Hosted by the Ubuntu Symposium and in collaboration with the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies, WILPF and the MenEngage Alliance held a webinar as part of an ongoing initiative to mobilise men for gender justice. The panelists included Annie Matundu Mbambi (President, WILPF Democratic Republic of the Congo [DRC]), Cynthia Enloe (Research Professor and Feminist Scholar, Clark University), Diana Salcedo López (President, LIMPAL Colombia), Jamila Afghani (President, WILPF Afghanistan), Leymah Gbowee (2011 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate; Executive Director: Women, Peace and Security, AC4 Columbia), and Sylvie Jacqueline Ndongmo (President, WILPF Cameroon). The event was moderated by WILPF Secretary-General Madeleine Rees and MenEngage Alliance Co-Director Laxman Belbase. Below is an overview of the discussion.
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Diversity is the way forward
In her opening remarks, Madeleine Rees, WILPF Secretary General, shared insights to the question posed by the webinar title: Why is the oldest women’s peace organisation mobilising men for feminist peace? She highlighted the importance of context and evolving notions of power structures, noting that “for the women of 1915, the problem was men […] But fast forward, and now we do have this gender analysis. We have seen how patriarchy is rooted in our cultures.”
The shift to engaging and partnering with men coincides with WILPF’s evolution as an organisation. Madeleine continued: “Diversity is inherent in our understanding of gender and its possibilities. Diversity is the way forward. And so we embrace completely the need to work with all people and reframe the discussion so it is not men against women. It is we against structures which are inimical to us being able to have the sustainable peace that we want.” The joint efforts of WILPF and MenEngage are “an engagement of the like-minded,” as well as an embodiment of the reality that WILPF and women feminists “are no longer needed to play the roles that culture has assigned to [them], and [they] can do it differently.”
A prime and relevant example of the power of diverse, transformative thinking is the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which came into force in January. Madeleine noted that this treaty “was made possible by a coalition of feminist, queer, LGBTQ [organisations] that made imagining the banning of nuclear weapons a possibility. They did it differently, and it worked.”
“Patriarchy is a particular culture; it’s not just a structure. It’s a set of presumptions, a set of prides, a set of fears, a set of comforts.”
In her remarks, Cynthia Enloe, Research Professor and Feminist Scholar at Clark University, framed the conversation about engaging men and boys with a broad analysis of patriarchy, underscoring the need for WILPF and MenEngage to “figure out how patriarchy works” together in order to face it together. She explained: “Patriarchy isn’t stuck in the past. Patriarchy is flexible [and] is held up by multiple masculinities. They’re different around the world.” Patriarchy also extends beyond the stereotypes of “the combat soldier,” “the pinstripe banker,” or “the tyrannical father. Patriarchy takes the form of claiming expertise and not listening to women; […] of being the expert, when in fact one should be the learner.”
Another pillar of patriarchy is the denigration of the feminine and instilling fear in men and boys of being feminised. Cynthia asserted: “You can be a militarised man anytime you fear being called a woman.” Fear and ridicule of the feminine maintains a gender binary whereby masculinity is situated as distinct from and superior to femininity. In addition to reaffirming cultures of patriarchy, this opposition essentialises gender and erases realities of gender variance. Therefore, in order to do effective work with men and boys, one must first “know why men and boys are taught to be afraid of being called a girl.” Of paramount importance is listening to feminists, because they know “how the feminine […] is wielded against boys and men.” Finally, feminists must acknowledge that they too are on a lifelong journey of learning.
A need for individual and institutional change
Laxman Belbase, Co-Director of the MenEngage Alliance, reasserted Cynthia’s call for feminist-led thinking and action: “Any work with men and boys needs to be feminist-informed and starts with listening to feminist leaders and movements. This is very particular in the contexts where there is so much intensified patriarchal backlash and gender conservatism at the moment.”
He also emphasised challenging social, political and economic norms that uphold militarised masculinities. This means transforming relationships of power and working directly with men and boys. Finally, Laxman highlighted the “nationalistic rhetoric of control and protection [which] is both masculinised and militarised. Nationalism, militarism and patriarchal masculinity have always been closely linked, and that’s shaping the world order that we see around us right now.” To reach feminist peace, these ideologies must be disrupted within institutions and individuals.
