By: Kelly Dale, Gender Specialist

Research on gender-based violence (GBV) during humanitarian crises, including intimate partner violence (IPV) and forced child marriage, often focuses on women. This research presents women as victims of war and displacement who need protecting from their male family members or foreign humanitarian aid workers.[i] It often presents men as patriarchal perpetuators of violence, and too often ignores the issues of male roles and masculinities all together. This narrative contributes to the demonization of men and marginalization of women. It strips women of their agency and does not allow for a deeper understanding of why men are more likely to perpetuate violence during conflict or following displacement.

Globally, rates of GBV are higher in these contexts due to a range of factors, including trauma, poverty, stress, lower self-esteem, and early exposure to violence, which conflict and forced migration increase –be this from the crisis itself or the social and economic consequences–resulting in negative coping behaviors and a higher propensity for violence. This in part stems from perpetrators’ sense of insecurity, powerlessness, or shame due to inability to meet certain economic and social norms attributed to men.[ii]

For many refugee families that move to higher-income countries, one income is not enough to support their family, so both men and women need to work. In other places, women may have more opportunities than men for work in the informal sector and are more willing to take up low-skill and low paying jobs.[iii]  While women’s entry into the labor force has many benefits to women and society, if female employment is outside of the norm for the family, this new role can also cause difficulties for both the man and the woman. For the woman, she may be experiencing a double burden where she is expected to maintain her role as the caregiver while also working. For a man, if he is un- or underemployed, his wife’s entry into the labor marker, financial independence, or better paying job may be perceived as threats to his identity, masculinity or self-worth and could lead to a sense of loss of control. [iv] These feelings could be exacerbated if he is required to take on some of her household roles and may result in alcoholism, depression, and intimate partner violence.[v] With men out of work, savings may diminish and stress may rise, which once again may lead to higher rates of GBV, including child marriage (as a tool to ease destitution) and IPV.[vi]  Feminist economic theory suggests that violence and the threat of violence are “resources” and can be used as bargaining tools in relationships, and may be more likely to be used when other resources are limited.

This phenomenon has been studied rigorously in several settings.

  • In a 2017 IRC-led study with internally-displaced persons in South Sudan, IPV perpetrators reported a sense of insecurity, powerlessness, or shame due to inability to find decent work and meet certain economic and social norms attributed to men. Male survey respondents reported “feeling that they are less able to fulfil their roles as men, such as marrying, owning property and providing for their family.” These feelings were linked with perceived loss of respect in their communities, which is closely associated with higher propensity for perpetrating IPV. Furthermore, rates of forced and child marriage have increased significantly as a result of increased poverty.[vii]
  • In the Democratic Republic of Congo, internally-displaced persons had a similar experience. A study conducted by Promundo revealed that two decades of conflict had left men unable to fulfil societal expectations or help their family meet basic needs. More that 75 percent of study participants admitted that they were ashamed of their inability to provide for their family. They claimed that the financial stress was compounded by their perceived deflated masculinity and led them to engage in negative coping mechanisms including alcohol abuse, reckless behavior, and violence.[viii]

High rates of violence are not necessarily due to patriarchal gender relations, but the existence of a patriarchal system undoubtedly contributes to men’s sense of insecurity and powerlessness when their power is threatened. Furthermore, the vulnerability and shame that men experience which may lead them to perpetrating acts of violence are not excuses for their behavior, but simply help to explain this behavior. I by no means argue that we should forgive men of their behavior, rather we should increase enforcement and accountability and reduce impunity. We should also work to dismantle patriarchal systems and harmful norms that equate masculinity with power and control. But when we stop demonizing men, we are able to open the space for understanding, learning, growing, and changing. It is only by taking these steps, we can address the root causes of violence and truly change aggressors’ behavior.

[i] Young, M. Y., & Chan, K. J. (2015). The psychological experience of refugees: A gender and cultural analysis. In Psychology of gender through the lens of culture (pp. 17-36). Springer, Cham.

[ii] Jewkes, Rachel, Emma Fulu, Tim Roselli, and Claudia García-Moreno. 2013. “Prevalence of and Factors Associated with Non-partner Rape Perpetration: Findings from the UN Multi-Country Cross-Sectional Study on Men and Violence in Asia and the Pacific.” The Lancet Global Health 1 (4): e208–18.

[iii] Young & Chan, 2015

[iv] Keedi, A., Yaghi, Z., and Barker, G. “We Can Never Go Back to How Things Were Before”: A Qualitative Study on War, Masculinities, and Gender Relations with Lebanese and Syrian Refugee Men and Women. Beirut, Lebanon: ABAAD and Washington, D.C.: Promundo. May 2017; Khawaja, N. G., & Milner, K. (2012). Acculturation stress in South Sudanese refugees: Impact on marital relationships. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 36(5), 624-636.

[v] Martin, Susan Forbes. 2004. Refugee women. Lexington books; Young & Chan, 2015

[vi] International Rescue Committee. 2016. Overview of Right to Work for Refugees Syria Crisis Response: Lebanon & Jordan

[vii] Murphy, Maureen; Blackwell, Alexandra; Ellsberg, Mary; Contreras, Manuel. 2017. No Safe Place: A Lifetime of Violence for Conflict-Affected Women and Girls in South Sudan.

[viii] Slegh, Barker, Ruratotoye, andShand, Gender Relations, Sexual Violence, and the Effects of Conflict on Women and Men in North Kivu, Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo: Preliminary Results from the International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES) (Cape Town, SA, and Washington, DC: Sonke Gender Justice Network and Promundo-US, 2012).