By Nicholas Bobadilla
2015 Global Health Big Ideas winner Hombres Verdaderos aims to improve health outcomes by stopping domestic violence before it starts. Set to launch in March, the program will engage young, at-risk adolescent boys, ages 11 to 14 years old, from districts in Barranquilla, Colombia.
Co-led by UC Berkeley Master of Public Health candidate Nerissa Nance and her friends and colleagues Jairo Martinez and Vanessa Sanchez Conquett, Hombres Verdaderos is a product of passion and diligence that developed over several years. The idea for the organization grew out of Nance’s conversations with Martinez and Conquett, two psychologists who work with the Ministry for Women and Gender Equity in Barranquilla. Together, they discussed ideas to collaborate on a nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing domestic violence by focusing on youth populations. Nance also mulled over ideas with Aarthi Rao, a student in Berkeley’s MBA program, about a domestic violence prevention program that combined their interests in health and behavioral economics. With the support of Big Ideas, and project mentor Bridget Brennan, the group came together to create a concrete design for Hombres Verdaderos.
“We wanted to address the upstream risk factors of violence,” Nance said. “We wanted to engage young boys and expand on existing programs.” She is adamant about domestic violence’s relevance as a public health issue. “Domestic violence isn’t what people think of when they think of public health, but I see domestic violence as an issue that affects the health outcomes of all genders. That’s what we had in mind when writing the proposal.”
Through workshops and youth-driven media campaigns, the boys in the program learn about domestic violence prevention and become advocates for change. Participants undertake a month-long series of play-based workshops on relevant themes, including power, oppression, and the effects of gender expectations. The project will enlist older adolescent volunteers to help lead the workshops and create positive role models for the boys.
Hombres Verdaderos will partner with a local organization called Promotora de Excelencia Personal (PEP) that provides youth the skillset to become responsible leaders in the community. “We identified PEP as a great program, because they have youth that are motivated and want to be successful,” said Nance. The current cohort will then train the next cohort, and eventually Hombres Verdaderos will recruit from other youth development programs within the Ministry for Women and Gender Equity.
Nance recently returned from Colombia where she, Martinez and Conquett were building rapport with PEP and the Ministry for Women and Gender Equity. Their ultimate hope is to scale up Hombres Verdaderos regionally through the ministry, but recent structural changes have fenced this goal and forced the team to seek out new ways of scaling. This isn’t the first set of hurdles the project has had to overcome. In December, the team put the program on hold due to complications in developing the curriculum. Nance considered handing it off to a third party, but found it difficult given how much the team had already invested.
Now set to begin in April, the program will consist of two month-long phases. The first is educational and will engage participants in a series of workshops that explore gender roles, violence and the potential for change. The primary focus will be improving bystander intervention among young men, which has proven an effective and productive method of preventing domestic violence. Nance says, “The psychological literature says bystander intervention moves past blame and shifts toward a more positive role we can play in preventing domestic violence.”
Pre and post-program surveys, along with interviews and focus groups, will be conducted among participants to measure impact. The team will also issue follow-up surveys six months after implementation to test for attenuation of program effects.
Following the first phase, the youth participants will recruit a second cohort through social media and arts-based campaigns. This approach will allow them to engage with the community, integrate the freshly learned ideas into their own value system, and take on leadership roles among their peers. The long-term benefits of Hombres Verdaderos will be based largely on the strength of peer influence.
“When youth are teaching youth, they get to have this feeling of ownership over the program,” Nance says. “Once you pass a certain age, the people you look up to start to be your peers, especially during this period of early adolescence. Youth seek to belong to something and feel good about their positions relative to their peers.” Nance stresses the importance of targeting male youth through the program, saying that peer influence in a single-sex environment will have a large impact. “Boys bonding and going through the program with other boys will begin to shift the paradigm of what it means to be cool,” she says. “That happens in a very different way in a single-gendered environment than in a co-ed situation.”