Prioritising feminist education and women’s meaningful political participation
Leymah Gbowee, 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and discussed the issue of widespread misconceptions about feminism and women’s rights in Liberia and West Africa. In her view, the failure to educate men and boys on fundamental concepts of gender equality has contributed to patriarchal ideologies and structures throughout the region. For instance, when working with former child soldiers who had committed acts of sexual violence, Leymah discovered that “in their minds, sex is a natural process, regardless of if it was forced or coerced or if violence took place – there was nothing wrong with it.” After working with similarly-minded men in Ghana who had not experienced war, Leymah grasped the extent to which militarism reinforces and recreates violent masculinities.
She argued that it is important to work with young men because the false equation of feminism with hatred of men is still a prevalent belief, and teen fatherhood (and motherhood) are very common in the region. “It dawned on me that we have a whole generation of young people that has no concept and understanding of feminism and women’s rights issues, and these are the people who will make laws and pass policies that will affect and impact the lives and bodies of women.” Leymah also echoed calls for efforts to address “the structures and the attitudes that allow women to be less than men.”
In addition to engaging men and boys in conversations about feminism, Leymah emphasised the power of women’s full participation in political processes and true collaboration between men and women. Women leaders are necessary in the face of patriarchal attitudes claiming that women do not have “strateg[ies] to confront violence and deal with war.” On the contrary, “women know their communities, the environment; they know the fighters. And they even know the strategies of dealing with these people […] As women it’s important for us to always have our strategies on hand – strategies to invade these spaces. I don’t think it’s time for us to be shy anymore about what we want and how we want it. We need to be bold about where we find ourselves” and “make decisions about those things that impact and affect our lives.”
To have transformative conversations about gender and militarism, it is essential to unpack and unveil assumptions before interrogating them. Cynthia said, “Be patient, be curious, without judgement, because judgement can be very silencing. Give boys and men and girls and women space to say what they assume. Even though it’s dismaying or even insulting […] Let those assumptions have some air space, so we can then dismantle those fears, or give alternatives to those assumptions.” Leymah added that “beyond allowing them to speak their assumptions, we have to interrogate their mindsets and thoughts and the principles” in order to probe deeper on persistent issues and reach breakthroughs.
WILPF Afghanistan – Unveiling a common humanity and dismantling patriarchy through localised methods
Jamila Afghani, President of WILPF Afghanistan, has worked with her team to build a massive feminist movement of thousands of activists in Afghanistan, including a strong presence and support from men allies. An important strategy in her work with WILPF is connecting Muslim values and teachings to the efforts to advance women’s rights and create a more peaceful society. Jamila’s religious expertise enables her to have transformative conversations with imams, grounding gender equity in teachings of the Holy Prophet and the Quran. Jamila shared that moral arguments are an effective tool for gradually changing mindsets on issues of feminism and peace in Afghanistan. On her engagements with imams and male leaders, Jamila said, “We women are not here to take their power or position from them. We are here to help them change our society positively where they can enjoy a better life, where we can enjoy a better life, and where our children can have a better life.”
WILPF Afghanistan also works with youth and women of all educational backgrounds to counter extremism and terrorism in society. She noted that “one of the major challenges in Afghanistan is utilisation of religion by the most patriarchal men in a male-dominated society, which is shaping the culture and customs.” As young men move towards militarisation, Jamila seeks to reintroduce “peaceful ways of Islam and share peaceful lessons from the life of the Holy Prophet in order to change male mindsets in society.”
In their engagement work, WILPF Afghanistan prioritises localised methods catered to the common understandings of community members. Jamila noted that there can be pushback. She is also working to build a unified solidarity among women grassroots activists. “We have the power, we have the knowledge, we have the experience to work in our society […] It’s a long journey ahead of us. We have to work slowly, strategically, and support each other.”
LIMPAL Colombia – Addressing gaps in the feminist movement
“[M]obilising men […] also implies stripping ourselves of stereotypes and assumptions about the masculine and feminine; not to say that naturally men are violent and naturally women are pacifists, but to know that it is necessary to remove those cultural patterns […] To do that it is necessary to take up the words of Leymah Gbowee: ‘You have to be brave.’ […] You have to be brave to open your mind in a context that continues to indicate that men are killing and murdering many women. You have to be brave to say that, despite that, I am going to build bridges of social transformation.”
