UNSC Sexual Violence Debate

Masculinities, Conflict-Related Sexual Violence, and the WPS Agenda

A view of the UN Security Council debating sexual violence in conflict in 2015. (UN Photo/Loey Felipe)

It has been two decades since the women, peace, and security (WPS) agenda began with the passing of United Nations Security Council resolution 1325 in October 2000. Some of its main goals have been to protect the lives of women—especially against sexual violence—during conflict and amplify their participation in peace building processes in pursuit of global gender equality. However, the WPS agenda has been criticized for instrumentalizing more of a women exclusivist approach, which has led to fears of creating a backlash against women or that it might not necessarily lead to societal changes for women on the ground. Others critique the WPS agenda as adhering to binary gender categories, with women as passive victims and peacemakers, and men as perpetrators of violence.

Much of the WPS Security Council debates have been purely devoted to combating sexual violence against women by men. While it is true that women make up of the majority of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) victims, the widely accepted definition of CRSV is narrow and often excludes other types of gender-based violence. For example, “everyday” domestic violence, violence against gender and sexual minorities, sexualized torture, sexual violence committed or abetted by armed women, and sexual violence against men by other men. In a move that ostensibly acknowledges a wider definition of CRSV victims, Security Council resolution 2467, passed in April 2019, names men and boys as victims of CRSV. While it is useful that this resolution explicitly mentions men and boys as victims of CRSV, resolution 2467 gives no guidance on what kind of support male survivors need, nor does it give explicit guidance on what entity in the UN system would provide this support.

This article will explain why an inclusion of masculinities and attention to CRSV against men and boys matters for the future of the WPS agenda. “Gender” refers to the multi-dimensional social constructions of behaviors and attitudes, which are separate from biological sex. Masculinity and femininity describe gender identities, and there are many different kinds of femininities and masculinities. Understandings and manifestations of these identities differ across cultural contexts, and everyone along the gender spectrum engages with masculinities and femininities both consciously and unconsciously (e.g., men experience and engage with all kinds of masculinities and femininities—not just masculinities).

The gender binary ascribes masculine characteristics to men and feminine characteristics to women, without acknowledging the spectrums of gender identity and lived experience. Without understanding how gender binary norms can pressure men into using violence whether before, during, or after conflict, is to miss the essence of how harmful masculinities are formed and why, which is central to the realization of women’s rights and livelihoods interventions. Ignoring one over the other has huge gender implications for women, men, and society at-large.

Constructing New Masculinities

There has been little analysis on the roles individual women and men play in in reconstructing new forms of masculinities in both conflict and post-conflict environments. In many cultural contexts, male and masculine identity is linked to being the sole individual responsible for a family’s livelihood. For instance, men in sub-Saharan Africa are traditionally seen as protectors, providers (for women and children), and homestead heads, in both environments of conflict and peace. In Somalia, many men who become internally displaced and lose control of the provider and protector role in their households due to unemployment, insecurity, and fewer opportunities, end up joining al-Shabaab to reclaim their manhood and social status. In other instances, some Somali women encourage traditional ideas about masculinity by shaming men who are defeated in the battle.

Similarly, in other places like Kaduna State in Nigeria, some men have turned to extremist religious beliefs as a way to regain social control over women when a lack of economic opportunities threatens their traditional masculine roles. Extreme religious practices are one factor that can dictate how gender socialization happens at all societal levels, and how that socialization can eventually facilitate violence. If the WPS agenda and WPS-informed programming do not include an understanding of masculinities, it may reproduce gender inequalities which are both materially and ideologically harmful.

What Sexual Violence Against Men Tells Us

The normative assumption that CRSV is only committed against women by men begs the question: what makes some violence sexual, and according to whom? By framing the question in this way, we can link CRSV to other forms of violence that are not overtly sexual.

Acts of CRSV against men include male rape, genital mutilation or castration, injuries on the testes with objects, and degrading acts that deliberately feminize men in order to make them feel powerless. These are usually not individually targeted, but rather orchestrated by one group against another with aim of disempowerment of the enemy, where acts of de-masculinization and homosexualization of the so-called “ethnic other” is used as both a political strategy and tactic of war. In Northern Uganda, both the rebels and the Ugandan army used many forms of sexual violence as a weapon to deliberately de-masculinize men. This is particularly dangerous in a context where violent homophobia runs rampant.

