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Men, Masculinities, and Peacebuilding

May 28, 2010

“We often discuss patriarchy and its many faces; we often talk about men beating their wives, men raping women during war, men dominating politics, economics, culture and religion… what if our own liberation actually starts with seeing men not only as perpetrators and obstacles, but also as victims of their own gender construct?”

In recognition of the 2010 International Women’s Day for Peace and Disarmament (May 24) the Women Peacemakers Program published a manual entitled “Together for Transformation – Men, Masculinities and Peacebuilding.” The main gist of this assortment of articles is that we live in cultures that chronically dehumanize men as well as women. War, in particular, narrows men’s gender identity to one that is rooted in extreme violence (and this impacts men whether they are in a country like the Democratic Republic of the Congo or the United States).

Different than most of the material I’ve seen on “engaging men”—which focus on fostering men as allies in the women’s movement by emphasizing the rights of women—the articles and case studies in this manual build off of a principle that Dr. Martin Luther King is famous for espousing. That is, that perpetrators are also victims; that those who oppress others also oppress themselves.

The manual includes case studies from around the world exemplifying innovative efforts to confront masculinity. Padare / Enkundleni / Men’s Forum on Gender, an “anti-sexist men’s social movement” in Zimbabwe, identifies its sole purpose as addressing violence against women by challenging patriarchy and promoting positive masculinities. Men for Gender Equality Now (MEGEN) in Kenya focuses on the transformation of harmful masculinities into positive ones – emphasizing that it is important to avoid campaign messages that portray men in negative terms while aiming to change them since “no man self-identifies as a beast.” In India, the Men’s Action for Stopping Violence Against Women (MASVAW) designs projects based on the belief that boys and men are not born violent but that they are socialized into a culture of violence. New Profile, an Israeli organization, makes use of feminist methods of knowledge-building and organizing to reduce the militarized nature of Israel’s government, society and culture. Among other things, it works together with teachers and educators in schools to reduce the influence of militarized education.

“Together for Transformation” draws on examples like those listed above to develop a list of resources and suggested actions. Among the list of actions is:

  • Talk with girls and boys from your community and listen to the challenges they face in becoming adults and shaping their identity. How do they feel about societal expectations in terms of the “proper” behavior for girls and boys, women and men? How do they deal with those?

As I was reading this, I was reminded that this week the state of Maryland declared May 24-28 to be Bullying Awareness and Prevention Week. This is in a state where the school system in the major city, Baltimore, has received 105 bullying complaints so far this year and is facing a $10 million lawsuit after the grandmother of a 9-year-old student claimed her grandson tried to hang himself in his classroom  after he was bullied.

I’m curious what bullying prevention in a U.S. school looks like. Does it include discussions about societal expectations of the “proper” behavior for girls and boys, women and men? It seems to me that it should. After all,  as Ella Page from the International Action Network on Small Arms asserts,

“from a young age, boys learn that their bodies are weapons – fists, boots, and eventually the penis, are instruments through which to impose their will.”

(This isn’t to say that boys are the only ones involved in bullying. Although girls are not conditioned to be physically violent, they are taught equally as gendered forms of bullying.)

The common thread throughout “Together for Transformation” is the fact that violent masculinities are a socialized reality — and that there can be alternatives. For example, in “the US, boys are involved in 80% of the accidental shootings that kill 400 children and injure another 3,000 each year and 88% of those who commit suicide with a gun are male… Men comprise the majority of those who use small arms and also the majority of the victims of gun violence … (yet) it is evident that the majority of men do not own or use guns: gun use must therefore be understood as a choice.”

It is incredibly refreshing to read such a truly gendered discussion of how to transform cultures of war and violence. Now the question is — what will it take to shift “alternative” non-violent masculinities  to be the norm?

And in case you need more convincing that in order to successfully achieve gender equality — and more peaceful, egalitarian societies in general — we need to address issues of masculinity, here is a quote from feminist researcher and writer Cynthia Cockburn. She says it much better than I can.

“I really believe that the patriarchal, capitalist, nationalist and racist system we live in is not seriously threatened by a few angry feminists refusing proper gendered behaviour. It can certainly survive women’s organizations like Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and Women in Black – certainly it can if we remain wellmannered and limit ourselves to publicizing women’s suffering in war. Altogether more threatening to the system would be numbers of men refusing to do “standard-issue manhood”, men publicly and collectively refusing the power that the system offers them.”

3 Comments
  1. Don permalink
    May 28, 2010 10:43 pm

    As a guy I would actually prefer to live in a matriarchal society because I believe there would be alot less violence.

  2. May 31, 2010 7:41 am

    In the same vein, I recently came across a PDF that sounds kinda similar to what you’re linking —
    http://www.genderjustice.org.za/resources/journal-articles-book-chapters/working-with-men-and-boys-emerging-strategies-from-across-africa-to-address-gender-based-violence-and-hiv-aids/download

    I guess masculinity is a hot topic! I wrote a blog series about it a while back that was hugely successful (over 900 comments on the final post, and still counting), and more and more inputs seem to be coming in that emphasize this startling new idea of approaching men more humanely …. Here’s the link to my series:
    http://clarissethorn.wordpress.com/2009/10/18/questions-i-want-to-ask-entitled-cis-het-men-part-1/

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