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The peace boys of Brazilian shanty towns

The favelas of Rio de Janeiro are supposed to be a breeding ground for macho young men wedded to drugs, guns and violence against women. The reality is somewhat different.

Think of the favelas – the squalid, hillside shanty-towns that house a million of Rio de Janeiro's six million population – and if you're a movie-goer, you'll probably think of violent young men.

In particular, the favelas evoke images of teenage drug barons and their armies of gun-toting younger boys, as shown in the recent Brazilian film, Cidade De Deus (City of God).

It's an electrifying cinematic image, but is it the whole story? Research among young men in poor Rio neighbourhoods challenges the stereotype of homicidal chauvinists who demand that their girlfriends provide sex when and how they want it, are callous toward young women's sexual health and tolerant to – if not guilty of – violence against women.

In 1999 Gary Barker, director of Instituto Promundo, a nongovernmental organisation in Rio, interviewed men aged 15-24 in the favelas to explore the factors motivating a curious phenomenon: apparently most youths were shunning gang membership and opting for caring relationships. Barker and his colleague Marcos Nascimento found a core of youth who showed some of the following characteristics:

  • Respecting young women and desiring relationships based on equality and intimacy rather than sexual 'conquest';
  • Seeking to be involved fathers;
  • Assuming some responsibility for the reproductive health of both partners; and
  • Rejecting violence against women – privately and publicly.

Calling them "Peace Boys in a War Zone", the researchers found they are more likely to be self-reflective, have vocational and other skills, had access to adult men who offered alternative masculine role models, come from families which intervene if men are violent – or reject domestic violence outright – and belong to a "gender-equitable" peer group.

The next year Promundo established the Projeto de Jovem para Jovem, or Guy to Guy Project. This project has trained most of the original 25 "Peace Boys" as peer promoters – and added new members every year. These youths reach more than 1,500 other young men every year with messages of equality between the sexes, male involvement in sexual health, responsible fatherhood and opposition to gender violence.

With the support of SSL International, manufacturers of Durex condoms, and John Snow, a Brazilian consulting firm, the group developed a brand-name for a condom – Hora H, ("In the Heat of the Moment") – and a strategy for selling them where young men want them, generally at community dances.

Winning over young men to safer sex practices, particularly condom-use, is critical for women's health: to prevent the spread of HIV and to prevent unwanted pregnancy. Safe and legal abortion is restricted in Brazil, and desperate teens often seek out back alley abortionists. An estimated 1.4 million abortions, the vast majority illegal, occur every year, and experts believe that one in five deaths among young women is caused by unsafe abortion.

One in 10 teens aged 15-19 has at least two children, according to government figures, and 40 per cent of pregnant teenagers leave school. Teenage mothers are more likely to be poor, and to struggle alone in female-headed households.

Machismo also kills young men, with traffic accidents, homicides and suicides responsible for 75 per cent of teen deaths, according to Rio's Health Municipal Secretariat.

Shoot-outs over turf among drug gangs – the so-called commandos depicted in City of God – were responsible for 65 per cent of deaths among 15 to 19 year olds in 2001.

Worldwide data on violence suggests that young men in the Americas region [Brazil's favelas, the comunas of Medellin, Colombia, and garrison communities of Kingston, Jamaica] are more likely to kill other young men – and to be killed – than in any other region of the world. This largely urban-based violence perpetrated by and against young men is thought to be related to social exclusion, unemployment and underemployment, curtailed educational opportunities and the hold of drug traffickers.

For many young men, gang leaders are homegrown heroes emulated for their willingness to use violence to settle scores with rivals and police. In this chilling exchange from City of God, two gang members debate manhood:

"You're not a man … You're still a boy."

"I am too a man. I have already killed someone."

Ninety people were murdered in confrontations between drug gangs and police during the March carnival in Rio. "If a young man buys into or rejects the comando version of manhood it can mean the difference between life and death," Barker warns.

Barker is keen to affirm that the majority of young men in the favelas do not resort to violence, let alone murder, recounting what one mother living in one of the city's most violent favelas told him.

"My son never gives me any trouble, or hardly ever. He does well in school, stays out of trouble… helps out with his brothers and sisters. I have nothing to complain about." These young men seldom make the headlines as their violent counterparts do, Barker notes.

Machismo also contaminates intimate relationships, according to Nascimento. A recent Promundo study found that 25 per cent of 700 men aged 15-60 reported physical violence against a partner at least once. Further questioning revealed that nearly half had either witnessed a man – usually a father or stepfather – use violence against women, or had themselves been the victim of violence at home.

Promundo aims to refute the prejudice that young men are the problem – never part of the solution – which means their physical, social and psychological needs barely register with officialdom. "There is still a great lack of [government] action towards young men," concurs Luciana Phebo, a Rio health official working in violence prevention.

"Our work is not to replace but to complement and add to the fundamental work of women's rights groups," says Barker. "Reaching boys – especially by highlighting other versions of fathers and fathering – can break the cycle of inter-generational transmission of violence and help change how men interact with women and their children."

Responsible and caring fatherhood challenges notions of virility, entitlement and power, according to Dario Cordova, Guy to Guy project co-ordinator. "It raises the question: 'are you capable of taking care of someone?'"

"I lost the easy life," Miguel, a young father, told Promundo. "The big pain…is the responsibility. You gotta provide everything."

"The good side of the story? My daughter! She's the good part. She's worth everything."

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Panos London

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03/01/2003

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