Current literature on masculinity might often appear quite united in its understanding of the necessity of transforming gender norms to the creation of just and equal gender relations. For example, from the point of view of preventing sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), there seems to be some consensus on the dire need to focus on deconstructing the relationship between masculinity and violence and power and our wider social expectations of men. The approach of the organisations leading the discussions held at today’s Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict were not so cohesive in their approach.
A States-based organisation called ‘Return to Manhood’, which claimed to focus on “hacking at the root” of gender inequality by “raising boys to become men of conscience, character and courage” set a worrying tone for the rest of the day’s events. Blinkered by a perceived need to reinstate the “role of the man”, the organisation very much failed to persuade an audience who grew more and more disenchanted with their biological justifications for reinforcing gender stereotypes and their work in “Africa and other countries as well”. Relying upon out-dated ideas of the role of men as protectors, supporters and voices for women, Return to Manhood presented an unnerving vision of the dangers of developmental organisations that spend little to no time relating their work to research and theory. The fact that the organisation had evidently been rather successful in exporting its ‘curriculum’ to the Global South provided even more reason for concern.
Fortunately, despite previous concerns, the final event of the day provided much needed and far more nuanced discussion on the relationship between masculinity and sexual violence. A panel of prestigious delegates, including Gary Barker of the internationally renowned Promundo project, succeeded in providing a broad range of analyses on issues relating to Violence Against Women (VAW) in North Africa and the Middle East.
Shereen el Feki, a journalist and gender expert, introduced the debate with an overview of current literature and research, looking more specifically at the impact of education, wealth, age and background upon women’s experiences of violence. Her bold assertion that patriarchy provides the foundations for widespread VAW in all of these societies proved refreshingly honest in contrast to the less radical discussions that had typified the day’s events. Gary Barker carried on this theme in his presentation about Promundo’s work, portraying how harmful patriarchy can be to men and pushing for more action in schools to create environments that challenge gender stereotypes. Anthony Keedi, the ‘Masculinities and Engaging Men Programme Coordinator’ for the Lebanese ABAAD, was particularly persuasive his explanation of how violent societies reinforce violent masculinities and his call for society to “hold up a microphone” to those men who are willing to openly challenge gender stereotypes. However, it was his belief in the necessity of measuring the success of such projects against their impact on women’s empowerment that proved the most powerful. The fact that Charlotte Watts, esteemed researcher on the global magnitude of SGBV, heralded this point as the most poignant of the discussion in her closing address served to highlight just how important it is to not lose sight of gender equality when focusing on masculinity.