Masculinities and the women, peace and security agenda: strengthening or watering down?

Last week’s International Conference on Masculinities was the latest in a string of international events on engaging men and boys for gender equality. From the inauguration of the UN’s HeForShe campaign to the proliferation of events on engaging men and boys at international conferences like the UN Commission on the Status of Women and the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, it’s become impossible to ignore the growing prominence of this agenda. But it’s not without its critics and at times the topic has been divisive, with many women’s rights activists – including some present at the conference – expressing concerns about what a disproportionate focus on men and boys could mean for feminist movements.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to approach this question and although peacebuilding was only a minor theme at the conference – as much of the work currently happening on transforming masculinities relates to issues of fatherhood, domestic violence and sexual health, rather than conflict and militarisation – the same points of contention still come up when talking about masculinities in the peacebuilding world. I believe that transforming gender norms to promote equality and non-violence means engaging with people of all genders. Nonetheless, we know there are risks and challenges that come with an increased focus on men and boys, and we must take a critical and reflective approach as we take our work forward.

One of those risks is that the engagement of men in work for gender equality can lead to men assuming leadership roles and men’s voices being privileged in a way that reinforces the patriarchal status quo. The recent Barbershop conference – originally described as a ‘men-only’ conference on gender equality – initially looked like a prime example of this, excluding women from conversations in which their voices ought to be centred. Only after advocacy by pro-feminist organisations was participation opened up to women.

Similarly, some initiatives to prevent male violence against women do so by persuading men that they should be the protectors of their wives and daughters rather than their abusers. By framing the message in this way, well-intentioned projects to end violence can actually reinforce men’s positions of power over the women in their lives. Recently I’ve heard some governments say that the idea of working on ‘masculinities’ sounds too abstract or complex, and so they prefer to commit instead to ‘engaging men and boys’. But examples like these highlight how engaging men and boys without challenging masculinities and their relationship with power can in practice reinforce patriarchy rather than upending it.

Another thing that worries many is pressure on resources. Work for gender equality is sorely underfunded relative to need, with the average women’s rights organisation running on just $20,000 a year. It’s not surprising, then, that many women’s rights activists worry that the recent resurgence in interest in men and masculinities will result in women’s rights organisations – many of whom have already been working with men and boys for decades – losing out on scarce resources as they are given to newer organisations focusing specifically on engaging men.

I think this is a totally legitimate concern, which donors must take seriously. However, rather than organisations working with women and those working with men accepting that they must compete for a small funding pot, I believe we should go back to the donors together, say that the funding pot must urgently be increased, including a substantial boost in funds for women’s rights organisations. Organisations providing specialist services for women certainly shouldn’t face a choice between agreeing to work with men or losing their funding, and resources allocated to work with men and boys should support pro-feminist projects, with women involved in their design, monitoring and evaluation.

Ultimately, many women’s rights advocates worry that a move from ‘women, peace and security’ to ‘gender, peace and security’ depoliticises the agenda. In particular, they worry that increased attention to men’s vulnerabilities in conflict, such as the use of sexual violence against men, draws equivalence between men’s and women’s experiences which glosses over gender inequalities.

Certainly, if ‘doing gender’ means that we as peacebuilders simply take into account the needs of both women and men in conflict-affected societies without addressing structural inequalities and entrenched male privilege, then I believe we’re going down the wrong path. Yet surely we can acknowledge that patriarchy does have negative impacts on many men, even at the same time as it benefits them in other ways. We also can’t ignore that some men (and women) are much more privileged than others, usually as a result of other aspects of their identities, such as age, class, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, (dis)ability, and so on. Furthermore, working on masculinities means far more than understanding men’s vulnerabilities. It means challenging the links between masculinity, power and violence which drive conflict as well as the oppression of women and sexual and gender minorities.

Rather than seeing gender as a de-politicised, technical exercise that just adds men and boys to the women, peace and security agenda, we need to repoliticise an agenda that all too often focuses on adding women into existing peace and security processes without really challenging the gendered nature of those processes. By highlighting the masculinised and militarised assumptions behind the present international security paradigm, we can aim to address the exclusion of women – and most men – from the decisions that affect their lives and reshape what it means to build security around an understanding that supports peace and equality for people of all genders.

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

Also see other Saferworld publications related to men and masculinities:………

First published on the Saferworld website at…, March 19, 2015. Reprinted with permission.