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Friday, April 3, 2009

Live from MenEngage Rio: How the Privileges of Patriarchy Can Work Against Men

Posted by Eric Ramírez-Ferrero

On day four of the conference, the workshop that clearly stood out for me was, “Gender and Masculinity in Post-Conflict Settings.” In it, we examined experiences of men in war-torn societies, including post-genocide Rwanda, northern Uganda and eastern Congo, East Timor and Gaza.

One speaker used an interesting phrase, “gender against men,” to describe how strict notions of manhood are a liability to those men who fall outside of the limits it sets, men who don’t live up to the expectations inherent in “being a man.”

In post-conflict settings, such men might include those who have been the victims of sexual violence. The speaker from Uganda showed a moving video documenting the experience of one Congolese man (his identity was protected) who candidly described the horror of being held prisoner by the forces fighting in eastern Congo: Over a period of days, he was repeatedly gang-raped by soldiers. Though the physical trauma was beyond daunting, this man also knew that his perpetrators’ intention was to humiliate him, to diminish him, to demonstrate their power over him by putting him “in his place”—as a “woman.”

This sounded disturbingly familiar. We know that, ultimately, rape is about power, even when both the perpetrator and victim are men. As an anthropologist, I also found it fascinating how gender definitions are used to make sense of those who have power and those who don’t. It’s not merely academic - it plays out daily in the most devastating ways: In these and other post-conflict settings, men who aren’t willing to fight—to take up that traditionally “male” role –are feminized and subject to the same reign of terrors as women.

Unfortunately, the humiliation of male victims of sexual violence is further compounded when they seek counseling and care. The limited systems available (in this case United Nations missions) to support survivors of rape are closed to men. Indeed, support workers’ own definition of rape has excluded men as possible victims, and even those who did “get it” conceded that, “We have programs for women at-risk and for those who traumatized by sexual violence, but we have nothing for men.”

The same speaker explained that this is in part a result of what he called “patriarchal feminism” – a one-sided concept wherein only women are vulnerable. He went on to say that this is quite damaging for women, too, because it limits them to the role of victims rather than as agents of change. He seemed to be saying that many efforts to promote women’s equality actually reinforce traditional visions of womanhood and manhood (thus the “patriarchy”).

I agree with the speaker that, inadvertently, some “empowerment” efforts may reinforce rather than change norms. But the term “patriarchal feminism” sounds like plain old patriarchy to me, because there is no doubt that pervasive and age-old ideals of what women and men should be and do really DO oppress women! Yet this workshop made clear that we all need to be more conscientious of and concerned by how the meanings of “manhood” affect men, too. Clearly, they continue to benefit men in power, but they render other men even more vulnerable and sometimes invisible—and in the worst cases, beyond the safety net of services and support.

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