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Civil strife

Culture of male violence undermines society

by Rita Schäfer

In brief

Workday life in weapons: young soldier in the Congo

Workday life in weapons: young soldier in the Congo

The willingness of men to commit violence after wars often poses tremendous problems for peace missions and thwarts reconstruction efforts. Innovative ways of redefining masculine identities in a non-violent way would often make an important difference.

After an official peace agreement is signed, numerous demobilised soldiers and militia typically continue to commit violence. The victims are by no means only women and girls. Rather, the perpetrators destabilise society in general; they attack men too and commit robbery. Sometimes, even UN peacekeepers and staff from international organisations become their victims.

In the past few years, the UN resolutions 1325 and 1820 on women, peace and security have boosted the perception of sexualised violence as a war crime and a threat to international security. Most aid projects, however, remain reactive and focus on female victims. At multiple levels, it would be worth getting men to change their attitudes, as panel members agreed at an event organised by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin in May.

Monika Hauser, the founder of the NGO medica mondiale, knows from former Yugoslavia what baggage post-war societies carry with them. In the war, rape was used strategically, and it was hard to press charges against the perpetrators after the war. Forced prostitution, moreover, hampers the establishment of a violence-free post-war society, and so does the trafficking of women and girls. Hauser points out that soldiers and civilian aid workers sometimes buyed prostitutes’ services themselves, and all too often, their leaders did not acknowledge the degree to which the men under their command got entangled in criminal settings.

For local soldiers who were demobilised and men who had to give up their weapons, the sexual power that international forces and civilian aid workers wield is often unbearable. The cases in which UN peacekeepers abused women and girls prove that the problem is serious in spite of the UN’s policy of zero tolerance.

In the context of security sector reforms, government agencies must tackle militarised ideas of masculinity. Non-­governmental organisations can support them in meaningful ways. Chris Dolan of the Kampala-based Refugee Law Project told the meeting how to train the police to improve officers’ interaction with those seeking help. These programmes build on officers’ professional ethics and take their everyday experience into account. The staff at refugee camps is another target group of the Refugee Law Project. Dolan says it is useful for them to understand how humiliating camp life can feel to men who used to be warriors, even if many of them were subjected to violence too.

Patrick Godana of Cape Town’s Sonke Gender Justice Network gave an example of violent men who are prepared to change. A number of Sonke staff were involved in the fight against apartheid. They are today no longer willing to accept South Africa’s extremely high murder rate, the high number of rapes and the high incidence of HIV/AIDS. These men now reach out to schoolchildren, teachers and politicians.

As Godana put it, every man can learn to accept responsibility for himself and his social environment. Discussion should focus on a person’s own experience with ­violence and discrimination. In peer groups, young men can be encouraged to stand up against violence. If the interaction between men and women in South Africa is to change, however, NGOs will even have to go further – they must make sure that laws are reformed and reforms are enforced.

Rita Schäfer