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State of World Population 2010

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Chapter Four

In times of crisis, gender relations in flux

Fleeing from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a man in distress told an aid worker talking with refugees in Uganda that he could no longer bear to watch helplessly as others around him were brutally abused. He had learned how powerless men could be in the face of utter lawlessness and unchecked violence. He had also suffered sexual abuse, unable to save even himself from gender-based violence. “We are cowards; we feel bad,” he said, “That’s why we all left.”

A Thai United Nations Police officer (front, left) and an officer with the Vulnerable Persons Unit of the Polícia Nacional de Timor-Leste (PNTL), at right, respond to a call near the village of Gleno.  ©UN Photo/Martine Perret

As the world and its global institutions have turned a long-overdue spotlight on the abuse of women in conflict and disaster, it has become evident to many people working in disrupted communities that men also have suffered a range of abuses. Healing them and restoring their damaged sense of worth in society is now seen as crucial to the long-term success of reconciliation and rebuilding. Women and men are working together not only in the physical reconstruction of homes and communities. They are also talking about shifting gender roles and the breakdown of age-old definitions of masculinity, which may result from both conflict and displacement.

United Nations Security Council resolutions and other United Nations documents have for years used the word “civilians” to cover all men, women and children affected by war, even when they were largely intended to address violence against women and girls. Gender-specific killing such as the slaughter of thousands of men and boys in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the mid-1990s, as part of what the world came to call “ethnic cleansing,” was condemned for what it was. But these developments did not translate into a sustained campaign for the end of violence against men and boys.

A focus on men and boys does not come without controversy. Among many women and in some women’s advocacy organizations there is concern that long, hard battles for recognition, justice and compensation for women must not be allowed to wane as more attention turns to men. After all, violence against women remains high and in some places growing. For example, in Africa in 2008 the Goma Declaration on Eradicating Sexual Violence and Ending Impunity in the Great Lakes Region noted that sexual and gender-based violence, particularly against women and children had reached “pandemic” proportions and was “not only related to crisis situations and war.” And in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the use of rape in war in the early 1990s led to the inclusion of sexual abuses of all kinds as internationally recognized war crimes, the government’s Gender Center reported in 2010 that domestic violence has been on the rise, 15 years after a peace agreement ended the conflict. 

Yet many if not most actors in the global battle against gender-based violence, women as well as men, welcome a greater focus on men and boys as an important development because men are seen as part of a lasting solution, even when male behaviour is considered the problem.

In some traditional societies, the language of feminism and women’s rights has been greeted with alarm by men, and needs to be translated carefully into local languages and culture in order to draw men into the discussion of societal changes, which are taking place everywhere. That was the opinion expressed by Otellu Eyatty, the superintendant of police in Amuria, a rural district in eastern Uganda. He said that the use of language drawn from the global North created misunderstanding among the men in his area, already under stress from the helplessness they felt after losing their cattle herds to rustlers from the neighboring Karamoja region, home to armed clans. “They did not know what is empowerment,” he said. “It sounds threatening to a man—like the women would take all his power away.” How these ideas are presented, he said, makes a big difference in the success or failure of understanding gender roles.

Men in several regions of Uganda have endured many psychological and physical assaults, and these are emblematic of what has happened in numerous other places where conflict or disaster has disrupted life, including Liberia, where an estimated 30 per cent or more of men may have been abused during years of political turmoil and civil war. There is the obvious category of violent physical assault such as rape, often by armed groups. The Refugee Law Project at the renowned Makerere University has documented these abuses in stories of displaced people within Uganda and refugees from the large Great Lakes region, in particular the Democratic Republic of Congo. The results of the project’s research formed the basis of a 2008 film, Gender Against Men.

In the film, a Congolese refugee, his silhouette shown in darkness, described being sexually abused by “many” unidentified soldiers from one of Congo’s warring factions. “I do not know the number,” he said. “It causes me a lot of trauma. One does not really know how to live as one did before.” Most chilling on several levels was his explanation for his attackers’ behaviour: “We were worth nothing,” he said. “They were putting us in the place of women. [They said] we are going to show you that you are all women. You are not men like us.”

