To what extent are men more vulnerable than women in processes of forced migration?

Cara Atkinson (2016), UCL, MA in Gender, Society and Representation

Rarely in discussions of forced migration are men considered as individuated actors whose experiences are both diverse and gendered. The 1951 Refugee Convention, a frequent target of feminist critiques, may refer to an abstract, universal ‘person’ who is nevertheless distinctly masculine, as Jacqueline Greatbatch (1989) argues, but this figure is as removed from men’s experiences and multiple roles as it is from women’s. The exclusion of women from refugee documentation, policy and planning in the period 1950 to 1985 does not mean that men were explicitly focused on as individuals – instead, men were positioned within the (largely unexamined) category of ‘the refugee’ (Edwards 2010). Since then, forced migration frameworks and studies have moved away from this abstraction, working to render women visible and reinscribing processes of forced migration through a gendered lens using the paradigms of Women in Development, Women and Development, and Gender and Development (Fiddian-Qasmiyeh 2014). It is only in the last decade or so that feminist engagement with refugee policy has worked to render men visible as individuals simultaneously capable of action and in need of protection (Edwards 2010).

While men as a group are not necessarily any more physically vulnerable than women, assumptions of male invulnerability (made by academics, aid agencies, policymakers and so on) often cause men to be placed in positions where their gendered needs are ignored and they are vulnerable to psychological as well as physical harm. Vulnerability must not be thought of as a single scale that individuals can be fixed upon. Instead, individuals can be vulnerable in some areas (and some processes) but not in others, and may be vulnerable while possessing agency and displaying resilience. Judging whether one gender is more vulnerable than the other is therefore an almost impossible task – not only because men and women are all vulnerable as individuals in a diverse range of ways, but also because the lives of men and women are deeply interwoven and cannot fairly be studied in isolation (Matsuoka and Sorensen 1999).

Focusing on the ways in which the vulnerabilities of men are often overlooked in processes of forced migration entails critical engagement with the theorisation and study of masculinity. Over-valuing masculinity as a concept can obscure the complex reality of men’s lives within processes of forced migration, rather than elucidating it. This is particularly true of the concept of hegemonic masculinity. Proposed by R. W. Connell, hegemonic masculinity is an idealised form of masculinity ‘constructed in relation to women and subordinated masculinities’ (1987, p.61). Hegemonic masculinity is therefore the form of masculinity that carries the most power in a particular historical moment or place. However, it is not possessed by all men, although the majority act in ways that support it, particularly by contributing to the subordination of women (p.185). Focusing on this latter aspect of hegemonic masculinity can lead to the stereotyping of men as perpetrators and women as victims, a theme that I will return to later in this essay.

Although hegemonic masculinity is a useful concept in that it renders masculinity multiple rather than singular, it proposes ‘a standard of masculinity against which all other masculinities are measured’, creating a particular ‘logic’ of masculinity under which men who do not wholly subscribe to hegemonic masculinity ‘can only be interpreted as frustrated individuals’ (Achilli 2015, p.264-265). There is little room in this model for men to embrace non-hegemonic masculinities, nor for a recognition of ‘different forms of masculinity as ever-changing social strategies enacted through practice’, continuous performances that alter over time and with changes in circumstance (Inhorn 2012, p.45). As processes of forced migration often cause radical changes in the lives of men, we can expect that their performance of, and engagement with, forms of masculinity would alter. Studies of refugee men tend to bear this out, particularly when it comes to resettlement – in David C. Este and Admasu Tachble’s 2009 study of Sudanese refugee fathers in Canada, the men involved reported significant changes to their role as fathers (and husbands) since arriving in Canada. The men now carried out domestic tasks and made decisions along with their wives, taking a hands-on role as parents. Although Este and Tachble never use the term ‘masculinity’ in their article, what they describe is clearly a change that is particular to Sudanese refugee men’s lives as men. Recognising the multiple, shifting roles that men (can) inhabit allows a movement away from studying how men (fail to) fit into idealised masculinities and towards a recognition of the full complexity of how they actually live their lives.

Bearing this in mind, I will now turn to what are arguably the initial processes of forced migration – violence and conflict. From here, I will then turn to a discussion of men, women and sexual violence, and from there to a discussion of the ways in which United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and non-governmental organisation (NGO) schemes, particularly those directed at women, often inadvertently destabilise the positions of men.

