Where do men stand in all this?: Sexual Violence in Conflict

This article was first published on Women Under Siege’s website: Republished here with kind permission from the author.

Let’s blame men. Many of us do – many women and even men blame men for the mass rape of women in war. It’s easy to point our fingers and name the perpetrator. But what if we were to step back and ask how men can actually be part of the solution? It requires a couple of basic assumptions.

First, that not all men can (or would) rape women in war. The second is that we’d have to think of “men as actual and potential agents of change for gender justice.” That’s what Dean Peacock, executive director of the South Africa-based Sonke Gender Justice says.

In a paper presented at the end of January 2011 to the Vienna Institute for International Dialogue and Cooperation, Peacock (who is also the co-chair of the Global MenEngage Alliance) asserted these ideas and more. In fact, he names power imbalance as a root cause of sexualized violence in conflict, as do we here at Women Under Siege.

“Whether in war or peacetime, the perpetration of sexualized violence is driven by socially sanctioned male dominance over women – and over socially weaker men, and children – by notions of manhood and power that valorise sexual conquest and give powerful men a sense of entitlement with no consequences, as many male politicians have shown us,” Peacock says.

Compare that with Gloria Steinem’s words in a Q&A I recently did with her about founding Women Under Siege: “Even in peacetime, the ‘cult of masculinity’ is so powerful that men commit crimes in which they have absolutely nothing to gain and everything to lose: ‘senseless’ killings like those in schools and post offices, serial murders, domestic violence, stalking, killing their wives and children and then killing themselves. They’re not hate crimes because they don’t hate the people they kill – but those people symbolize their lack of control, and so are killing the ‘masculinity’ on which their whole sense of self depends. In interviews, such men often describe themselves as victims because they believe they should have been allowed to have control. I think we should call such crimes ‘supremacy crimes.’”

Peacock describes a “continuum in the forms of violence used by those who have power to subjugate and those who do not,” and he wants us to consider that “there are differences in the way people can access and wield power which we need to examine carefully if we want to succeed in challenging the discrimination that results from the misuse of such power.”

Misuse of power leads to what Steinem is calling “supremacy crimes.” I think we’re on the same page here. So what do we do about it? Peacock has some ideas.

“To resolve sexual violence in conflict we’re going to need similar deep wells of imagination and courage, alliance-building, political will and intellectual support,” he says. “We’re also going to need serious, measurable and universally agreed on systems of accountability, something we currently lack.”

He goes on to say that money is crucial toward creating an overall solution. As a member of the advisory council to the Nobel Women’s Initiative’s International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict, he joins the campaign in calling for a billion dollars a year to be made available to address violence against women. That money – wherever it will come from – would go toward providing women with emergency services and toward fixing what’s broken – and, let’s admit it, a lot of things are broken here – including justice systems (hear the word “impunity” loudly and clearly in your mind), and cultural attitudes that embrace what Peacock calls “exclusionary, male-dominated systems of power that allow men, no matter their class, race or creed, to trivialize and normalize their own and other men’s violence against women, other men, and children, to laugh it off, including through verbal violence, and to treat it as a private matter without fear of serious sanction from either the state or their friends.”

Interestingly, Peacock also focuses on the image we paint of men, especially in the global South, as part of the problem: Particularly men in Africa, he says, “are portrayed quite uniformly in the Western media as perpetrators, supportive, silent indifferent bystanders, callous and stigmatizing, likely to ostracize and abandon their wife, girlfriend or daughter if she is raped in conflict. They are also characterized as unable to empathize with the suffering of men whose families are victims, and seen as homophobic, incapable of and unwilling to support or acknowledge men who have themselves survived sexual violence.”

Such characterizations “deter women and men from seeking assistance from men who might otherwise provide love and support, they reinforce negative stereotypes, alienate many men and sometimes generate a backlash against women’s rights; and they decrease the likelihood that men will be mobilized as advocates for change and for gender justice because they close the space for alternative expressions of masculinity to be celebrated,” says Peacock.

Sweeping generalizations never helped anyone, and it’s certainly not going to help end sexualized violence in conflict. Humans are irritatingly complex, and it helps in this case, as in others, to see them as such. For instance, we know that some men have been made to rape in war by their superiors, who may threaten to beat or kill them if they do not.

By recognizing that men feel deep shame and anger that their wives or family members have been raped, or even experience sexualized violence themselves, Peacock is not only recognizing our human complexity, he is saying that we must work with these men to put an end to rape in war.

His work at Sonke focuses on mobilizing these men to speak out and stop other men’s violence. He runs something called the One Man Campaign that “affirms that men have a positive role to play in bringing about change and provides them with sequenced opportunities to reflect on the costs they bear when they adhere to rigid notions of manhood.”

I like this. And I like that the campaign calls on men to act on their convictions that violence is wrong and that it can be stopped. When there is hope, there is possibility. Let’s see what we can do here.

Lauren Wolfe is an award-winning journalist who has written for publications from The Atlantic to The International Herald Tribune. She is currently the director of Women Under Siege, a project on sexualized violence in conflict spearheaded by Gloria Steinem at the Women’s Media Centre in New York. She serves on the advisory committee of the Nobel Women’s Initiative International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict