Genevieve Riccoboni: Your research focuses on the specific vulnerabilities of adolescent and adult men in Cameroon’s North West and South West, the country’s Anglophone regions where protests against perceived discrimination against English speaking citizens in 2016 led to repressive government responses and in turn to armed conflict between the government and separatist forces.This has led to the displacement of more than one million people, and left two million people in need of humanitarian aid. What are some of the ways in which men’s identities and gender roles have shifted in Cameroon as a result of the violence and humanitarian crisis ongoing in the North West and South West regions?
Delphine Brun: The crisis has affected the ability of men to conform to dominant masculine norms, in particular to play the role of head of the household, as provider and protector of the family. Due to the specific protection threats they face, the male population, who did not flee, has often reduced his economic and social life to a minimum, restricting his movements and avoiding gatherings. Moving around, to obtain the necessary income allowing to play the socially expected role of provider for the family, has often been rendered impossible.
Restricted mobility, stigma, targeted violence, lack of work and income combine to contribute to a feeling of helplessness, high anxiety, stress, frustration and anger and, ultimately, to a loss of self-esteem. The male population feels dispossessed of control over its life and future, with depression and addictions on the rise. This feeling of loss of identity also leads to an increase in domestic violence as a means for men to assert their status.
Men’s lack of mobility has often caused significant gender role changes. While men are restricted to the house, women and children, less likely to be arrested, take on new responsibilities. Women play a more important economic role. Some men have dedicated themselves more to caregiving and other domestic responsibilities to ensure their wife has more time to work outside the house. Other men have not adapted, spending their time in idleness as they rely on their wife to make ends meet.
This change in the distribution of roles is particularly reinforced by the demographic imbalance created by the crisis: With many men dead, hidden or forced into exile, women increasingly play the role of heads of families and providers of families.
The crisis has also opened up space for women to play greater roles in the public sphere. But these heightened economic and social roles are not always synonymous with genuine empowerment, however. The shift to the role of provider has entailed new suffering for women: in a context where prices rise and profits made from informal trade fall, it is difficult to fill the gap generated by men’s loss of income. Women’s increased leadership in local decisions is exercised informally, and official functions remain a male prerogative. These shifts in gender roles also mean for women a greater workload and greater exposure to GBV, as they have to move around more often and further away.
Genevieve Riccoboni: Your report focuses on some of the specific harms that are being experienced by men and boys in Cameroon’s conflict-affected regions. Can you walk us through some of those?
Delphine Brun: Adolescent boys and men face discrimination, harassment and violence from both armed parties to the crisis. They are primarily exposed to specific human rights violations, such as torture, inhuman treatment, arbitrary or unlawful arrest and detention. This particular exposure to threats is explained by the fact that it is men who usually fight. As they are the ones who are supposed to be fighting, they are also the ones being perceived by both sides as threats and suspected of being spies. Women are much less confronted with this problem. Men are more exposed to targeted armed attacks. Even without clear evidence that they are fighters, they are sometimes targeted as scapegoats.
Adopting a neutral stand is impossible for men: Remaining silent can be seen as a sign of complicity. Revealing information can lead to revenge. In such a situation, many adolescent boys and men have either made the choice to fight, to hide in the forests or to settle in other regions of the country.
Data indicates that gender-based violence is a reality for boys and men too, representing at least 14 per cent of sexual violence survivors in North West and South West. GBV is usually committed by other men, be it armed men who use sexual violence as a way of “emasculating” male civilians or by other civilian men exploiting them and taking advantage of the vulnerability displacement has created. These protection abuses, deemed as shameful, remain largely under reported.
Genevieve Riccoboni: What was your motivation behind conducting this research, and what are some of the gaps in the literature that it aims to fill?
Delphine Brun: Some reports were available on how the crisis in Cameroon’s North West and South West regions was affecting girls and women. But there was little information on how the male population was distinctly affected. I was also intrigued by the fact that protection monitoring data was repeatedly indicating that males were the ones primarily exposed to specific human rights violations, such as torture, inhuman treatment, arbitrary or unlawful arrest and detention. Yet, there was little analysis explaining why this was so. There was also little information on how distinct impacts of the crisis were affecting gender roles and relations.
Since my role is to support the humanitarian community on gender equality programming, this was an issue I wanted to address. There cannot be an evidence-based, inclusive and efficient humanitarian response if we don’t have this information. Gender analysis is instrumental to define who should be targeted, the type of assistance that should be provided and the approaches that should be adopted in delivering aid.
This report will hopefully help humanitarian and development actors better grasp the crisis’ intense impact on males’ security situation, socioeconomic well-being, and sense of self-worth. I hope it will also trigger a reflection on how adolescents’ boys’ and men’s struggles affect girls and women, as well as the society at large.
Genevieve Riccoboni: Too often in our field, “gender” as a term is used as a shorthand for “women”, despite the fact that there is a diversity of genders and related gendered lived experiences. Why is it so important to also do research that looks at men and boys’ experiences, both in general and specifically in the case of Cameroon?
Delphine Brun: On one hand, the fact that “gender” is often equated to “women” is a positive indication that tangible progress has been made to acknowledge the structural discriminations that women and the specific needs that gender inequalities generate. The ongoing and tireless efforts of feminist organisations have paid off, even if much more needs to be done to address girls’ and women’s needs in actual programmes.
But this recognition also comes with its own pitfalls. I have observed in various contexts, that there is a common presumption that women, regardless of the situation, are most in need of assistance. This perception is unhelpful for different reasons. Attaching vulnerability to the person (the woman) rather than to the threats or circumstances that create vulnerability, makes it a permanent characteristic of that person, and reinforces victimhood. This essentialist perception of vulnerability denies women and girls any kind of agency. Also, the focus on “women’s vulnerability”, frequently taken as a fact, leaves little space for analyzing how women are disadvantaged or marginalized compared to men. It also makes recognition of men’s marginalization or vulnerability less likely.
