Men and Women Working as Partners for Gender-Sensitive Active Nonviolence

by Isabelle Geuskens, The Netherlands

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The Women Peacemakers Program (WPP) finds it important to apply a masculinities perspective in the work for gender-sensitive peacebuilding. Feedback received from women peace activists in our network initiated this work. They indicated that two main obstacles interfered with their peace activism: (1) society as a whole lacking a gender-analysis of violence; and (2) many men involved in peacebuilding lacking gender awareness.

This confirmed for us that changing cultures of violence requires not only investing in the empowerment of women; it also requires looking critically at men’s socialization. For UN Security Council Resolution 1325 to become a reality, we need to go to all the roots contributing to women’s victimization and marginalization before, during, and after armed conflict. This implies addressing the construction of male gender identities that support men’s dominance, violence and militarization. Hence, it means addressing the deeply gendered nature of violent conflict itself.

It is our experience that, when addressing the topic of gender-sensitive peace-building through men’s gendered experiences of violence and war as well, it is easier to connect men to the women, peace, and security (WPS) agenda. Next to paying attention to the privileges of men, this means discussing how men are also losing out from current hegemonic male gender roles in society; and in particular, how these gender dynamics exacerbate during armed conflict.

 At the same time, when questioning hegemonic gender roles, it is important to also invest in alternatives. This includes looking – through a gender lens – at how society perceives and deals with conflict. Often, society frames conflict as something negative, to be solved through a win-lose approach (“power over”). A gender-sensitive nonviolent approach does not see conflict as the problem – as conflict is considered a part of life, and can even carry the seeds of positive change. The issue lies in how we as humans, and particularly men, are socialized and trained into accepting violence as a part of life and in particular a way to address conflict.

Investing in alternatives means investing in people’s skills to recognize and analyze conflict and injustice, as well as in how to address it by strategizing and working together (“people power” or “power with”). It is interesting to mention here that research increasingly argues that a strategy of nonviolence is more effective than violence in achieving policy goals. According to data analyzed by Stephan and Chenoweth, between 1900 and 2006, nonviolent campaigns were more successful in achieving their policy goals (53 % of the time), whereas violent campaigns only had a success rate of 26 %.

To illustrate what is meant by ‘alternatives’, we would like to share some of our lessons learned in terms of integrating a masculinities approach in our training work around gender-sensitive peacebuilding:

  • Investing in monitoring the impact of the work is important as to see whether the approach is relevant and effective. Our trainees informed us that the follow-up trainings they in turn implemented in their countries generated much positive response. They reached out to a diverse group of interested stakeholders; including NGO representatives, police officers, representatives from the media, government officials, lawyers, community elders, religious scholars, student representatives, youth leaders from indigenous groups, and representatives from the men’s movement. Beyond their own trainings, a far broader group was reached (at least 25,000 people), through:                                     – The use of media (radio programs) and the dissemination of articles on nonviolence, women’s rights, masculinities, and peace-building;  

          -The establishment of men’s groups/ programs in their community, to address men’s role in eradicating violence against women and wider violence in society, and to raise awareness on nonviolent conflict resolution;                                                          

 – Providing expertise to other organizations upon request (e.g. workshops);                                                                                    

– Integration of gender-sensitive nonviolence in their organisations’s work (from policy to program level);     

– Joining women’s lobby and advocacy initiatives for women’s rights;                                                                                              

– Sharing the concepts within other networks (incl. regional networks).

  • Trainees confirmed that training male activists to become trainers in gender-sensitive active nonviolence is very effective, since male trainers are often in a good position to reach out to male participants in a group. Equally important is including women in every step of the work. E.g., we always stress working with mixed trainer teams (female and male trainers); which according to our trainees results in powerful role modeling in their communities (“women and men working as partners for gender equality”).
  • Solidarity is very important, as our trainees shared that working for gender-sensitive nonviolence often means being a minority voice. Several shared facing ridicule;opposition; silencing; and even threats. It is therefore important to take time to discuss this reality with trainees, as well as how to deal with it collectively, so that it does not end up undermining one’s commitment.
  • There are no shortcuts; paradigm shifts take time. When we started our work on masculinities, we looked critically at how to build in accountability and sustainability. For us, this meant e.g. investing in thorough and strict selection processes; intensive training cycles (consisting of two trainings and a mandatory country-based follow-up training); and the trainings addressing knowledge and skills building as well as people’s commitment:The personal is political!
  • It is important to invest in the creation of constructive spaces for the “unsaid” and the difficult conversations; e.g. during trainings we create this space through the organizing of gender dialogue sessions, during which male and female trainees can address sensitive gender dynamics/issues.
  • When talking about masculinities and war, it is important to do so against the background of women’s long history of peace activism and organizing against militarism. It is important to raise awareness on the roots of the WPS agenda in the women’s movement;and to keep the masculinities work connected to this bigger picture. This is to prevent masculinities work from being narrowed down to a focus on male victims of war only; and to balance this by also pointing out how male privilege operates; the resulting costs for women; and the importance of women’s participation and leadership in peace-building. It is this “bigger picture” that will support men and women to work together, as partners,for gender-sensitive peacebuilding.


Isabelle Geuskens is the Executive Director of Women Peacemakers Program(WPP), based in The Hague, The Netherlands. Since 2010, Isabelle serves on the 16 Days Advisory Committee. Before working for the WPP, Isabelle worked with local communities and activists in Bosnia Herzegovina and Northern Ireland. She has a Master of Arts Degree from the University of Maastricht, the Netherlands.

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