The hurt borne by men is not always directly physical. There is also, often hidden, psychological trauma inflicted, often for the purposes of intimidation and humiliation. These are soul-destroying because they strike at a man’s sense of who he is, or at his maleness, Chris Dolan, Director of the Refugee Law Project says in Gender Against Men. “Many of the conflicts involve conflicts of identity: ethnic identities, political identities, and even trying to identify who’s in, who’s out, who’s deemed worthy or not worthy. Humiliation is a key issue. How do you humiliate and prove that those who are out should be out? How do you establish your supremacy, your right to control? A lot of that seems to be achieved through particular forms of violence. The use of sexual violence, I think, is very much about kind of going right to the heart of individual and group sense of self.”

Men and children are forced to watch a wife and mother being raped by armed assailants while they are unable to stop the attack. Sometimes, the victims are sisters, elderly parents or other relatives. Sometimes, the man of the house is tied up to restrain him while attacks are going on. Children are present; the psychological harm to them is immeasurable. In Gender Against Men, a young woman tells how her brother was killed because he refused at gunpoint to rape her.

When men have lost their homes and livelihoods to conflict and are confined to refugee camps or temporary settlements for displaced people, another factor emerges: men often lose their sense of usefulness and worth. They see women taking charge of the family’s fragile economy, buying and selling whatever they can, bartering for food or other necessities, sometimes prostituting themselves for money to put food in empty bowls. The shift in traditional gender roles is now widely considered to be a factor in the rise of domestic violence within camps, which may continue after people return home or are resettled in another country. A recent report for the United Nations by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, set up by the non-governmental Norwegian Refugee Council, found that the number of people forced out of their homes within their own countries worldwide had jumped from 17 million in 1997 to more than 27 million in 2009, the largest number since records have been kept following outbreaks of civil wars and internal conflicts in the 1990s. The threats to domestic peace and confusion about gender roles can only grow. The research shows that while peace agreements and ceasefires agreed around the world in the first decade of this century may have reduced displacement in some places, new crises have arisen elsewhere. Pakistan had the highest number—about 3 million—of internally displaced people in 2009, partly because of a spreading Taliban insurgency and the government’s military response. That number rose—perhaps by several million—in August as floods devastated parts of the country.

      Trends in Internally displaced persons and refugees, 1989 to 2009

      Source: Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, Norwegian Refugee Council.

Distress among men, apart from lacking a broad international campaign to make people more aware of it, often goes unnoticed and untreated because men do not seek counselling and help as often or as soon as women do. Alumai Francis, Training Coordinator for the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization of Uganda, says this: “The issue of dealing with men is the issue of acceptance. Then you link the issue of acceptance to the issue of masculinity. No man can get up and be announcing to the whole world that he is defeated. They try to cope. And in most cases from my experience, you find that this lack of opening up…is now turned into other forms of behaviour. You find that behaviour and habits like alcohol abuse is increased, the issue of domestic violence, and forms of rape.”

“When you look at men in their families you find that just like women and children, they equally need counselling,” he said about conflict stress as he joined a conversation with other non-governmental organization representatives gathered at UNFPA headquarters in Kampala. “To get them into that setting to get support isn’t easy. The man will only accept support when he is completely down. When you bring them to counselling centres, they think counselling is for people with mental problems. To be brought to a counselling centre, they believe that you aren’t sick, you are actually mad. So being seen at the counselling centre is unacceptable. What will the community think about it? What will the community say about you?  So that makes most men run into denial. That denial [again] takes other forms of negative behaviour: alcohol abuse, domestic violence, child abuse and all that.” Social workers living in communities where families have returned from displaced people camps are helping to make men less reluctant to seek help, he said. But it takes time.

