Opening remarks came from Madeleine Rees (WILPF Secretary General). Panellists included Annie Matundu Mbambi (President, WILPF Democratic Republic of the Congo), Verónica Recalde (Project Coordinator, LIMPAL/WILPF), Jamila Afghani (President, WILPF Afghanistan), Sylvie Jacqueline Ndongmo (President, WILPF Cameroon), Guy Feugap, (Director of Programme, WILPF Cameroon). The event was moderated by Alan Greig, writer and trainer on men and masculinities and author of ‘Men, Masculinities & Armed Conflict: Findings from a four-country study by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom’ with closing remarks from Laxman Belbase Co-Director Global Secretariat, MenEngage Alliance.
Below are the key takeaways:
Reframing the narrative: a binary narrative only serves patriarchy
In her opening remarks, Madeleine Rees, WILPF Secretary General, reminded the audience of WILPF’s commitment to ending the binary narrative that serves “patriarchy and patriarchy only.” Reframing this narrative is crucial, she added “If you understand the root causes of our performativity then you can actually move towards inclusivity which will break down the narrative and, we believe, end violence and misogyny.” Praising the programme and acknowledging the “amazing support” of the Canadian government, she expressed her hope that through WILPF’s work we can “understand better what we need to do to destroy and completely undermine the binary narrative that forces men into roles that lead to violence and to conflict.”
Decolonising knowledge production
With the majority of research on gender and militarism in the Global South generated by academic institutions in the Global North, Alan Greig highlighted the “tremendous amount of work” undertaken for the project and the “very unusual effort to generate research from the ground up…research done by and for the people who are most affected by the armed conflict in those countries.”
The urgency for demilitarisation – men saying no to war
With war being “an ongoing condition” in many parts of the world, Alan noted how “questions about how we mobilise men for feminist peace really change this narrative around masculinity and militarism, and the push for demilitarisation is more urgent than ever.”
With Colombia engaged in one of the longest armed conflicts in the world, Verónica Recalde explained that “militarised hegemonic masculinity is established in a series of cultural and institutional factors,” creating a situation where “violent actions become part of everyday life, which has meant that for generations the idea that war is something that to live with, has been accepted.” Their research focused on examining how these factors affected boys and men and they worked closely with a local organisation who support conscientious objectors helping “young men understand that they have the right to say no to war and to not go to war.”
In Cameroon, Sylvie Ndongmo explained WILPF’s aims were to research the causes of militarised masculinity and the strategies being used to counter it to mobilise men for feminist peace. They organised group discussions with local men and women as well as extensive interviews with key stakeholders including community leaders, traditional leaders, religious leaders, civil society organisations and non-state armed groups. Working to build alliances and solidarity dialogues with these “critical actors” had been crucial, she explained, “we made inclusivity a reality.”
‘Fed up of war’ – The range of men’s experience of processes of militarisation and armed conflict
Against a backdrop of war in Afghanistan that has lasted for over four decades, Jamila Afghani revealed generations of men and boys were “pushed to go to war” due to family, cultural and societal pressures which have negatively impacted their mental and physical health. They are caught in a “cycle of war,” which has affected every individual in the country with devastating consequences and huge loss of life.
With Afghanistan currently ruled by those who believe in “gender apartheid and elimination of women from all aspects of life,” the militarised masculinity mindset is being passed from one generation to the next, she said, becoming “more hard, more complicated, more challenging and more difficult.” Consequently, society places a “huge amount of responsibility,” and expectation on men and boys’ shoulders to maintain the status quo. We need to “flip the coin,” said Jamila and understand how to work with men, community leaders, youth, religious leaders, influential leaders and women to change this narrative. She noted the intense psychological pressure on boys who during their research reported being “Fed up of war…other nations in the world are enjoying a better life. We are always in the cave… we are fighting with each other; we are killing each other.”
In Cameroon, Sylvie reported how men and boys “suffer from the conflict,” are forced to stop going to school and often become internally displaced because of pressure to join armed groups or “be killed.” As a result, many families “run at night to save their boys” from this fate. Coupled with these pressures is the expectation to conform to a rigid militarised masculine ideal, so although they are suffering, Sylvie noted, they cannot speak out about their experiences.
Guy reported the damaging psychological impact on young men living in war zones in Cameroon. Many of those fighting in armed groups are “executing an order” he said, which is not “what they want to do” creating significant trauma in this group. He added some had told them they had taken drugs in order to carry out “some atrocity in the field.”
