The recent announcement that China will relax its one-child policy immediately raised the question across the country: will parents actually have a second child?

There are many reasons to want a second child, from the sheer delight of having more children to having that additional caregiver when we get old. But as every parent and grandparent knows, raising children is an expensive affair and requires a staggering amount of work.brothers in China

Traditionally, around the world, most of the childrearing work has been the responsibility of women. It is mostly women who change diapers, cook meals, comfort children when they are upset, and look after their many needs. Many men have defined these tasks as women’s work which is supposedly not as important and challenging as the “real” work of earning money.

This is a big problem for women who want to continue their education, pursue careers or simply have some time to relax. Even with supportive grandparents, the decision to have a second child means that a mother is taking on a huge burden. And that’s why the greater involvement of fathers is as critical in China as it is around the world. If the day-in, day-out hard work of parenting is more equally shared, then women are more likely to decide to have a second child.

But can men do their share of parenting? The fact is there are only two parenting tasks that men can never do: getting pregnant and breastfeeding. But all the other parenting jobs, the patience and the understanding are things that men are just as capable of doing. The only problem is that many men have not learned how to do those things. Many men haven’t had models of a father, however good he was, who did the daily childrearing tasks.

During my recent visit to China, I met a number of young men who wanted to play an equal parenting role. I also met a number of women who said that having a husband who equally shared parenting jobs was a priority for them.

In other words, they were very similar to young men and women in Canada, where I live, and all over the world. If we want women to pursue education and careers, and if we want to bring out the best in men, then we need to change the traditional roles of fathers.

This will require some work, for it means we need special classes for new fathers to learn parenting skills, and activities in schools that help boys see that their future will include looking after children.

We need policies in hospitals that encourage and support men to be present at birth. Major cultural changes are taking place in many countries. And studies show men who are present at birth develop deeper bonds with their children, are more likely to participate equally in parenting and housework, are less likely to subsequently get violent with either their wives or children, are more supportive of women’s health and have greater respect for women’s strength.

We need to introduce parental leave for mothers and fathers both, and make workplace rules more flexible so that both parents are able to take care of their children’s needs.

And we need public education campaigns to encourage involved fatherhood.

A part of this is finding positive ways to engage men and boys in this process of change. The transformation of fatherhood is one such way.

 

This blog first appeared in “The China Daily”, November 30, 2015

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We’re very pleased that our new novel, The Afghan Vampires Book Club, has been garnering some enthusiastic responses. Jane Fonda calls it, “A riveting story of love and war… A marriage of American Sniper and Heart of Darkness. I read it straight through in one sitting.” Scotland’s “The Herald” writes:  “Partly a satirical broadside against the insanity of war by two writers who have spent years campaigning against violence, The Afghan Vampires Book Club also works as conspiracy thriller, speculative fiction and full-on descent into hell.” Foyle’s Books calls it, “‘One of the most powerful examples of the fiction being written in response to the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan.” And a manager at London’s prestigious Daunt Books has nominated it for his imaginary “Alternate Booker Prize.”  Here is an interview Gary and I did with England’s Foyle’s Books .The Afghan Vampires Book Club

Afghanistan? Vampires? How did you come up with the idea for this book?

A few years ago the two of us were doing what authors do best: bemoaning the state of the book industry. Michael’s first novel, The Possibility of Dreaming on a Night Without Stars, had been published a decade earlier by Penguin. Gary’s first novel, Luisa’s Last Words, had just been published in Dutch by the literary publisher, de Geus. When Gary’s agent showed it to a prominent UK house, they were extremely interested but said, “We already published a title on Latin America this year. If it were only Afghanistan.” Meanwhile the vampire craze was on, along with book clubs. So, there it was, we had the title.

Yes, but…

We weren’t interested in writing a vampire story, certainly not a teen romance with lots of purple, black, and red on the cover. The two of us have spent years writing about and working to end men’s violence. Gary has worked in conflict zones and in violence prevention with men, including Bosnia, Brazil’s favelas, Rwanda, and the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Michael spearheaded an international campaign called White Ribbon which focuses on mobilizing men’s voices globally to end violence against women. We wanted to write about manhood and war and the encroaching surveillance state.

Okay, so if not a vampire tale, what is it?

Our story is set ten years in the future. The US and its allies had left Afghanistan and then returned to be mired again. After two hundred US soldiers are massacred by unknown combatants, rumours fly that one soldier, Tanner Jackson, made it out alive. British journalist John Fox tracks down this story through the underground world of discarded vets, who are causing their own havoc back home. When Fox finally finds Jackson, he hears an impossible tale of war, violence, and revenge, but also a story of enduring love.

One of the newspaper reviews favourably compared it to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

The book is clearly inspired by Conrad—Marlow’s trip up the Congo River to find the horror is transposed to an Afghan war that hasn’t ended and apparently never can. For us, though, the darkness isn’t with some colonial Other. It doesn’t reside in Kurtz. It is with Us.

Meaning?

It’s an anti-war story that highlights the tremendous impact of war on the soldiers who fight them and the society back home that wages the war. NATO isn’t the main victim in Afghanistan, not by a long shot, but young men (and now some women), often from poor or working class backgrounds, are trained to do something that humans really don’t do well—namely kill. All of our souls are corroded in the process.

How does this relate to your day jobs working for gender equality and positively transform the lives of men?

Our nations have long assumed that men can be plugged into the war machine and live that life without being scarred. Our societies believe men should be able to bury their emotions and take whatever is thrown at them, that “war is hell” but they get over it. As the cascade of news stories about PTSD and veterans suicides are showing us, this simply isn’t possible. These stories are in the news, but we sought to use the steroidal power of fiction, which allows us to look at Western incursions in Afghanistan from the 19th century and onward but without being a history textbook. And vampires became a metaphor for … Well, that would give it away.

