In the years since U.N. Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 and the resulting Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda called for a gender perspective on peace and security, efforts have historically only addressed women and girls. However, feminist and women’s peace organizations have long recognized that for engagement on this issue to be meaningful, it cannot treat gender as a synonym for women.

AU Special Envoy for Women, Peace and Security Bineta Diop dances with African Union soldiers at Mogadishu Stadium in Somalia on November 27, 2014 (AMISOM Public Information/Flickr)
AU Special Envoy for Women, Peace and Security Bineta Diop dances with African Union soldiers at Mogadishu Stadium in Somalia on November 27, 2014 (AMISOM Public Information/Flickr)

Some nations, like Norway, have made strides in the right direction in recent years, identifying men and boys as potential victims or as constituents whose different needs and experiences need to be accounted for in a gender-sensitive security policy. But it wasn’t until February of this year, when the U.K. unveiled its 2023-2027 WPS national action plan, that a country explicitly recognized masculinity and its related power dynamics as a source of insecurity.   

The U.K.’s new national action plan marks a major (and welcome) shift in global WPS efforts. It also raises a number of pertinent questions regarding how this sort of commitment can be put into practice. For the words on the page to translate into effective action on the ground, policymakers need to be clear and direct in identifying the harmful practices they want to address and offer well-planned alternatives for men and boys.

Why Include Masculinities in WPS?

Calls to include a masculinities perspective, or to address men and boys in WPS efforts, have relied on quite different motivations and justifications, as researcher Hannah Wright has noted.

To advance the WPS agenda, some suggest that the addition of a masculinities perspective to national action plans can help appeal to male policymakers who may dismiss WPS otherwise. Others emphasize that men can be important allies in the fight for gender equality — they can create and hold space for gendered perspectives in places that have typically shut those voices out.

Even further, the inclusion of men and boys within WPS national action plans can help address forms of violence that men and boys are subjected to based on their gender, such as sexual violence and forced recruitment. Men and boys face unique vulnerabilities in conflict settings and therefore require specific protections, and a gender-sensitive security policy can factor this in.

Including a masculinities perspective is also crucial for the success of the WPS agenda more broadly. We know men’s involvement in peace and security institutions is shaped by how they are socialized as men. Therefore, delivering on the goals of the WPS agenda requires policies that target harmful articulations of masculinity as a key source of gendered insecurity.

Gary Barker, CEO and co-founder of Equimundo: Center for Masculinities and Social Justice, discusses the benefits of actively engaging men on the WPS issue.

Be Clear About Which Practices Need to Be Addressed

But what does challenging harmful articulations of masculinity within peace and security look like? It starts with establishing what exactly are the masculine practices a national action plan is trying to address.

While it might be easy to think of masculinity as a singular set of values or ideals, masculinity can come in an expansive number of forms.

On the extreme end, there are instances of militarized masculinities that can contribute to conflict-related sexual violence, the use of violence against civilian populations, or result in participation in gang culture in the wake of conflict.

More expansively, others have suggested that the predominance of mainstream masculinities associated with militarism and governance create barriers to achieving durable forms of peace that include gender justice. These mainstream masculinities center martial responses to conflict and devalue the needs of those who don’t live up to hegemonic gender ideals.

Addressing each of these practices entails different gendered ideals, institutional arrangements and outcomes. Attempting to address these masculinities in a singular way is likely to result in addressing dynamics which don’t universally apply to all men and misapplying lessons learned regarding one group to another. A national action plan seeking to address these issues would need to come up with approaches that are as varied as the masculinities themselves.

Identify the Men and Boys That Need to Be Addressed

Previous attempts to address men and boys within WPS have often failed to appreciate the multiplicity of not only masculinities, but the men and boys who engage with them. Instead, these efforts have relied on vague or euphemistic descriptions of enlisting or engaging men and boys in the agenda.

Providing precision about which men and boys a national action plan aims to engage will help avoid broad and aspirational goals that fail to identify their target audience. For example, a national action plan that challenges harmful masculinities that center older men’s political authority at the expense of women’s participation may not be a meaningful form of intervention for younger men who may also be excluded from political authority due to their age rather than gender. Just as different forms of masculinity require their own approach, different populations of men and boys require their own unique engagement.  

If ambiguity remains, then one might ask exactly which men are meant to be engaged or enlisted. Are they members of a local militia, or state leaders? Working with militias may require addressing the gendered pressures and concerns that those men face — for example, physical insecurity or lack of access to financial stability. However, the same concerns might not apply to state leaders who may already hold wealth due to their position. If a national action plan were to address both these groups, it would require distinct initiatives that directly responded to the varied ways masculinities shaped their experience.

Attempts to address masculinities that remain ambiguous about who they hope to address often default to targeting groups of young, poor, racialized and otherwise marginalized men as their only constituencies. Doing so attempts to change dominant masculinities by “conscripting boys and men with the least amount of social power … due to either their youth or their relative disadvantage.”

The tendency to focus on this cohort can also worryingly reproduce neocolonial stereotypes about which men are the cause of gendered harms — and often fails to address the pervasive nature of harmful gendered practices within elite institutions.

Specify Alternative Masculinities

Having identified a set of practices that a national action plan hopes to change, as well as a clear cohort that should be targeted to produce this change, what is the intended alternative to the harmful masculinities?

Attempts to address violent masculinities rarely engage in a meaningful way with the alternatives that they might hope to produce. But early scholarship has begun to look at what masculinities can support peace or challenge martial violence.

For example, male religious leaders in Aceh, Indonesia, were able to create safe spaces for non-conflictual dialogue by drawing directly on patriarchal tropes about men’s authority and status. Rather than use their position as men to perpetuate harmful practices, these religious leaders channeled already-established masculine notions into peaceful pursuits.  

Of course, this kind of alternative and nonviolent masculinity comes with drawbacks. While it might challenge the militancy of other masculinities in a conflict space, it may also re-center the authority of men and religious leaders over women, or cement inequalities that contradict other goals within a WPS national action plan. Due to this, it is essential to have a clear vision of what alternative is being promoted so that efforts to promote new masculinities don’t end up entrenching the power of men over women and other gender-diverse groups in exchange for mitigating men’s violence.

Many of the key issues that the WPS agenda was devised to address continue to be substantively caused by the actions of men. Those actions are shaped by forms of masculinity that normalize violence against women, valorizing masculine leaders while devaluing women’s expertise and prioritizing martial goals over human security.

Any effective plan to see the vision of WPS fulfilled on a national level must not only look at the symptoms of gender inequality that hamper women and gender-diverse people’s lives — it must also look at the causes of inequality which often rest with men and the harmful masculinities that shape their actions.

David Duriesmith is lecturer on gender and politics at the University of Sheffield, where he researches masculinities, conflict and violence prevention.

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