With 13.9 million individuals displaced by conflict and persecution in 2014 alone, conflict and violence (in numerous forms) are clearly at the heart of many forced migrants’ experiences (UNHCR 2015, p.2). Both men and women are affected by – and participate in – violence. However, studies of forced migration tend to position women, and their children, as victims of violence and conflict, while men are only present implicitly in descriptions of gendered violence against women (see, for example, Pittaway and Bartolomei 1991). Such ‘corrective’ descriptions of the experiences of forced migrants serve to position women as inherently vulnerable victims of conflict, while men are the silent perpetrators of violence. As men and women are forced into opposing subject positions the complexities of their experiences are lost, and stereotypes about the essential nature of men and women are inadvertently reified. Men, so this logic runs, are inherently active and violent, and as a result violence against men in times of conflict is imagined as natural. This is due, in part, to the gendered construction of ‘the civilian’, and the attendant assumption that all men are potential combatants and thus legitimate targets of violence (Carpenter 2006a, 2006b). Although masculine models do often reify military and/or political action, the uncritical adoption of these stereotypes obscures the way in which, ‘The nature of involvement in armed conflict is dictated by many interlinked factors which shape particular boys and men’ (Large 1997, p.25). Not all men participate in armed conflict of their own free will – men are vulnerable to forced recruitment, and may be driven into armed forces by poverty, lack of support networks, and general disempowerment (Large 1997). Furthermore, some men choose not to engage in conflict or are physically or mentally unable to do so. Reducing men’s experiences of conflict down to the label ‘perpetrator’ in academic and humanitarian discourse means that the complexity of men’s lived experiences cannot be taken into account or addressed.

Stereotyping men as perpetrators of violence can have negative consequences for women as well, as it means that their involvement in violence is rarely recognised fully. If those who are active in conflict situations are always thought to be men, then women (and especially girls) must always be cast as passive agents. Girls, as Carolyn Nordstrom (1999) points out, are invisible even where women are visible – there is a widespread view that girls ‘are chiefly acted upon… They are not presented as having identities, politics, morals, and agendas for war or peace’ (p.66). This is a particularly problematic view as girls are often involved in fighting forces – not just as forced migrants and participants but also as volunteers, often from internally displaced populations, driven by political and ideological motivations (McKay 2005). According to Susan McKay (2005), girls made up twenty-five percent of all child soldiers in all forces during the Sierra Leonean civil war (p.390). Girls reported performing domestic duties as well as acting as sexual partners to other soldiers; they were also trained to use guns, steal, and sometimes to kill. Yet at the end of the conflict they were not thought of as ex-combatants and were rarely included in disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programmes (DDR), which focused almost entirely on men and boys. In Sierra Leone only 506 girls participated in DDR compared to 6,052 boys (p.393). This was because girls were not thought to be capable of being actively involved in conflict in any way – the diversity of their experiences of both agency and exploitation were erased by the label ‘“sex slaves”’, which positioned them as passive victims (p.393). Although boys were recognised as in need of help, this was not because they were viewed as vulnerable – rather, DDR programmes focused on boys because they were regarded as violent and in need of social ‘reprogramming’.

The notion of ‘reprogramming’ men and boys arises in other areas of policy and research, particularly in relation to sexual violence, which can occur at any time during processes of forced migration. Writing in an edition of Forced Migration Review focused wholly on the issue of sexual violence, Manuel Carballo (2007) states that, in order to tackle sexual violence ‘in situations of social disruption’, ‘we must sensitise local leaders and communities and work with men’s groups’ (p.10). According to him, ‘peacekeepers and humanitarian relief staff’ must also be ‘sensitised’ so that they do not ‘become part of the problem’ (p.10). Although his recommendations are laudable in their aims, Carballo’s repeated use of the verb ‘sensitise’ is problematic in that it implies that all men are potential perpetrators of violence who are ‘hardened’, unable to understand the impact of their own actions.

Yet this is clearly not the case – in the same edition, Wynne Russell (2007) states that, although the true extent of sexual violence against men is almost impossible to judge, the majority of contemporary conflicts across the world have involved sexual violence against men and boys (p.22). Both men and boys remain vulnerable to sexual violence in refugee settings as well as in times of conflict. However, just as the paradigm of woman-as-victim and man-as-perpetrator obscures men’s vulnerabilities in armed conflict, so this paradigm obscures the experiences of men as victims – not just perpetrators – of sexual violence. Indeed, even in the introduction to the edition of Forced Migration Review focused on sexual violence an assumption is immediately made that victims of sexual violence are women. In the preface to her introduction, Thoraya Ahmed Obaid writes that ‘[t]his edition builds on the momentum generated by the International Symposium on Sexual Violence in Conflict and Beyond’, then goes on to begin the body of her introduction by stating that ‘Throughout history, violence against women has been accepted as an inevitable if unfortunate feature of conflict’ (p.5). Sexual violence is transformed into violence against women – the two are equated, effectively removing the possibility that men, too, can be victims of sexual violence.

