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Addressing notions of masculinity that drive conflict

by Hannah Wright, Saferworld | Saferworld - UK
Thursday, 4 December 2014 17:12 GMT

Capson Sausi / Saferworld

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Gender norms often promote notions of masculinity centred around power, violence and control. If we are serious about peacebuilding and conflict prevention we need to address them, says Hannah Wright.

Peacebuilding organisations, governments and UN agencies are increasingly recognising the importance of applying a gender perspective to all efforts to build peace in countries affected by violent conflict. A legally-binding international commitment to do so was cemented in UN Security Council Resolution 1325, passed in October 2000. ‘Taking a gender perspective’ is often assumed to mean highlighting the roles, needs and rights of women and girls. This is vital to addressing persistent gender inequalities in access to influence, resources, security and justice. However, truly taking a gender perspective also requires critical examination of the roles and experiences of men and boys in conflict prevention and peacebuilding. Research tells us that socially constructed gender norms which associate masculinity with power, violence and control can play a role in driving conflict and insecurity. In a new report, Saferworld argues that peacebuilders should include efforts to promote notions of masculinity which favour non-violence and gender equality in their programming.

Taking a new gender perspective

A call to focus attention on men may at first seem surprising. After all, men continue to dominate the field of peace and security: they make up the majority of military and political leaders, diplomats, negotiators, and media figures. Yet in the field of peacebuilding, the attitudes, values and behaviours of men are rarely considered from a gender perspective. Around the world, men are the primary perpetrators of violence, making up 95% of people convicted of homicide, as well as being the majority of combatants in conflicts. Yet this does not necessarily mean men are naturally more violent than women: rather, socially constructed gender norms in most if not all cultures, associate violence with men and boys in a way that it is not associated with women and girls.

For example, in South Sudan and Somalia, militarised notions of masculinity which valorise domination and violence have motivated men to participate in violence and women to support or pressure them to do so. In Kosovo, political and military actors have promoted narratives of ‘real men’ as freedom fighters and women as helpless victims in order to recruit combatants and build support for war. In Uganda, studies have documented the use of violence to attain other symbols of manhood such as wealth or access to women. Accounts from Colombia and Uganda suggest that when men feel unable to live up to societal expectations of masculinity they may be more susceptible to recruitment into armed groups as well as more likely to commit violence in the home. This clearly has implications for efforts to build peace in countries affected by violent conflict.

There is growing recognition that violent notions of masculinity lie behind gender-based violence against women and girls. However, feminist academics have long argued that masculinities can also play a role in driving conflict and other forms of violence which are not usually thought of as ‘gender-based’, and research from a number of conflict-affected countries backs this up. Dominant notions of masculinity tend to look different during wartime than during peacetime. In wartime, ‘being a man’ is often equated with being a combatant. Men may come under pressure to support military action, to take up arms, fight, kill and be willing to die for their nation or community. Men who do not or cannot conform to expectations of masculinity may pay a high social price.

Promoting alternative masculinities

Gender norms cannot be described as the sole cause of any particular conflict: rather, they combine with other factors to produce conflict and violence. But where patriarchal masculinities do play a role in driving violent conflict, they need to be addressed alongside those other factors. UN Women Deputy Director Lakshmi Puri recently lamented the “militarism, negative masculinities and patriarchy which glorifies violence and aggression, and undergirds the culture of war”, while UN guidance on rehabilitation of ex-combatants states that “finding alternatives to violent ways of expressing masculinity is vital in periods of transition from war to peace.” Yet this has not become part of mainstream thinking on peace and security – even among those working on gender issues – nor has it become a fully developed policy and programming agenda.

A number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) – including Promundo, Sonke Gender Justice, CARE International and others – have developed programming to change attitudes toward masculinity, which has made demonstrable impacts on the lives of men and women. But most of these focus on other important issues such as domestic violence, sexual health or fatherhood. A few organisations, such as Women Peacemakers Program, have taken some of these approaches and adapted them to meet conflict prevention and peacebuilding objectives, but this field of work is still very new – too new to provide an evidence-based guide for peacebuilders.

If these approaches are to become effective in addressing violent masculinities as a core element of improved peace practice, there are some questions to answer along the way. For example, in each context, careful analysis will be needed to identify the target audience for efforts to transform masculinities: should these focus on the security sector, men who might be vulnerable to recruitment into armed groups, or should it target attitudes within the wider society? In addition to changing the beliefs and attitudes of individuals, how can we transform the institutions and structures that reinforce patriarchal gender norms, such as educational, legal and cultural institutions? How do international systems, from peacekeeping operations and internationally supported security sector reform efforts to development and humanitarian relief programmes, reinforce violent masculinities or promote more positive ones?

Of course, while starting to think about how men and masculinities fit into peacebuilding efforts, it is vital that we do not divert attention away from promoting women’s rights and participation in decision-making on peace and security. New avenues for research, policy and programming on masculinities should be pursued in addition to, and not at the expense of, increasing resources and political will to implement international commitments under the women, peace and security agenda, including resolution 1325. Saferworld’s report, ‘Masculinities, conflict and peacebuilding’, aims to advance discussions about how working on masculinities can complement efforts focusing on women to strengthen and deepen peacebuilding processes.

Hannah Wright is Saferworld's Gender, Peace and Security Adviser.