Diana Salcedo López, President of WILPF Colombia, (or LIMPAL, its Spanish acronym), outlined some of the philosophical and tactical challenges that LIMPAL Colombia has faced in their efforts to build alliances with men and boys working for feminist peace. Notably, “despite the advances of the women’s movement […], the relationship with movements or […] organisations that work directly with men has been a little more remote.” Nevertheless, in building relationships with groups such as MenEngage Alliance and conscientious objectors to military service, Diana and her team have strengthened their political agenda and gradually linked their strategies to those of the organisations they collaborate with. In the context of Colombia’s ongoing internal conflict, LIMPAL Colombia remains dedicated to the “great WILPF trilogy of being feminists, pacifists and antimilitarists.”
Alongside mobilising men and boys, LIMPAL Colombia navigates the need to provide women activists with safe spaces from which they can formulate antimilitarist strategies. Within Colombia’s feminist movement discourse, LIMPAL Colombia is a leading voice in the antimilitarist peace agenda, which involves “removing patriarchal, […] racist, capitalist, [and] classist structures.” They also address gaps in the Colombian feminist movement by championing the rights of non-binary, sexually diverse, and subaltern communities. From these reflections, it became clear that deconstructing militarised masculinities—though not women’s responsibility alone—is an essential component of transforming patriarchal culture and advancing antimilitarist, feminist peace. She noted that both men and women contribute to ongoing power dynamics; therefore, all people must claim responsibility for transforming such systems and “remov[ing] all those cultural practices that make us reproduce those violent logics.”
Finally, Diana echoed Cynthia’s earlier remarks in saying, “Patriarchy is not static […] It mutates, permeates, intersects, [and] questions the experience of women’s voices. […] However, working together, [we are] able to make visible what that mutating patriarchy is like in those oppressive scenarios that prioritise male knowledge, that prioritise violence as a way of dealing with conflicts, that prioritise marginalisation and exploitation, and that is related to cultural imperialism.” She noted that Marion Young’s “Theory of the Five Faces of Oppression” “opens a door of interrelation between the patriarchal system and how we are fighting every day to position a feminist peace.”
WILPF DRC – Militarised masculinities and mobilising men and boys
“For us, feminist peace is a non-militarised, non-violent, non-conflictual approach, a militarisation-free approach, which prioritises what we call a win-win peace.”
Annie Matundu Mbambi, President of WILPF DRC, highlighted the factors shaping militarised masculinities in the DRC. “Each society, depending on the time and the circumstances, enacts its own moral and ethics standards. In DRC for example, the social and structural factors which shape militarised masculinities arise from our deepest beliefs, our religious convictions, our socio-cultural legacy and our relation to the body and particularly to sex. Masculinity for us, in general, is described in terms of strength, power, domination and enjoyment.” She emphasised the importance of understanding the process of militarisation, which reinforces gender inequalities, in order to significantly address inequalities. “Patriarchy still affects the nation’s life, the economic life and the political life.”
Annie explained that the culture of violence is nurtured by social forces, including religious, community, and institutional structures. WILPF DRC works to sensitise religious and other communities to gender inequality and discrimination. They facilitate educational dialogues that highlight the commonality of men and women, shifting the perception of women as potential enemies to fellow human beings. They also tackle discriminatory laws and build strategies for women and men to work together to increase the well-being of the greater population.
Annie and her team have found men who are supportive of their cause both from WILPF and other organisations. Since working with MenEngage, however, WILPF DRC has had to navigate new dynamics and concerns. “Are men who walk with us to help advance our rights really aware that they help progress our rights? And we, who are working with men […] do we truly understand what we expect from these men?” Annie highlighted the need for alliances but acknowledged that these alliances might be compromised without a true understanding of the men working with them.
Annie pointed out that there are few openings in programs to discuss issues related to masculinity, and that there is too little attention paid to the necessity to tackle the institutional cultures that promote militarised masculinities. She stressed the necessity for men and women to work hand in hand to one day be able to reach gender equality. “We desire to effectively put an end to inequalities between sexes, and we believe that to reach this goal, the involvement of everyone is indispensable. We wish to mobilise as many men and boys as possible to advocate for gender equality.”
