When, as women activists, we come together to discuss gender and militarism, we often end up discussing how militarism affects women’s lives. Men are also a recurring topic during these conversations: Men taking up arms to settle conflict; men raping women as a strategy of war; and men deciding who gets what at the peace table. Consciously or not, we often end up concluding that men are quite a problematic category of people in our struggle for gender justice and a more peaceful world.
But what if we would change our lens, and instead of perceiving men merely as perpetrators of violence and gender injustice, would focus on the fact that men also often end up as victims of war? Such a perspective could open the door for working with men as partners in the struggle for gender justice.
For this, it is worth considering the philosophy of active nonviolence, which looks beyond the direct perpetrator and instead focuses on the entire oppressive system upholding the injustice. This philosophy reasons that those oppressing others also oppress themselves. Ten years after the ratification of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325), Women Peacemakers Program started to integrate this perspective in its work. Women activists informed us that one obstacle they continued to face in their peace work concerned the lack of male support. It made us realize that the full implementation of UNSCR 1325 remains obstructed by the fact that those who make the decisions on war and peace too often dismiss 1325 as a women’s issue only.
Still, 1325 is about gender and peacebuilding. And men also have a gender identity. We reasoned that we needed to get more personal if we wanted to engage men as allies for the cause, by pointing out how war, as the ultimate expression of patriarchy, also targets men because of their gender. Though at first it might seem that patriarchy only benefits them, in the end men also lose out. Militarism narrows the male gender identity to an intensely violent masculinity, which is measured according to one’s willingness to fight, mutilate, kill and die. Those men who want to escape this narrow “male box” often face severe consequences.
It is hence important to disclose the unspoken reality of suffering, which often lies beyond the superficial image of the war hero. I want to refer here to some of the personal stories I heard from young men during the late nineties, who grew up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. They told me that joining the paramilitaries for them was part of becoming a man, somebody to be respected. In this world, you were either a real man and committed to defending the community, or you were labeled as weak and a traitor. Returning to normal life was a real challenge for several of them, manifesting itself in depression, suicide attempts, alcoholism, and broken marriages. I clearly recall one former paramilitary, who spoke of his loneliness and isolation because society did not allow him to share his experiences and feelings of regret and doubt. He experienced this because real men are not supposed to have “these kind of emotions,” nor express any insecurity in relation to the acts they commit during war times.
Building peace therefore requires looking critically at boys’ socialization. If we want UNSCR 1325 and what it stands for to succeed, we need to reveal that we live in cultures that chronically dehumanize their men as well. We have to go to the root of the problem and start addressing the construction of male and female identities, including a male gender identity that supports men’s violence and militarization. We need to start opening up this narrow male box, so that more constructive masculinities can take root.
Several groups and networks are already actively working towards this, and the number of men who are getting on board is growing every day. Once women and men start working together as allies, the foundation will be laid for the transformation of the peace-and-security agenda from a radical gender perspective.
by Isabelle Geuskens
Isabelle Geuskens is the Director of the Women Peacemakers Program, which works since 1997 to support women peace activists worldwide. During 2009-2010, WPP pioneered a program on engaging men for gender-sensitive peacebuilding, and since then has integrated a masculinities perspective in its work.