The sexual violence that men experience during the processes of forced migration often remains unreported – or, if reported, is subsumed under other categories. During the Bosnian War, sexual violence against men was widespread – genital mutilation was used systematically by Serbs against Bosnian Muslim men in order to destroy their reproductive function, just as rape was used against Muslim women as a method of ethnic cleansing (Carlson 2006). The United Nations’ 1994 Final Report of the Commission of Experts reported similar cases of genital mutilation, some performed by making a prisoner bite off another’s testicles (p.60). It further detailed an elaborate incident of sexual violence that ‘involved prisoners lined up naked while Serb women from outside undressed in front of the male prisoners. If any prisoner had an erection, his penis was cut off’ (p.59). In detention, prisoners were forced to perform sexual acts on the guards or on other prisoners – a case was reported of a father and son forced to perform sexual acts with each other (p.59). However, at the Hague Tribunal into serious crimes committed during the Yugoslav Wars the sexual mutilation of men was prosecuted as ‘torture’ or ‘degrading treatment’ – it was not identified as sexual violence (Jones and del Zotto 2002, p.23). Male victims of sexual violence were not protected or given counselling by witness-protection initiatives set up in the wake of the tribunal – only female victims were – despite the fact that experiencing sexual violence is often humiliating and (sometimes literally) emasculating for men (Jones and del Zotto, p.23). Failing to recognise men as survivors of sexual violence risks denying them access to the medical, psychological and social care and support they need, potentially preventing them from coming to terms with their experiences and thereby placing them in a position of significant vulnerability.

This is not to say, however, that women always have access to the resources they need either, whether in conflict zones or in refugee camps. Fear of being disowned by their family or ejected from their community often deters women from reporting their experiences, and, even if they are able to do so safely, the support they receive from NGOs and other organisations may be very limited (Thomas 2007). Medical care (including vaginal reconstruction) and psychological help is rarely available in emergency situations (Thomas 2007). The solution to this, however, is not to respond, as many agencies have done, by focusing solely on the needs of women. Rather, the often interdependent, but gendered, needs of men and women must be addressed together.

Failing to recognise the ways in which men’s lives and roles are shaped by the lives and roles of women is a particular problem in relation to attempts to empower women, especially in refugee camps where men are often unable to work and provide for their families. In his study of Burundian refugees in a Tanzanian refugee camp, Simon Turner (1999) points out that in Burundian society the role of the father is based around providing for the family and making decisions on the family’s behalf. But in the camp, the UNHCR provides food, medicine and building materials directly to both women and men, leading women to complain that ‘The UNHCR is a better husband’ and men to complain that their wives no longer respect them (p.2). Furthermore, the active encouragement of gender equality in the camp, which takes the form of programmes to promote the inclusion of women in decision making and to encourage women into vocational training, has led to women no longer being ‘quiet and shy’ as their traditional role dictates (p.4). They no longer obey their husbands, who have in their eyes failed to fulfil their roles as men, and instead only obey ‘UNHCR law’ (p.4). Or, at least, this is what the Burundian men report – they interpret UNHCR’s empowerment of women and their general running of the camps as disempowering men, usurping their traditional gender roles and placing men in a vulnerable position.

It has been claimed that ‘men adapt more slowly’ than women to changes brought about by processes of forced migration, but this cannot fairly be said to be the case (Moser and Clark 2001, p.10). Both men and women’s experiences are far more complex than this, although it is true that women are often offered opportunities to empower themselves by UNHCR and NGOs that men are excluded from. However, the changes that processes of forced migration cause to family structures and gender roles affect both men and women, manifesting in a ‘general feeling of loss; loss of certainty, of absolutes, of taken for granted structures of authority’ (Turner 1999, p.5). Both men and women must participate in (re)negotiating not just gender roles, but also social structures and traditional practices, and both men and women must be assumed to need help in doing this. In her study of young male internally displaced Muslim residents of Puttalam district, Sri Lanka, Cathrine Brun (2000) points out that there are three main target groups of aid for NGOs – women, children and the household. Men are not targeted as gendered actors but as heads of households, effectively erasing men who do not fit into this category. Failing to recognise the specific needs of men – either because they are assumed to be inherently resilient and thus ‘able to cope’ or because they are assumed to naturally struggle to adapt and to be unable to be assisted in this transition – amplifies the difficulties that men face in processes of forced migration.

The individual problems and harms that men must deal with as forced migrants are difficult – and to some extent dangerous – to generalise about. There are, of course, common experiences refugees and internally displaced people face, yet there are numerous ways of responding to each experience – some of which, but not all, are gendered. But it is important to note that particular difficulties and vulnerabilities experienced by men are often exacerbated by assumptions about their motivations, desires and needs that are driven by stereotypes about men and masculinities. Crudely casting men as perpetrators and women as victims (or assuming that men are resilient and capable, while women are not) prevents both men and women being treated as the complex gendered actors that they are, who relate in a variety of ways to gender roles that are multiple rather than singular, and evolving rather than static. Making assumptions about which gender is the most vulnerable in the context of forced migration only serves to obscure the the ways in which men and women’s various individual vulnerabilities and strengths are interrelated and co-dependent. Instead of treating men and women (and boys and girls) as agents whose strengths and vulnerabilities are separate and opposed, it is important for policymakers and academics to understand the complexity of links between men and women so that the needs of both groups can be fully recognised.


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