Cases of sexual violence against men have long been secrets of war, and male-dominated institutions, like religion, have kept it hidden for a very long time in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Rwanda. Part of why disclosure of CRSV against men is so feared is because that disclosure exposes the vulnerability of the male body in times of war and after, which brings collective shame on the hegemonic masculine state that exists to reinforce its patriarchal politics.

Acts of CRSV against men are also not clearly defined in legislation either at the national or international levels, including at the International Criminal Court (ICC). This has allowed many perpetrators of such violence to escape justice, and has precluded many victims from getting help or attaining closure. For example, Chris Dolan, who has worked with many refugees of CRSV in Uganda, explains that though the Rome Statute’s definition of rape is wide enough to include men and women, in domestic legislation, “the definition [of rape] involves penetration of vagina by the penis,” preventing men to come forward because “they’ll be told it wasn’t rape.” In February 2018, during the trial of Dominic Ongwen, the ICC refused to listen to three witnesses with evidence of sexual violence against men and boys, noting that, “the sexual crimes Ongwen has been charged with only related crimes against women and girls” and the ICC does “not consider the hearing of this evidence [from male victims of sexual violence] to be appropriate and necessary for the determination of the truth.”

Also, the detailed gender-related persecution policy by the UN Refugee Agency from 2002 sees rape as an act done unto women with no broader category of that incorporates male rape. The recent 2020 UN Handbook on CRSV demystifies this thinking, but still offers little concrete guidance on how to address CRSV against men and LGBTI persons. It could have taken into more consideration the 2019 Security Council report on CRSV, which recommends systematic government documentation, monitoring, and analysis of and reporting on sexual violence against men and boys for transitional justice purposes. Perhaps as one male survivor of CRSV explained, “…everybody has heard the women’s stories. But nobody has heard the men’s.”

The WPS agenda can be a tool to move understanding of CRSV beyond the tokenism of using certain “good” men as champions of CRSV against women. Currently, most work done on CRSV moves beyond definitions of rape as being done to mainly one group (women) and expands understanding of what CRSV is, all of which broadens knowledge of how sexual violence targets across other gender identities beyond women. The WPS agenda, however, does not adequately address these issues, which further problematizes how international bodies treat the CRSV problem against men, since a clear template on how to address it is lacking. By accounting for this, we can hope to see follow-through on CRSV against men and boys who are refugees or others affected by conflict being embedded globally within UN peacekeeping missions, and through collaborative policy recommendations with national members states that are part of UN agencies.

The impacts of CRSV against men—like those of CRSV against women—are intensified through different cultural and religious taboos. For example, CRSV against men often builds on existing taboos around sexuality, especially homosexuality. Men who have been victimized largely fail to speak out nor seek psychosocial support for fear of being accused of complicity in their own attacks, or of public and private emasculation and risk of stigmatization as homosexual, effeminate, and weak.

Moreover, most existing CRSV support systems are explicitly for women. While none of these spaces should be diminished or repurposed, it is important to also have resources available for men who are victims to treat their mental, emotional, and physical health in the aftermath of an attack. CRSV against men is political and should be approached in a similar manner as CRSV against women. It is a good sign that the WPS agenda has begun to include language around men and boys’ victimhood, and it is time for programming and implementation to follow suit.

What Next?

Practitioners and policymakers implementing the WPS agenda should be mindful that CRSV and associated traumas do not stop after conflict—neither in practice nor the suffering experienced by its victims. This includes how CRSV disrupts societal notions of masculinities. By moving beyond binary assumptions about gender and violence, WPS practitioners can attend to the greater picture of how CRSV is not separate from other forms of socio-political, gender-related violence that might continue to surface at the individual, household, community, state, or international levels. The normalization of CRSV to be only against women, constantly perpetrated by men, gives us a single story in which women are victims while men are always perpetrators, which is not consistent with data. This narrative also accounts for why WPS practitioners need to move beyond the default value of using the “good men industry” as champions of CRSV against women. This can be further supplemented by focusing on how gender relations and individual actions by both men and women are influential in undoing CRSV against men, while putting in place neutral psychosocial support to combat traumas in the aftermath of attacks. By doing this, there is greater hope that CRSV as experienced by men, as well as gender and sexual minorities, will be broadly captured to reach an inclusive protectionist agenda, where they too, can be genuinely seen as survivors.

Ibrahim Bahati is a gender and development analyst from Uganda, an Advisory Board Member for the Mastercard Foundation Learning Partnership Advisory Group (LPAG) and holds an MSc. in Rural Community Development from the American University of Beirut. He tweets @Bahabris.

This article is part of a series reflecting on the future of the women, peace, and security agenda.