Navigating the WILPF-MenEngage partnership
Laxman acknowledged the challenges Annie raised of navigating new alliances with MenEngage partners. He noted that within the Alliance, “the understanding of what it means for men and boys to be involved in this work varies quite a lot,” and the organisation continues to strengthen shared ideologies. What is significant about the alliance between WILPF and MenEngage are the “accountability or solidarity dialogues [which] are central to what we are trying to do together – to support women’s rights, resist militarism, move towards changing social norms, and look at systems change.”
WILPF Cameroon – Research and community engagement highlights
“We believe that inclusivity is critical […] If you want to build sustainable peace, if you want to build feminist peace, we should not leave anyone behind. We need women, we need men, we need all the components of society to be at the table.”
Sylvie Jacqueline Ndongmo, President of WILPF Cameroon, highlighted several key motivators for WILPF Cameroon’s work on gender equality and engaging men and boys in gender justice. In 2016-17, WILPF Cameroon studied the impact of conflict on women and girls to support the country’s National Action Plan (NAP) for implementing Security Council Resolution 1325. In 2019-20, with support from local partners, they also conducted a gender conflict analysis study. The research unveiled how deeply patriarchy is rooted in Cameroonian culture: “It is believed that men do not need to lower themselves to the level of women. Men do not need to associate themselves with women. Men are above women in all points of view.”
The research has also revealed that, in addition to women and girls, men and boys suffer significantly from conflict in unique ways. Often young men feel obliged to join armed groups and can be killed or threatened when they don’t do so. Another insight was the effect of gender-based violence (GBV) against women on an entire family. Sylvie noted, “When women suffer from GBV, and are affected by conflict in any way, the whole family suffers. The whole family entity is fragilised. Therefore it is important that men and women work hand in hand to push the agenda [forward].”
Additionally, Sylvie discussed the principles of inclusivity, equality, recognition of diversity, and complementary approaches between men and women that guide and inform WILPF Cameroon’s agenda. She also highlighted the role of men working in the field: “Having men on board is very important to changing mindsets […] Sometimes when women talk to [traditional male leaders] the conversations can be unproductive. It’s critical for men to reach out to other men in the community.”
Finally, Sylvie stressed the power of documentary films as a practical tool for transforming men’s behaviours and mindsets. Short films raising awareness of masculinities and featuring women’s testimonies of their own experiences has been one of the best ways in Cameroon to “really get [men] on board [and] get them involved in peace work.”
Incorporating systems thinking and change
Madeleine reaffirmed the challenge of overcoming some men’s assumption of superiority as well as the detrimental effects of that assumed superiority. However, “it’s not just about the individual male assuming superiority. There’s the entire system which actually creates that feeling of superiority – from the laws to the inequalities in representation, et cetera.” But, she asked, what externally sustains that sense of superiority? “Who makes the contribution to that political economy? It’s the arms trading which supports militarisation, and the economic activities that are undertaken in countries (such as the extractive industry) which then provide a basis for the continuance of this male hegemony.”
Laxman also emphasised utilising a systems perspective when working with men and boys. “The gender binary” creates a “context of one versus the other. The system itself creates that phenomena where we start seeing each other as competitors. But with this partnership […] there is possibility for meaningful engagement […] with those who are working and leading the work on feminist movement but also working with men and boys in transforming masculinities.” Despite the inevitable challenges, he stressed that “we are committed to dismantling that system […] that keeps us dividing and blocks us from being the true human beings who we are.”
Militarisation in the DRC’s Artisanal Mines
“Militarisation can be found in every area, whether it is political, economic, social or cultural.” Annie spoke of how militarisation plays out in artisanal mines in the DRC. She and her team led an investigation into GBV against women who work in artisanal mines, finding that miners are watched by armed men, and female workers’ fundamental rights are not respected. Miners’ health is also compromised by the working conditions, the chemicals, and the lack of equipment; however, there is no available health center, nor laws to protect them from the conditions or violations. WILPF DRC continues to advocate for the rights of mining women to the government, despite talks to implement protections having inconsistent results. They try to highlight the link between the lack of respect of these women’s rights and militarisation.