The psychological distance men must travel is often enormous, not only to adjust to new realities in post-conflict situations but also to seek help when that adjustment process overwhelms the ability to cope. In a paper Chris Dolan wrote a decade ago, Collapsing Masculinities and Weak States—A Case Study of Northern Uganda, he said that stereotypes and models of perceived masculine and feminine behaviour were deeply entrenched. In that scheme of things, women are always second-class citizens. Against that background, new thinking among women who have emerged from disruption with survival skills honed by necessity and want to carry a measure of economic and social independence into a resumed village life, is a monumental challenge to men who might have assumed that they would quickly take back all their authority and domination.

A group of young people in front of a school in Amuru, Uganda.
©Panos Pictures/Jenny Matthews

Among Palestinians in lands occupied by Israel, old views of gender roles are similarly challenged, if in different ways and for different reasons, according to Ziad Yaish, Assistant Representative for UNFPA’s programme in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Yaish has written a master’s thesis on the subject for Birzeit University in which he focused his research on the Palestinian city of Nablus, where families have endured decades of occupation and sporadic military attacks. Israeli settlements are expanding in the Nablus area, connected by roads Palestinians are not permitted to use.

Nablus, an ancient city with a long history of resistance, has been battered by Israeli assaults and intrusive search operations. The city is more or less circumscribed by Israeli barricades that limit access, as road blocks are sometimes rearranged without warning, causing residents lost time as they look for open routes. The local economy is in bad shape, jobs are scarce and unemployment high. Yaish was interested, he said in an interview, to learn how households negotiated authority in this crisis situation.

“I wanted to know how men feel about the whole situation, and the effect of the occupation on gender roles in the family,” he said. “I wanted to study men, and husbands in particular, and also their relations with their wives and their children. The whole idea started when I saw men at Israeli checkpoints getting humiliated—sometimes strip-searched, interrogated in front of their families. My thoughts were about how those men react when they go back to their households.”

“Studies on the effect of war and armed conflict on masculinity in the Arab World are limited,” Yaish wrote in his thesis. “The whole concept of masculinity is new in the Arab World.” He said that searches through bookstores and libraries in Cairo, Amman, Damascus and Jerusalem produced few relevant books or articles.

In the Nablus area, Yaish divided his subjects into men under 40 years old and over 40, to see if generational differences arose. He also talked with women married to unemployed men. “Men are supposed to be the providers and the protectors. But here when they lose their jobs it seems that women take over in terms of trying to provide for the family. Women try to do some income-generating projects [or] get jobs to get an income.” Older men, he found, tend to disengage from the family if they feel marginalized by women, many of whom try to give them psychological support in the hope that one day roles will revert to “normal.”

In Gaza, where life is even more circumscribed for Palestinians than in the West Bank, a group of women speaking by video link to the UNFPA office in Jerusalem, said that they have seen changes in men’s and women’s roles and attitudes in recent years as the territory became more and more isolated. Sabha Sarhan, who since 2003 has organized rural women into self-help clubs that teach, among other things, food production and preservation as income-earners, said that women recognized that life has been bad for the minds of men, and they found ways to try to keep peace in their homes. “Men get frustrated over small things,” she said, “like not being able to buy cigarettes. But women are smart. They can earn money to support men and avoid violence.” Sarhan said she was committed from the start of her rural projects to breaking the custom of confining women to their homes, and she thinks that the Palestinian women of Gaza are stronger now, in part because of what they have endured and had to work through to keep themselves and their families alive. 

Maryam Zaqoot, a human rights activist and Director of the Culture and Free Thought Association in Gaza, added that her organization and others recognized that conflict with Israel affected men more than women in many ways and, on the positive side, has contributed to more shared efforts to alleviate hardship. “Men are becoming more aware of women,” she said. She was echoed by Fiza Shraim, a Palestinian pioneer in improving midwifery and maternal health care under extremely difficult situations, who said that she had observed that fewer young men seem to look for docile, uneducated wives who will stay at home, but are seeking women with skills who can work and help sustain families. She also said that she sees more men helping around the house, a concurrent development and sign of changing attitudes. 

