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Addressing Masculinity: the Forgotten Half of Gender Studies

2013 February 20
by sfcg

girlsBy Stephanie Fagan

The key to conflict resolution is…gender!

Really? Yes. You’re joking, right? Nope. Isn’t that oversimplifying? Well, kind of.

It would be better to say that gender is a key part of conflict resolution, but the general sentiment is valid. Think about it! Gender inspires the clothes you wear, the way you speak, your posture, your thoughts, your dreams, etc.  Considering the importance of gender in your daily life, it is only logical to assume that it would play a critical role in conflict resolution.

But what does gender mean? How do we approach it? Who should we discuss it with? These questions and many more were the basis of this month’s Conflict Prevention & Resolution Forum. Hosted by Search for Common Ground, the presentation was entitled “Gender, Masculinity and Conflict Dynamics: Review of Current Practice.” Kathleen Kuehnast, the director of the Center for Gender and Peacebuilding at the US Institute of Peace, moderated the event, while the panel included:

Ambassador Seven E. Steiner~Visiting Expert, United States Institute of Peace

Maria Correia~Social Development Sector Manager, South Asia Region, the World Bank

Joseph Vess~ Senior Programs Officer, Promundo

The forum was an hour and a half of thoughtful discussion among experts in the fields of conflict resolution and gender studies. I know that not everyone who wanted to participate was able to make it to the event. So, as a conciliation prize, here are the top five things I took away from the forum:

1.       Problems are complex

Everyone in the peacebuilding field would like to achieve world peace, but unrealistic goals actually hinder progress. There is not one masterful idea that will rid the world of conflict and pain. Disputes are deep-rooted in profound cultural and political differences. We, as peacebuilders, can’t aim for a silver-bullet solution, but rather, should approach conflict resolution in a multifaceted manner.

This is where gender takes center stage. Undoubtedly, gender has a significant impact on peacebuilding. However, gender disputes and issues are not solved instantaneously. Simply putting women at the discussion table does not change socially constructed stereotypes. It does not alter the perception of the role of women in society. Gender issues are as complex as conflict itself. Practitioners must understand the depth of the problems they face and strive towards realistic goals.

 2.       Gender does not mean women

At Tuesday’s panel, Kathleen Kuehnast plainly stated:

“Gender is often seen as a synonym for women.”

Kuehnast and her colleagues expressed frustration with this mentality, which backs numerous one-sided gender outreach programs. The problem with only working with women on gender issues is that femininity and masculinity play equal parts in the gender dynamic. Thus, you cannot properly discuss one while ignoring the other. Still, masculinity is almost entirely disregarded in conflict resolution programs, thus reducing the effectiveness of these initiatives.

3.       Violence is a learned behavior

The speakers stressed that violence is not inherent to men. Children are not born with violence in their hearts nor with a hatred of others. For this reason, it’s vitally important for programs to approach the youth. If society teaches young men that aggression is the equivalent of masculinity, then that mentality becomes ingrained in the next generation. While we work to disassociate adults from this “militarized masculine identity,” it is most important to keep this perception from being passed down to the leaders of tomorrow.

 4.       Gender transformation is essential

In programs that do address masculinity, emphasis is often placed on telling men why aggression is wrong. The fault in this approach is that men are told to change their identities, without being given a proper alternative.  Outreach must go further by explaining that there are different ways to express masculinity. Otherwise, participants are likely to regress to their previous views.

 5.       Economics is a powerful force

While economics may not be my favorite subject in school, Tuesday’s panel taught me about the important role it plays in conflict dynamics. Poor economic circumstances often plague post-conflict communities, leaving many men out of work. The inability to provide for their families threatens their sense of masculinity.

Various conflict resolution programs look to empower women by teaching them job skills. However, when men are excluded from these programs, hostilities begin to blossom. Extending constructive programs on gender to both women and men can help bridge the gender divide rather than reinforce it.

To wrap up, Tuesday’s panel on gender, masculinity, and conflict dynamics was eye-opening. The role of gender in conflict resolution should not be ignored. However, we must be diligent in addressing both femininity and masculinity. Sustainable change occurs when both men and women support equality.

If you are located in the D.C. area and would like to participate in a forum, click here.  Our next forum is the Great Lakes Policy Forum 2-day Event on the Democratic Republic of Congo, February 25-26, 2013, click here to register.


Stephanie Fagan is a graduating senior at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, where she studies international affairs with a concentration in contemporary cultures and societies. She believes that understanding nuanced cultural differences is essential to the peace building process. Stephanie is the new media intern at Search for Common Ground.
One Response leave one →
  1. February 21, 2013

    Thanks for writing up this event. I think a better headline, after the colon, would have been: the forgetten half of peace studies.

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