Interrogating the war economy and its localised impacts in Cameroon
In 2015, WILPF Cameroon helped support Cameroon’s ratification of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) by conducting research on arms trading. Specifically, they sought to understand the extent to which GBV was fueled by weapon proliferation and found a correlation between weapon circulation and increase of GBV in communities. Along with other organisations, WILPF Cameroon led the advocacy for Cameroon’s 2018 ratification of ATT in order to control the flow of arms in the country. Sylvie illuminated the impact of this war economy on local, individual lives: “[Cameroon is] not fabricating weapons, but we are suffering from the weapons […] Worldwide, all the countries selling weapons to Cameroon must be held accountable.” She stressed the importance of advocacy work and interrogating the war economy in addition to work with local populations, as the two methods ultimately inform one another.
Sylvie also spoke to injustices in Eastern Cameroon’s gold mining industry, where “women are exploited,” “conditions are horrible, and people and children die regularly.” A journalist was recently arrested and imprisoned for several days after reporting on the mine conditions. Sylvie noted, “When people try to look into that, there is ‘shrinking space.’ They don’t allow you to speak out. The minute you point out the injustice, you are seen as working against the industry’s interests.”
Responding to the preceding examples, Madeleine said they exemplify that “[the feminist movement] is about not saying that we have a binary. It’s about looking at the impact on everybody’s lives of these institutions and structures which are seeking to pit one against the other. But if we reposition ourselves so we’re all on the same team looking at those structures, then can undo them. Then we will have a very different outcome.”
Sharing feminist responsibilities in Colombia and globally
Diana responded to a question from the audience on what the theory of change is for engaging men and boys given the understanding that it is not the responsibility of the Colombian feminist movement to explain feminism nor to change the mindsets of men.
She emphasised that work with men and boys must not be thought of as men “helping” women, which assumes women could or should do the work alone. Rather, “we are here to work together to rescue us from a violent world, from a violent patriarchal system.” She observed that reflections with men have revealed that many men have never questioned their privilege and its presence “in couple relationships, family relationships, [and] their workplaces.” In armed and militarist contexts, “those privileges are increased and exacerbated in an exponential way.” For instance, military symbols convey power and superiority throughout society, and the feminisation of weapons reproduces men’s possessiveness of women in their lives. Thus one strategy in engaging men and boys has been to question and disrupt men’s sense of ownership over women. “As long as […] this masculine superiority, vigilance and possession over women’s bodies is maintained, and as long as women continue to be murdered at the hands of armed and unarmed men, we will not be able to speak of a state of equality between men and women.”
Diana noted that men who are unaware of their privilege “are easy objects of patriarchy, and feminists do not want anyone being at the service of these systems of oppression. Thinking about that is a revolutionary act to build a feminist peace.” She also addressed the need for “an intersectional feminism that recognises the other systems of oppression and invites us to think that not all men are in the same place of privilege.” Many men experience oppression for their various identities, and feminists must remember that their lives can also be transformed by antimilitarist, feminist peace. “When feminists worldwide work to change society, we work not only to change society for women but for a better world.”
Rounding out the discussion, Diana reminded listeners that “the burden of responsibility” in generating feminist change has historically been placed on women, and this must be challenged: “The patriarchal system has eternally held us responsible for the upbringing of men. They hold us responsible for raising violent men; they also tell us that […] we teach them not to make the bed, not to take their dishes to the kitchen, not to wash their clothes […] We women of the feminist movement cannot assume the burden of transforming a system that is also the responsibility of men, and that is why we are with MenEngage.”
Annie concluded saying that “we must all work to cultivate the peace between men, women, girls and boys. We must walk together and work to nurture peace by sensitising key actors and mobilising and advocating alongside men who support our action.”
Cynthia closed with a powerful reminder of the ultimate vulnerability of institutions and structures, worth quoting at length. She argued that “everyday, individual enactments of patriarchy and big structures like mining and arms trade are always interacting with one another. We should never talk about structures as if they’re not made up of people […] In fact, these big structures – whether they be banking or mining or arms trade or the garment industry – they are all actually weaker than they would let us believe. They’re weaker, they’re more vulnerable, because they depend on us propping up patriarchy. You take away patriarchy, and you cannot produce a rifle. You take away patriarchy and every mine would close down […] These seemingly all-powerful structures […] depend on men and boys and girls and women in their everyday lives assuming inequality. I don’t mean that we’re not up against great powers […] but they’re nowhere near as powerful as they would let us believe. The emperor doesn’t really have much clothes on, to tell you the truth. And this alliance will make that clear.”