The Other Side of Gender

Men as Critical Agents of Change

December 12, 2013
Joseph Vess, Gary Barker, Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini, and Alexa Hassink

Better understanding of how experiences in war change men’s roles and identities can lead to better interventions to help men deal with the trauma of war violence, to combat gender-based violence, and equip men as agents of peace in their postconflict communities. Based on their review of existing work to help men in postconflict settings, five leading experts recommend a multipronged approach to expand programming and conduct rigorous evaluation to determine which programs are most effective.


  • Understanding how the ascribed roles of men and women and masculine and feminine identities contribute to and can help mitigate violence in conflict and postconflict settings is an emerging field of enquiry in conflict management and gender and peacebuilding studies. This enquiry builds upon, complements, and significantly contributes to the work of the women, peace, and security agenda, especially as seen through UN Security Council Resolution 1325.
  • Men are usually perceived to be the primary perpetrators of violence in times of war. Research indicates, however, that men are not inherently violent. This shift in understanding is contributing to a recognition that men are also victims and witnesses of many forms of violence, including sexual and gender-based violence. In expanding our perceptions about men’s experiences, further studies indicate that this may help stop the cycle of violence. In this way, men can become critical agents of change to end these multiple forms of violence.
  • Expanding knowledge of men’s diverse experiences during war and the underlying causes and mechanisms that lead to violent behavior has important policy implications. Understanding the various paths to violence is particularly important when dealing with postconflict situations.
  • Postconflict policies need to take account of these varied paths to violence and the notions of hyper-masculinity created by violent conflict. Policies also need to recognize that during conflict the roles of men and women often undergo radical change. Restoration to preconflict role models is often impossible. For example, in preconflict situations men derive much of their sense of identity from the fact that they are economic providers. In many postconflict situations, the economy is in shambles and most men will not be able to get jobs. As a result, in many postconflict settings, men and boys often experience a loss of identity leading to extreme emotional stress, substance abuse, and a continuous cycle of violent behavior, including sexual and gender-based violence.
  • Promising programs and interventions that focus on providing psychosocial support and developing healthier, nonviolent behaviors and male identities are providing lessons on how to address the challenges and obstacles to engaging men in sustainable peace and to prevent conflict and violence. Nevertheless, more research is needed on how men shape and are shaped by conflict, as well as men’s gender-specific needs, perspectives, and realities.
  • Policy responses in postconflict settings need to pay greater attention to the specific needs, perspectives, and realities of men and women. In this regard, policy advancements have recognized that women and girls are particularly vulnerable. This report also highlights the ways in which many men and boys are in need of programs and interventions that focus on providing psychosocial support and developing healthier, nonviolent behaviors and identities. Absent such programs, postconflict societies will perpetuate gender inequalities and sexual and gender-based violence.

About the Report

In the context of violent conflict, men have often been perceived through a singular lens as perpetrators of violence. This oversimplified approach fails to address the full gamut of men’s experiences in conflict, including as witnesses, victims, survivors, and perpetrators. This report aims to complement and further the work of the women, peace, and security agenda through a discussion of the formation of male identities, drivers of conflict, and the effects of conflict on male identities. Understanding the varied perceptions and experiences of men and how they can positively contribute to peace and security efforts, this report recommends better inclusion of male issues and their experiences in the shaping of gender-sensitive peace and security policies.

About the Author

Joseph Vess is a senior program officer at Promundo-US, focusing on sexual and gender-based violence prevention and men’s engagement in crisis, conflict, and postconflict settings. Gary Barker is the international director of Promundo-US and serves as the cochair and cofounder of MenEngage. Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini is a senior fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for International Studies and cofounder of the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN). Alexa Hassink is a program associate and communications officer at Promundo-US.

December 12, 2013
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