salvador.

Mario spent six months behind bars before he was given the option of enrolling in a masculinity course, an alternative measure focused on rehabilitation.

“Often a person doesn’t even realise that they are carrying out some type of violence, and in the class, they make us see,” Mario says, adding that the classes have helped him identify how his past and present behaviours have embodied toxic masculinity, commonly defined as a set of socially constructed traits that encourage dominance, aggression and the devaluation of women.

The course is part of an initiative to reduce soaring rates of gender violence in El Salvador by implementing measures that focus on changing the behaviour of men convicted of these crimes.

More than 360 femicides last year

El Salvador has some of the highest rates of gender violence in the world. The country registered 365 femicides last year. In 2017, a woman was killed every 18 hours, according to the Institute of Legal Medicine. In a country of roughly 6.5 million residents, that is one of the highest rates of femicide in the world.

“We [men] are the ones who are creating the most violence in general and in context of violence against women,” says Benjamin Bonilla, director of Masculinities for Peace, shortened to Mas Paz in Spanish or More Peace, the San Salvador-based NGO that runs the masculinity courses.

“Practically the only public policy that the Salvadoran state has for men in terms of prevention of violence against women is jail time,” he adds.

El Salvador has the second-highest imprisonment rate after the United States.

There is a growing understanding worldwide that men and boys need to be included in solutions to gender violence. A 2011 UN Women report recommended that programmes to end gender violence extend their focus beyond women and girls to contain “specific elements designed to help young men understand that cultural change needs to occur if the cycle of violence is to be broken”.

El Salvador opened a specialised court system in July 2017 to focus on 11 gender-based crimes ranging from femicide to disseminating revenge porn to failure to pay child support in the hopes of cutting down impunity for gender violence.

An estimated 95 percent of gender-based crimes in El Salvador go unpunished because of weak protections, under-reporting of crimes, and victim-blaming within institutions, according to a 2016 report by Foundation Friedrich Ebert, a German political foundation that funds research on democracy and social justice around the world.

Two-pronged approach

The specialised court system has taken this two-pronged approach to the problem of gender violence that combines convictions and rehabilitation.

“We aren’t just going to use the traditional mechanisms, such as prison sentences, fines or volunteer service, that don’t focus on transforming a person’s patriarchal behaviour,” says Glenda Baires, one of the two head judges of the specialised court.

“We understand that there are many challenges, but we have the confidence that even just attending some talks or therapy can change these patterns of behaviour in the future,” she tells Al Jazeera.

The classes are meant to complement punitive punishments, not replace them. After facing trial for disseminating porn, Mario says his jail time helped him understand that it was a crime. But without the masculinity courses, he might not have been able to transform his conduct on a deeper level.

Now, he says he can identify other ways that he has engaged in harmful behaviours, including letting his mother and sisters take all the responsibilities for housework, getting irrationally angry with his ex-girlfriend for not answering his messages, or reacting aggressively towards other men to resolve a conflict.

Although some of these actions are not necessarily crimes, they exist on a continuum of gender violence that ranges from microaggressions to femicide. The rehabilitation process is not just about preventing further crimes, but also about helping aggressors form “a new perspective in life and a transformed vision in their familial and social relations”, says Baires.

El Salvador is not the first country to focus on masculinities to address gender violence at the root. Universities such as Duke and Brown have offered academic courses on masculinity in recent years and students report a change in their beliefs about gender norms after enrolling.

A pilot programme in Central America that focused on masculinity and fatherhood classes reported that 98 percent of participants said it was not acceptable for a man to hit a woman if she doesn’t want to have sex with him compared with 79 percent who said so at the start of the course.

The Mas Paz programme asks participants to fill out a survey before and after the course about their attitudes towards women and gender violence, and Bonilla reports positive changes, although he says the organisation has yet to systematically analyse the data. To Bonilla’s knowledge, no class participant has ever become a repeat offender after taking the class.

Still, not all participants are as open to the process as Mario was. Some resist the material, making homophobic remarks or pushing back against the concepts laid out in the course, Bonilla says.

A 2015 study of rehabilitation programmes for perpetrators of gender violence in Spain found that 70 percent of those who completed the training showed positive changes in attitude. However, there was a high dropout rate. Between 30 and 40 percent of the participants rejected the treatment in the first session and another 20 percent did so on the third or fourth round. And there is little research about whether these classes lead to a reduction of gender violence over time.

Another local NGO that has run masculinity classes for nearly two decades in El Salvador, Centro Bartolome de las Casas (CBC), stopped working with convicted aggressors because few participants showed drastic changes in their way of thinking even though the programme invested a significant investment of time and resources. Instead, CBC focuses its classes on gatekeepers – community leaders, activists, and government officials.

The Salvadoran Institute for the Development of Women, a government institution, (ISDEMU) also runs masculinity workshops for police, judges and investigators for the attorney general’s office with the idea that targeting the people attending victims and aggressors to change their sexist beliefs can have the biggest effect.

“Because of the socialisation and the construction of gender, we hold the belief that we do work with aggressors, because we are all aggressors under this socialisation,” says Walberto Tejeda, who runs the masculinity programme at CBC.

“If the system teaches boys from a young age this idea of superiority over the girls, there is an aggressive idea starting there,” Tejeda adds.

Mario agrees that masculinity courses should extend beyond men facing a potential conviction for gender violence.

He has now become part of the burgeoning masculinity movement in El Salvador, regularly speaking to young men at a local community centre about toxic masculinity so that they don’t do what he did.

“To resolve the problem of violence against women it’s important to incorporate men,” says Bonilla. “As long as men are not included, the problem won’t be solved.”