Guy continued that the response to the crisis by humanitarian agencies in Cameroon does not take into consideration the specific needs of men, and they have asked development partners that when an “initiative is created to respond to the crisis, when we are responding to the needs of women, we need to also respond to the specific needs of men.” With no apparent governmental will to engage in “inclusive dialogue that will stop war,” men remain under pressure to continue fighting and present themselves as “heroes.”
Weapons from the Global North: how ideas of masculinity are created and used by political and economic elites
Verónica Recalde spoke about Colombia where the mandates of hegemonic masculinity are intertwined with beliefs and practices and rituals of our militaristic society. This has normalised for decades the use of force as a valid mechanism to resolve conflicts coupled with a society that has linked its own identity with a militaristic narrative centred on the figure of the soldier hero. Young men reported militarism has always been a part of their everyday life and are often recruited from economically vulnerable areas. Being a soldier is portrayed as “cool” and bringing “honour to the family” and promising “stability.” Young men are brought up to believe that joining the military is the only option because if they don’t the alternative is “to join illegal or armed groups.” So, a man’s journey is “marked by violence whether symbolic, physical, structural or institutionalised.” Confronting this type of masculinity, she added, must be done by “dismantling this cultural system.” However, the status quo is not only maintained culturally but institutionally, and supported by training and weapons from the Global North.
Feminist peace – How men are working with women to challenge dominant narratives
Afghanistan faces huge challenges regarding the mindset of society towards women, noted Jamila. Despite this, WILPF training programme managed to bring together 6000 imams in 22 provinces of the country, as well as community leaders, professors, teachers and other key influential figures to discuss how they can work together towards demilitarisation and achieve feminist peace. The process of taking society in “the opposite direction” was difficult, she noted, and they met “a lot of resistance.”
However, by adapting their methods and terminology to suit this context and bringing men and women together “at the same table” gradually progress was made, and male alliances formed. With the Taliban takeover in 2021, the situation has altered dramatically. Yet her colleagues are working “underground” to help women and girls; with some education being provided at home and a number of health centres allowed to remain open as a result of men in the community advocating and directly engaging with the Taliban on their behalf. Jamila stated they are very proud of their work in creating these valuable male alliances as feminist peace “is not possible without support of men”.
In Cameroon the issue of land rights and dispossession has been one of the key drivers of the conflict. With traditional leaders considered “critical defenders” of patriarchal structures in society, Guy explained how their work with one such leader in this area had been very influential and illustrated “the perception we have of them or the perception that society has about them is not always right”. In his community women have been given access to land for farming and agriculture and also enabled them to inherit. Rights he has extended to his own children.
Moving beyond the binary
Verónica responded to a question from the audience about how we can utilise a non-binary approach to gender persecution that challenges perceptions of women solely as victims and men solely as persecutors.
She emphasised how when talking about soldiers in the military there may be an instinctive reaction to think of them as “persecutors” but the situation is far more complex. “Men who are in the military are also victims of this structural system that was created to make them join,” she said. “When we understand it’s not as easy as some people are victims and some people are not, there are a lot more factors that come into play, then we are able to go beyond that binary without forgetting there are people who are more affected by this in a physical sense and there are people who are affected in an emotional sense.”
Recognising men’s complex motivations for engaging in conflict in the DRC
Annie Matundu Mbambi responded that in the DRC there are a variety of reasons why young men join the military. For some it is “honour” and “respect” and becoming a man that others are “afraid of.” So boys and young men will join because they see the power afforded to other male members of their family who wear the military uniform. For others it’s an economic decision, enabling them to provide for their families. Whilst for some it’s seen as a route to “avenge” deeply traumatic events they may have witnessed, like the rape of their mother. She emphasised how soldiers who commit atrocities need “to be judged so there will not be impunity.”
To close the webinar Laxman Belbase thanked all the guests for sharing their valuable research and insights. Noting positive comments shared by the audience on the decolonisation of the research, he said “we would like to continue down this route so we can genuinely walk the talk on decolonising the research, the knowledge base; so the owners of the knowledge are those who have the knowledge and information rather than being just a provider of information.” The research, he said, illustrated the damaging impact of the patriarchal binary that exists not only in society but is also inherent in our homes, family, systems and the institutions around us, reinforcing an “anti-gender, anti-feminist, anti- human rights agenda and rhetoric.”