Ending Gender-based Violence Requires Comprehensive Engagement — A Reminder to men: Finish what you Started

Image Source: Women for Women

In principle, the civil war in South Sudan ended after a peace agreement was signed in 2018. In principle, South Sudan’s constitution ensures a 35 percent representation quota for women in government. Again, in principle, initiatives, training, and bills such as the Gender-Based Violence Bill and the Women’s Empowerment Bill help create a sustainable and inclusive peace in South Sudan. However, gender-based violence (GBV) in the country has not improved; in fact, it has gotten worse. In 2022, the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan reported a 218 percent increase in conflict-related sexual violence. This trend, which can be seen around the world, demonstrates that, while constitutional and legal safeguards protecting women are crucial, norms and behavior must also change for genuine gender equality to be achieved. To change gendered systems of power, it is not enough to focus on just half the population: men must be engaged too. Indeed, if men and boys are not engaged in the peace and gender equality process, harmful notions of masculinity and femininity will not be deconstructed and will continue to fuel and justify violence. It is time we stop asking women to shoulder the burden of achieving gender equality on their own, and demand that men do the same, or at least finish what they started.

GBV increases during times of conflict and can be a tactic of warfare. Although primarily considered a women’s issue, men and boys are also victims of sexual and gender-based violence during and after conflict.  However, GBV does not necessarily decrease when a conflict ends. In post-conflict environments, rebuilding law and order is complicated by the fact that former combatants struggle to reintegrate into society, and in turn, resort to perpetrating violence against women to reassert their dominance and fulfill their traditional roles as patriarchs. Working with men and boys is therefore essential to end GBV and deconstruct the harmful norms that allow this violence to persist.

The UN mission in South Sudan, UNMISS, affirms that it is committed to preventing GBV. However, during the first quarter of 2022, there was a 218% increase in women who reported experiencing sexual violence, while 65% of South Sudanese women will experience GBV in their lifetime. This does not necessarily mean, however, that GBV overall is increasing: GBV has a chronic underreporting problem due to the social stigma associated with it. The increase in noted GBV instead may be due to the work of UNMISS and other NGOs in the region to improve reporting mechanisms and deconstruct the social stigma associated with reporting. 

In accordance with its mandate, UNMISS has to support South Sudan in facing key challenges such as the organization of the 2024 elections, the deployment of quick reaction forces and temporary bases, ensuring humanitarian access, and mitigating the effects of climate change. Despite UNMISS’s challenging mandate, the UN has enough resources and manpower in South Sudan to support more programs and training initiatives. UNMISS should create initiatives with the specific mission of engaging men, which could be modeled on existing programs led by NGOs. For example, Women for Women are already successfully engaging men in South Sudan, albeit on a small scale. Their Men’s Engagement Program was designed for men and includes moral guidance, trade skills, and conflict resolution skills, and resulted in a reduction of violence against women in Yei County. Dedicating more resources to fighting GBV is crucial to address the other mission priorities as it is intrinsically linked to post-conflict challenges and South Sudan’s ability to safeguard human security. Consequently, by supporting initiatives that target GBV through promoting healthier conflict resolution in gender relations, UNMISS would be better able to fulfill its mandate to protect civilians – and women specifically. 

Engaging men and boys can also support sustainable peace more broadly. Conflict in South Sudan involved clans, religious groups, and various identities over distinct grievances, destroying lives and disrupting all aspects of society. Therefore, peace and reconciliation processes need to be multifaceted: some need to address subclan conflicts, while some need to engage men and boys to dismantle the patriarchal beliefs that fuel many of these complex dynamics. 

Certainly, none of these initiatives in any way should or will undermine efforts to empower women, and women should always retain their safe spaces. However, engaging men and boys in GBV programming is an essential part of achieving gender equality in the long term, particularly since they can also be victims of GBV during conflict. Programs to end GBV cannot focus exclusively on women, as Gloria Steinem said, “because gender has wrongly told us that some things are masculine and some things are feminine… which is bullshit.” Gender-based violence is a problem for all, not just the survivors.

Over the last couple of years, the scholarship on the importance of engaging men has grown significantly and demonstrated its necessity. Scholars, leaders, and activists have all called for men to be allies and to engage in programs to reduce GBV. Yet, the few programs that have taken place are under-resourced and rarely challenge the underlying causes of the unequal balance of power between men and women.

Engaging men does not mean that there will be fewer resources for women’s programming. Women’s voices should be heard, and men should be taught the tools to hear them – more resources and better management should make both possible. This short article is in no way innovative in topic or far-reaching in scope; it is a reminder, or plea, to engage men and boys not only in peacekeeping but in all gender equality programs around the world. If the men at war, in post-conflict zones, and in our own backyards do not disengage from harmful notions of masculinity, it does not matter how many resources we invest in women’s programs.

This article was inspired by and is dedicated to a brilliant friend, Kristine Baekgaard, who wrote her M.A. thesis on the effectiveness of the Women, Peace, and Security Agenda and its lack of engagement with men. 

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