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The gender dynamics of relapsing conflict

Image credit: Andrew Smith (Wikimedia Commons: Creative Commons)

A significant number of the conflicts raging today are protracted wars. Areas such as Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, and Syria have seen perpetual instability from reoccurring flareups of violence. Achieving an armistice does not alone conclude warfare in the long-term. Narrowly funnelling resources to active conflict zones neglects the underlying causes of repeating unrest and can leave behind the conditions for relapse.

Employing a more nuanced approach to interventions and resource allocation would better address the cyclical nature of this violence. Using a gendered lens when analysing geopolitical insecurities assists in detecting social dynamics which put strain on the peace process. These dynamics, such as the pressures which exacerbate masculine violence or attitudes that discourage women's participation and freedoms, contribute to regional tensions which in turn can give rise to renewed violence.

Inequality has proved to be a robust predictor of continued relapses of conflict and there is strong evidence that women’s security within a region and their participation in peace negotiations are linked directly with more peaceful outcomes. Yet the value of women's contributions is not sufficiently recognised and their inclusion in peace talks globally remains limited - as seen in the recent Geneva Syrian peace negotiations.

Conversely, overlooking the stabilising role women play has been detrimental to ‘nation building’ attempts. Improving rates of education for girls has been correlated with increased community stability. Women play an important part in encouraging and delivering this education as seen when Afghan mothers secretly educated their daughters despite the state outlawing girl's education. Women also have a vital role in identifying early behavioural problems and protecting impressionable boys from the masculinities that drive radicalisation.

In heavily patriarchal states, manliness is often correlated with a man’s sense of self-worth. However, within struggling communities, traditional avenues to achieve manhood, like protecting or providing, can become limited. Violent acts perpetrated by non-hegemonic men or disenfranchised youth, such as domestic or gang violence, can initially appear illogical with no concrete incentives driving the behaviour. However, this phenomenon can be better comprehended when analysing the exaggerated gender dynamics of the community. Competition between boys and men is exacerbated by poverty and the cycle of violent warfare which decimates opportunities in the community.

Inequality serves to ‘feminise’ or figuratively emasculate men, robbing them of the ‘provider’ status. This explains the motive for ‘hyper-masculine protest’ – using violence to reassert manhood and regain a place within society. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the relapsing Congolese wars had impacted many adolescent men who were forming their identities during the fighting, by intertwining their masculinity with violence, thereby entrenching repressive gender norms.

However, fatherhood programs are working to counter this. Protest masculinity displayed by subordinated men is a challenge to consider in peacebuilding strategies which seek to effectively resolve the hangover of anti-social behaviours which linger post-conflict.

Expectations to be assertive and resist feminine (vulnerable) traits can affect young boys in their transition to ‘adulthood’, particularly if they had been engaged in the conflict. If a boy’s coming of age is marked by the carrying of a gun and the power this wields, this later contributes to his perception of his manhood. As men infuse weapons and control into their identity the attempts to later de-weaponise communities become more complex.

The glorification of military action and power intensifies clashes between groups. In Uganda, the clashes between state and rebel groups provoked cultural tensions stemming in part from ideas around becoming ‘real men’. Stereotypical gender roles and hierarchy within the family unit and broader community become reinforced to support these identities. This oppression of women and minorities, linked to such hypermasculine ideas about what it is to be a man, can act as an early warning sign of impending intrastate conflict, thereby providing an opportunity to intervene with gender inclusive negotiations before violence erupts.

A more comprehensive understanding of the poverty, influence, opportunities and responsibilities affecting each sex can be gauged by assessing sex-segregated data. Women’s liberties, including legal rights and safe locomotion are commonly restricted during tensions out of concern for their welfare or to reinforce hierarchy in society. Women who become displaced in war often are notably more vulnerable due to their responsibility of care. Whilst these women can show surprising resilience in adapting to care for their dependents, these dynamics can place them in conditions of adversity in the effort to provide for them.

Sexual violence resulting from protest masculinity risks being normalised into the post-conflict phase if is it not adequately denounced and if impunity prevails. Importantly, viewing women exclusively as victims is not a complex enough assessment and discounts their agency and undervalues their capabilities to organise and provide essential insights like where best to direct resources.

Without appropriate steps, violence intertwined with masculinity will likely endure as a non-traditional security risk because the behaviour is self-perpetuating and is exacerbated by poverty. The incorporation of women into the peace negotiation room could be a step toward breaking the cycle of relapsing conflicts alongside a measured increase in resources to development programs.

Kate Backshall is an International Relations student at Deakin University.

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