In the West Bank, Yaish found that women often excuse abusive behaviour because they believe that men without jobs need their help and support. Younger unemployed Palestinian men do not disengage or withdraw from family life, as many older men do, but are restless and actively continue to look for jobs. To pass the time, they meet with friends, talking in coffee shops, if they can afford that, or just collecting out on the streets. “They are very angry, they are frustrated,” Yaish said. “Younger men resort more to violence to assert their masculinity in the household.” Palestinian men do not usually seek or accept psychosocial counselling, which is offered by numerous organizations. But both men and women, in Yaish’s findings, spoke of becoming more religious in a search for inner peace and the ability to cope with a hard life.

“You always look at masculinity in relation to femininity—you have to look at them together, Yaish said. “Here…I notice a lot of programmes that talk about gender-based violence but always…about women. It becomes a women’s issue. But I think it is not. It is a women’s and men’s issue at the end of the day.”


Feminists have often argued that women are natural peace-makers and would choose non-violent solutions rather than conflict whenever possible. Since ancient times, however, women have gone to war, and the conflicts in contemporary times have involved many women, by choice or forced recruitment. Ethnic conflict and nationalistic or class-related causes have drawn committed women into civil wars and sometimes terrorism. High-technology warfare waged by developed nations has attracted women to careers in the military, where they seek commanding roles in competition with men.

Swati Parashar, a lecturer at the University of Limerick in Ireland, writing recently about feminism and armed conflict in Sri Lanka, where up to a fifth of the cadres of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam were girls or women, raised relevant questions.“Women who support and indulge in both discriminate and indiscriminate violence against institutions of the state and unarmed civilians not only redefine notions of nationalism, gender and religious identity, but also highlight their complex and problematic relationship with feminism. To what extent does participating in militant activities and armed combat provide women with opportunities to transcend conventional gender roles?…How are militant women influenced by these political movements and how do they influence these movements?...How does/should feminist international relations approach these militant women?”

A Maoist soldier in Bhojpur, Nepal, in 2005.
©AFP/Getty Images

A subsequent question might be: What happens when fighting ends and these women go home? Nepal and Sri Lanka are now going through processes of reintegrating former female combatants. A cautionary warning about some post-conflict expectations among women who chose to fight alongside men was offered by Sara Emmanuel, writing in the ISIS Newsletter in June 2007.“In El Salvador,” she wrote, “women ex-militants looking back on their lives as fighters, speak of experiencing some kind of liberation from social restrictions; new sexual freedom and liberation from conventional perceptions of motherhood; hope of finding a means of overcoming poverty and oppression and bringing about a better future. However, the realities that peace and demobilisation brought were very different. The women were separated from their comrades, they lost their weapons, they had to suddenly go back to their families and reintegration was difficult. They felt lonely and isolated. They needed emotional care and support."

In Nepal, women played many active roles during a 10-year armed conflict between government forces and a Maoist insurgency. Women were combatants, state security personnel, sole breadwinners for households, researchers, activists, journalists and politicians. The image of women with guns was a new reality in Nepal that challenged the age-old perception of women as subservient members of society. After the signing of a peace agreement in 2006, space opened up for women’s participation in peacebuilding. An interim constitution introduced “women’s rights” as fundamental and pledged non-discrimination on the basis of gender. In 2006, a parliamentary resolution was passed to reserve 33 per cent of seats for women in all state bodies.

Women made up about a third of the Maoist forces, and many of them were children when they joined. In February, when the Maoists discharged 3,000 minors from their People’s Liberation Army, about 1,000 of them were girls. As part of a joint United Nations support programme, led by UNFPA, reproductive health services were provided to former combatants and technical help was offered to ensure a gender-sensitive approach to the planning and implementation of the military discharge process.

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