Masculinities and violence in conflict

“We don’t teach these kids about violence; about how to be a man,” said Dr Ken Harland at a recent event co-hosted by International Alert. “We’re not born violent, we learn violence.”

The conference, entitled ‘Masculinities, violence and (post-)conflict’, was held at Ulster University’s Belfast campus from 14–15 January and attended by over 120 people.

The programme started with a one-day postgraduate conference, with papers presented by academics from the UK, Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, South Africa and Canada, addressing the impact of violence and (post-)conflict contexts on masculinities, and transforming and engaging masculinities towards peace and gender equality.

The day commenced with a keynote speech by Dr Chris Dolan of the Refugee Law Project at Makerere University, Uganda, in which he reflected on the multiple dimensions of masculinities and violence. He invited the audience to go beyond traditional civilian–soldier and victim–perpetrator binaries, arguing that these form the basis of superficial engagement on this important topic. Instead, he called for a recognition of the fact that men can also be victims of institutional and sexual violence, and called on people to challenge the military, religious and political institutions that frame our narrow understanding of masculinities.

In a roundtable discussion that followed facilitated by Alert’s Head of Gender, Dr Henri Myrttinen (pictured far right, above), attendees considered how masculinities work in practice, from the local to the global level, drawing on the practical experiences of a diverse mix of gender and conflict experts from civil society organisations based in Europe, including Saferworld, the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF) and Trócaire.

One of the limitations of dominant gender expectations, it was agreed, is that expressing emotions is not considered a masculine behaviour. Yet, talking about experiences of violence is essential for dealing with traumatic experiences in an emotionally mature way. “Emotional disconnect is the hallmark of patriarchal masculinity,” observed one of the speakers.

“We work with young men to understand that it is good to talk,” said Michael McKenna from Youth Action. “Talking – about problems and feelings – is a sign of strength, not weakness.” This is a key dimension of Youth Action’s work with young men, based on groundbreaking research on what it means to be male growing up in Northern Ireland, which documented that violence and the impacts of violence are part of young men’s everyday lives. The impact of their work speaks for itself: while riots were happening in east Belfast, some of their youth volunteers decided to walk away from the riots and organise a football game, to provide a non-violent alternative for their peers.

The second day of the conference brought together the academics and civil society practitioners to discuss how to translate the conceptual advances in understanding these issues from the academic realm to the practical on-the-ground work as well as the policy realm. Questions around buy-in from women’s groups and a lack of unified coalitions on this issue were among the challenges discussed, as was the need for policy-makers to embrace a more nuanced understanding of the issue – rooted in practice – as well as creativity and innovation in peacebuilding at the local level.

Participants expressed their appreciation for the opportunity to make connections between civil society and academia, and at Alert we will be exploring ways to build on and extend this space for dialogue.

The conference was organised in partnership with Ulster University’s Transitional Justice Institute (TJI) and International Conflict Research Institute (INCORE), the Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services (IRISS), Saferworld, Conciliation Resources (CR) and the Political Settlements Research Programme (PSRP). You can view the full programme from the first day here.

To find out about the new book by Dr Ken Harland and Professor Sam McGready, Boys, young men and violence: Masculinities, education and practice, which was launched at the event, visit the Ulster University website here.

Local community TV station, Northern Visions TV, broadcast a short news piece on the event, including an interview with Myrttinen on the importance of masculinities in conflict. You can watch the video here.

Find out more about our work on gender and peacebuilding here.

Photo © Rob Fairmichael, Irish Network for Nonviolent Action Training and Education