And your basic hope in writing this book?

To trouble us about the state of warfare and surveillance in the world but in an engaging, entertaining, and intriguing tale that both men and women will enjoy reading. To cast a fictional light on the tragic and misguided wars of the moment; and to use a bit of the surreal to wake us up to the real.

What’s it like to write fiction together?

It’s lunacy, really, but the fun kind of lunacy. Writing non-fiction together is enough of a challenge, but because fiction relies so much on voice and personal idiosyncrasies of style, it’s not for the faint of heart. We decided to work with two narrators. That gave each of us a voice. We would each write our “character” and then pass it to the other to rip to shreds. To paraphrase Nietzsche, what survived was stronger. It would be pretty hard to identify who wrote what at this point.

So your friendship survived?

Absolutely. Some men fish or play tennis together. Writing a novel set in the near-future about themes we care about and still being friends at the end is pretty damn fun. How many friends get to do something so extraordinary together?

And are there vampires in it?

[Response redacted]

 

We hope you will order it today! (In the UK, Europe and Australia, visit your local bookstore. We don’t expect it in North American bookstores until in mid-2016.) 

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The vast majority of people who kill and commit acts of violence are men, but it would be wrong to assume that men are hardwired to harm others, says Gary Barker in this guest blog pegged to the UK release of our new anti-war novel, The Afghan Vampires Book Club.

More than 400,000 people are murdered each year globally and more than 50,000 are killed in armed conflict. Some 80 per cent of those killed are men. And more than 97 per cent of those who carry out homicides are men.

‘Our war machinery is nothing less than a societal project to overcome our natural resistance to violence’ (Photo: Reuters)

As we watch the latest killings of hostages under Isil, or the daily drug-related murders, or the faces on the front-line of any of the world’s conflicts, it’s easy to assume that men – and angry young men in particular – are natural-born killers. Or at least to think that boys are born with a natural propensity to kill that only takes a spark to ignite.

In my lifetime I’ve witnessed two of these killings. One was the killing of a young man by another young man in my high school cafeteria when I was 16, in Houston, Texas. The other was on the streets of Medellin, Colombia, during the height of its drug wars. In that case it was also two young men: a young male police officer killing a young man presumed to be involved in the drug trade.

Both in Texas and Colombia, I saw firsthand what it took to turn young men into killers. These young men were not born trigger-happy and with weapons in their hands. Lethal weapons were available and commonplace, as was the daily normalisation of and exposure to violence on the streets and in their homes. In the case of the police officer in Medellin – like the recent publicised cases of killings by police in the US or Brazil – we can presume the homicide was authorised, perhaps even encouraged, in the name of public security.

Contrary to what Fox News and faulty science would say, it takes a huge effort to turn boys and men into killers. From primatologists to evolutionary anthropologists, we know that neither women nor men are killers by nature.

Extreme trauma, humiliation, shaming, social isolation and intense indoctrination are nearly always part of the making of men who kill. Other researchers have shown how the effects of toxic childhoods and damaging relationships distort our human nature and turn us into killers. The anger that some young men feel in the face of poverty and discrimination may be natural or normal; using lethal violence is not.

All of this research affirms that killing is not natural nor biologically rooted, nor is it associated inherently with any given cultural, social or religious group. Yes, we are biologically capable of killing and can be induced or conditioned to do so. But we know that militaries, police forces and other armed groups around the world have to invest hugely in systems to teach and inculcate boys and men, and sometimes women, to kill. The reasons for killing among these three groups are often vastly different, of course, but the process of encouraging men to kill is similar.

Turning young men into lethal combatants, whether in standing militaries, insurgency groups, police forces or violent gangs, or as lone killers, is extremely time- and resource-intensive. It takes months if not years of constant breaking and rupturing of basic human connections; it often requires systematic cruelty and brutality; it requires intense indoctrination; it requires rupturing relationships or having family members or peers who encourage killing rather than discourage it; and it requires the systematic “othering” of the “enemy.” None of these things are hard-wired into us as human beings. Indeed, the research, from Darwin onwards, is overwhelming that we survived and thrived as a species because our biological and social propensity to live in connection and close cooperation with others is vastly stronger than any propensity to kill or harm each other.

We are good at teaching men to kill. And how we’re horrible at helping them recover from it.

Our war and security machinery – whether among our standing armies or insurgent or terrorist groups – is nothing less than a societal or group project to overcome our natural human resistance to violence. And the social costs over staggering. To give one example, there are more than 25 million war veterans in the US alone. This means 25 million highly trained veterans who are mostly taught to respond to threats with violence.

One in five US veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars came back with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In our recent anti-war novel, The Afghan Vampires Book Club, my co-author Michael Kaufman and I highlight just how good we have become at teaching and socialising men to kill. And how we’re horrible at helping them recover from it.

It may give us slim consolation that the young men (and women) turned into killers are being pushed against their true nature rather toward their true nature. But it is a place to start. To understand that there is nothing natural about killing – that killing is the deepest rupturing of our humanity – is to feel the outrage necessary to question where it comes from and how we can prevent it.

It’s time we spent much more time, energy, and resources helping boys and men tap into their natural and biological desire not to kill. It’s time that we look at every young man, in low income urban areas, or in the Middle East, or in the epicenters of drug violence, as human beings who were taught and conditioned to kill. Not as natural-born killers for whom the only response is repression and more killing.

This article was first published in The Telegraph (UK) on June 5, 2015.  Gary Barker is my co-author of the anti-war novel The Afghan Vampires Book Club (World Editions), just released in the UK. He is also founder and international director of Promundo, an NGO that works in violence prevention and gender equality in Latin America, the US, and sub-Saharan Africa

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