Research on boys’ and men’s experience in armed disputes is important because it makes their situation and the vulnerability it creates visible. In the case of Cameroon’s North West and South West, by using a gender lens, examining the distinct reality of being a man compared to being a woman, and the relationships among men and between menand womenof different age groups, allowed light to be shed on the effects of the crisis on men and boys and the specific discrimination they face. Findings will hopefully challenge misconceptions, such as the idea that men, while also affected, are capable and strong enough to cope with the situation unaided.
Bringing evidence on men’s experience also supports their recognition as legitimate recipients of aid, in a context where organizations may decide to indiscriminately place them last in line because of the difficulties of distinguishing between affected male civilians and fighters. It can also trigger a reflection on the distinct barriers they face in accessing assistance. For instance, in North West and South West (but this is probably also the case elsewhere), there are subtle barriers preventing men from seeking help. This is chiefly true for specialized services, such as sexual and reproductive health or gender-based violence services, that have historically identified women and children as most in need of support and that have been designed and rolled out, implicitly or explicitly, with them in mind.
While looking at men and boys’ experiences in crises is often overlooked, walking away from the female/male binary is even more complicated. We know that overlapping or intersecting gender and social identities, such as sexual orientation, shape the extent to which people are vulnerable to, affected by, and able to respond to and recover from emergencies. But organizations seldom look at these issues. In the case of Cameroon, where homosexuality is criminalized, people with a different sexual orientation or identifying to other genders are stigmatized. They face distinct security threats and hurdles in accessing services. But little is done to overcome prejudices and make sure they get equitable access to aid.
Genevieve Riccoboni: Building on the above, there has been some increase in recent years in work on engaging men and boys and addressing masculinities in order to advance gender justice and peace. What are some pros and cons to approaches you have witnessed in this regard?
Delphine Brun: Equality will only materialize if men and women and people of all gender identities embrace gender justice and peace as individuals, spouses, parents and citizens. In this regard, engaging men and boys in all their diversity is essential to advance gender justice and to combat violence. Several inspiring experiences have been conducted in this regard.
But such important initiatives don’t always bring about long-lasting changes because they primarily approach men through the lens of potential perpetrators of violence or as a group who will want to hold on to his privileges. The terms “toxic masculinity” or “negative masculinity”, that are regularly used, capture this perception. In a world where violence against women and girls is widespread and where gains to achieve equality are desperately slow, attaching masculinity to negativity makes sense to some extent. But seeking men’s engagement by depicting their socialization as toxic is not the best way to generate an openness for change. Rather, men need to be supported in a reflection that will allow them to realize the extent to which gender socialization comes at a cost for them too.
When discussing with men in countries affected by armed violence, I have observed that they readily acknowledge the costs associated with playing the role of family and community protector: being the ones expected to fight puts them at tremendous risk of injury or death. In a similar manner, being the ‘breadwinner’, that is a central element of masculinity in several cultures, puts enormous pressure on their shoulders, especially when new crises further shatter fragile economies. Men easily acknowledge that their inability to be economically self-sufficient and to perform the role of provider puts an immense strain on them, as they try to conform to dominant and yet unattainable models of masculinity. When they realize this, they most readily see the advantages there are in spouses sharing economic responsibilities.
Talking about emotions, and about the fact that men often remain ‘locked inside’ due to the prevailing view that being a real man is about being tough and not showing fear or sadness, is also an entry point for such changes. When I was in North Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I saw men’s deep emotions when exchanging about the different occasions when they refrained from crying about the loss of a loved one or didn’t express their fear when confronted with uncertainty about the future or confronted by frightening events. They felt that the restrictive norms that define masculinity were amputating them from part of their humanity.
Genevieve Riccoboni: What is one final message that you want to leave for our readers – particularly for policymakers?
Delphine Brun: It is time to acknowledge that men and boys also face specific discrimination and are particularly vulnerable in situations of armed crises. But this will be difficult as long as we consider attention to men and boys as a threat that could divert attention and resources from addressing women’s needs. Rather than creating an either/or situation that risks losing some of the space hard-won over past decades to address the multiple discriminations and disadvantages faced by women and girls, it is important to keep in mind that the lives of men, women, girls and boys intersect and that their needs and realities influence each other.
The analysis that was done in Cameroon’s North West and South West demonstrates that the unintended consequences of neglecting the vulnerabilities and needs of adolescent boys and men clearly carry consequences for boys and men themselves but also, indirectly, for women and for the broader society. When men are killed, arrested, or forced into exile, women grieve their loss and they face greater burdens and responsibilities, with more frontline activities that place women’s own safety at risk. Similarly, men’s lack of economic prospects and inability to conform to dominant yet unattainable models of masculinity affect boys and men’s well-being and sense of self-worth. They generate frustration, anger, and idleness, which could lead to addictions and mental illnesses, and exacerbate protection risks for the broader community. There is evidence that the distress men face has increased tensions that lead to a significant increase in violence against women.
Static models of gender vulnerability must be replaced with a context-by-context analysis of needs. Such an integrated approach ensures that unmet needs and harm done to one group do not have a negative impact, directly or indirectly, on other groups. For instance, helping men heal when they have been confronted by or exposed to violence means, in turn, that they may not resort to violence within their home and personal lives, and that they can help other men avoid acting out their trauma by becoming violent toward others. Addressing the specific threats and needs that affect boys and men hence benefits the wider community and helps build healthier societies. It is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do. It is the prerequisite to humanitarian and development interventions grounded in evidence, proportionate to needs, that strengthen resilience and enable peace.