The number of people displaced globally due to conflict and violence nearly doubled between 2010 and 2020 from 41 million to 78.5 million, the highest number on record. Forced displacement, within and across national borders, exposes persons to stressful events and trauma, making psychosocial support a critical part of successful integration in new communities and societies. Those forcibly displaced include women and girls, men and boys, and gender and sexual minorities.

Syrian men praying at a tent encampment for Syrian refugees, in Islahiye, Turkey. July 15, 2012. (Tomas Munita/The New York Times)
Syrian men praying at a tent encampment for Syrian refugees, in Islahiye, Turkey. July 15, 2012. (Tomas Munita/The New York Times)

Yet, when the need for gender-sensitive psychosocial support is raised, it is often left unaddressed or narrowly defined to refer exclusively to women and girls. At the same time, psychosocial support rarely addresses the religious and spiritual beliefs held by many displaced persons. Religion and religiously informed therapeutic processes and spaces, however, can serve as a powerful resource for coping with trauma.

The prolonged and complex crises leading to forced displacement of people requires a multidimensional and collaborative approach that prioritizes inclusive solutions toward sustainable peace. This is the rationale behind USIP’s work on religious and psychosocial support for displaced trauma survivors. Understanding the relationship between religion, mental health and gender can contribute to identifying entry points, developing strategies and prioritizing collaboration that capitalizes on the positive role of different actors to effectively support the well-being of displaced persons. This has the potential to address current challenges in peacebuilding, including preventing sexual- and gender-based violence (SGBV), reintegrating ex-combatants into civilian life, countering gendered and sectarian messaging of violent extremists, and promoting dialogue to solve conflicts.

When Gender Becomes Another Word for Women

Gender encompasses norms and expectations that influence the behaviors and attitudes of all individuals. It intersects with other identities, shapes vulnerabilities and can drive conflict. By conflating gender with women, we hinder the provision of gender-sensitive psychosocial support to all persons, including men and boys and gender and sexual minorities, who are also among survivors of SGBV. In addition, we miss the invaluable opportunity to provide alternative constructions of gender that prevent rather than promote violence.

In the aftermath of violent conflict, psychosocial support offers a means for healing from trauma, rethinking gender norms and relationships, and for unlearning violence as a response to conflict. In this context, promoting positive masculinities is a key component of successful peacebuilding efforts.

Masculinity and Psychosocial Support

Psychosocial support for men can contribute to overcoming stressors and triggers of violent behavior, such as intimate partner violence and engagement in violent extremism, and promote healthy ways to deal with conflict. However, a 2021 study on psychosocial support in the context of forced displacement concludes that existing psychosocial support does not adequately include boys and men and may work less well for them. Another study on men and boys in displacement points to the gendered stereotypes limiting psychosocial support for this group, who are often presumed to be able to cope better and receive less public empathy. Unaccompanied men and boys are commonly perceived as dangerous troublemakers, leaving them to navigate challenges related to displacement and resettlement alone.

In addition to unaddressed trauma, forced migrants often experience loss of livelihood, property, status, social and religious capital, and the ability to communicate in their own language. The resulting feelings of inadequacy and deprivation can prove particularly challenging for men when dominant constructions of manhood deem it weak to seek help, acknowledge vulnerability, connect with others or adjust to more equal gender roles.

This sense of powerlessness tied to the inability to live up to being a “real man” can be compounded in conflict settings by the ways in which masculinity links to dominance and violence. Ex-combatants often struggle with the transition toward a new version of masculinity that is centered on family and community, particularly when also faced with unemployment and stigmatization. On the other hand, the relief to have left war behind and the desire to reintegrate can be built on to learn new modes of thinking and behaving and to address earlier traumas that may have propelled engagement in violent conflict.

In a striking account of his experience working with former male combatants in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Muthaka Ilot Alphonse tells the story of a young man repeatedly driven to join armed fighters because of his own father’s violence against his mother at home. With the provision of psychosocial support, the young man was able to grapple with what it means to be a man and how to deal with conflict nonviolently. Breaking the generational transfer of harmful masculinities and providing the means to unlearn violence where it has become normalized behavior for men is critical to building and sustaining peace.

The Potential of Religion

Alphonse and other practitioners also describe how, with skill and training, psychosocial support services can draw on religious teachings and spiritual practices to create positive constructions of gender and self, bolster resilience, cope with trauma and strengthen social cohesion. The ability of faith to tap into the deepest roots of human motivation and create new patterns of thought and action is one the peacebuilding field can benefit from.

While religion is frequently considered a barrier to gender equality, religious teachings can foster qualities and behaviors that encourage nonviolence and support equality. In Colombia, where USIP has a pilot project, faith leaders have identified a common struggle among displaced couples when women secure a job faster than their partners, causing a strain in the intimate partner relationship that sometimes leads to domestic violence. Religious actors have created safe spaces for men to discuss their emotions, find healthy ways to cope and learn how to be supportive of others in their family.

Including religious actors in psychosocial services and supporting spiritual practices for those who deem it important to healing has been found to mitigate further mental health deterioration in victims of torture. Research has documented refugee women using practices such as prayers, fasting and meditation, as well as engaging in community service, to move on from traumatic experiences, reframe their cognitive experiences of torture and empower themselves. Similarly, women from marginalized ethnic and racial backgrounds draw on ancestral knowledge and traditional healing practices to regain their sense of identity. These and other religious and spiritual resources could be more readily utilized in psychosocial support for displaced populations and be made more accessible to men.

Recommendations

Religion can contribute to psychosocial support as a meaningful source of values and practices critical to healing and well-being. Those working at this nexus are well-positioned to promote peaceful masculinities as an alternative to unhealthy, often destructive, constructions of masculinity that perpetuate violence.

The following are recommendations to assist researchers, practitioners, funders and supporting agencies serving populations displaced by conflict to better realize this potential:

  • Integrate a focus on peaceful masculinities. Psychosocial support in the context of forced displacement is an opportunity to reframe understanding of what it means to be a man and to develop new conceptions of agency directed toward peace and gender equality.
  • Include men and boys, as well as gender and sexual minorities, in psychosocial support services for survivors of SGBV, and provide guidance on how to access survivors, facilitate reporting, provide protection and deliver essential medical, legal and social services.   
  • Fund research on what is working at the intersection of religion, gender and psychosocial services to prevent violence and build peace.
    • Examine when and how religion and spirituality act to foster positive coping mechanisms for migration-related stressors, including gender-role changes and uncertainty about the future, and find healthy ways to deal with negative emotions and past trauma. Ensure that such research is attentive to context and history.
    • To both inform and utilize this research, create opportunities for exchange and collaboration between religious/spiritual actors and professionals from the scientific community.
  • Develop evidence-based programming that integrates religious perspectives, resources and actors into psychosocial support for displaced populations.
    • Ensure that all genders, diverse religions and spiritual practices, youth, ethnic and racial minorities, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups are included in such programming and its design, delivery and evaluation.  
    • Pilot creative and synergistic ideas, including memorialization activities, artistic initiatives and collective projects, that draw on religious and spiritual concepts to provide spaces for reframing traumatic experiences, fostering healing and social cohesion, and promoting alternative masculinities oriented toward peaceful responses to conflict and gender equality.

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