Sexual Violence is a Constant Risk for Refugees, this Organization is Making Men a Part of the Solution


Marwan*, an 18 year old refugee from Afghanistan, sits cross-legged on the couch in The Unmentionables Resource Center sipping on a cup of tea. “This place is the only place I feel safe, I am happy here.”  

Marwan has been coming to The Unmentionables Resource Center for several months, sometimes alone, sometimes with her young son, but recently she has also brought her husband. “My husband and I were married when I turned 15 and have been through many struggles. When we arrived in Athens, I had many activities that I could attend, but there were very few for the men. He became a very angry person and I thought, I do not know this man.”

As Marwan began thriving in Athens, attending many workshops, community events, and educational lessons, her confidence and knowledge of her rights began to grow. “I learned that I must be respected and that men and women are equal. I began speaking to my husband about these learnings and while he was angry at first, he has begun to understand things are done differently here.”

Marwan’s husband is one of the first participants of The Unmentionables’ recently launched programming for men and boys. In similar fashion to the organization’s existing curriculum for women, The Unmentionables conducted 6 weeks of intensive focus groups to adapt their lessons to the men and boys they serve in Greece. The outcome is impressive—a five lesson intensive program focused on sexual and reproductive health, as well as empowerment-centric extension workshops. These extension workshops were specifically developed to combat sexual and gender-based violence through lessons about positive masculinity, healthy relationships, and effective communication, and utilize techniques ranging from role play to interactive games, teaching men and boys how to become effective champions for nonviolence and respect in their friendships, families, and communities.

As The Unmentionables’ Co-founder and CEO Kaleigh Heard notes, “traditional models of addressing sexual health and sexual violence issues in displaced communities are not effective at combating these issues long term, because they are only focused on 50% of the population. In order to ensure women and girls can safely and continually access those rights in a meaningful way, we have to shift the culture surrounding these topics and that starts with the men and boys in their lives.”

Prioritizing the needs of men and boys in the refugee crisis is personal for Kaleigh—it’s the reason she started The Unmentionables in the first place. Back in 2016, she met several 14-year-old boys from Afghanistan on the streets of Athens resorting to prostitution to survive and couldn’t walk away. “I have brothers, in a simple trick of fate, this could have been them.”  But there was nowhere to refer them to—while there are many services available for women and girls to gain medical, protection, or psychosocial support when it comes to sexual violence or health needs, those available for men and boys are few and far between.

This imbalance of protection and services available to men and boys is, in many ways, an issue perpetuated by the trope pushed by the aid community that ‘women and children’ are the most vulnerable in humanitarian crises. While that may be true, the prioritization of services for women and children means that men and boys become increasingly vulnerable. “With this in mind, we’ve always been committed to a gender equal approach to sexual and reproductive health and sexual and gender-based violence intervention, but the urgency with which both perspectives were required became glaring quite quickly. Men and boys were increasingly noting their lack of knowledge of safe sex practices, contraceptives, and their and their partners’ sexual and reproductive rights. We also had multiple women coming back to us saying ‘This information is important, I am so grateful to understand my rights, but my husband, brother, or father doesn’t see it the same way’ so we had to come to terms with the urgency with which we had to get our male programming off the ground very early on.”

In order to ensure women and girls can safely and continually access those rights in a meaningful way, we have to shift the culture surrounding these topics and that starts with the men and boys in their lives.
— Kaleigh Heard, CEO & Co-founder

While The Unmentionables is still in their first two months of administering this programming, they are thrilled with the outcomes thus far.  Today, there are 15 classes provided on sexual and reproductive health and healthy relationships at The Unmentionables Resource Center each week, each taught by a member of the refugee community who has completed 30 hours of intensive training with The Unmentionables. “Our male educators began teaching in June and are absolutely incredible additions to our amazing team of female educators” says Kaleigh.  Abdullah* who teaches the program in Farsi was a doctor back in Afghanistan. During a feedback session with The Unmentionables team in June, he passionately advocated for the rights of women and girls noting “it is important to me that my wife feels loved and supported. She also works here in Athens and so during the days I take care of the children and now I also cook. It is a good relationship because we share in the work.” He also notes that he hopes to set an example for his son and daughter, “I have children who are now grown up and will soon be in marriages of their own. I hope they will take this information about every person’s rights and respect them in their own relationships and be happy.”

Abdullah’s commitment to teaching his children these values is echoed by each of The Unmentionables educators, evidence just two months in of the massive inter-generational effect that gender equal sexual and reproductive health and healthy relationships programming is already having for generations to come.

*names have been changed for security reasons.

Daniel Berberi