Masculinities in conflict: psychosocial disarmament of traumatized men to end violence

Men comprise the majority of those who use small arms and also the majority of direct victims of gun violence. In many parts of the world, there is often a strong social and cultural association between masculinity and owning a gun. An important component on gender mainstreaming small arms controls is to understand these dynamics and develop ways to address them.

Living Peace Institute is a Congolese NGO, based in Goma (DRC), that has developed an evidence based psychosocial community-based program for men and boys to end violence. The methodology is based on studies conducted by Living Peace Institute (LPI) and Promundo US on the effects of crises in the DRC on men and women (2012), on the effects of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) on perceptions of masculinity (2014), and on the impact of DDR on the psychosocial wellbeing of ex-combatants and their families (2017).

The results show how deeply ingrained gender perceptions on men as income providers, bosses and protectors of the family are in a context of war and crisis. Many men experience shame and frustration because they are not able to meet the social expectations that come with masculinity. They may have lost their house, land, jobs and/or reputations as protectors of the family after their wives or daughters were raped, and men cope with traumatic experiences by hiding their vulnerability through substance abuse and other risk behavior including violence.

The studies reveal that men and boys, who have been exposed to traumatic experiences, are using violence, also towards their intimate partners; more and more often than non-traumatized peers. Former combatants, used to defending themselves in armed groups with violence, relying on weapons and uniforms, show significantly high levels of symptoms of psychological trauma after disarmament through a reintegration program. Loss of weapons and uniform are perceived as loss of control and male power. Loss of a weapon has severe psychological impact on men’s perceptions of powerlessness and insecurity, and on their feelings of fear and anxiousness. Emotions that many men are not able to manage, since men are supposed (and taught) to be “tough, strong and in control”. Thus, men tend to cope by hiding and avoiding such feelings whilst these can become explosive when unveiled in intimate partner relations.

Community and family reintegration of ex-combatants often does not stop the war in their minds and several former combatants use violence at home and in the community. This violence traces back to traumatic memories and strong emotions of fear and anger. Based on these research findings, LPI developed a methodology of psychological disarmament of men through community-based psychosocial support for and with men. LPI supports ex-combatants through the process of change in learning to deal with emotions and self-awareness up to the point where the ex-combatant decided to live in peace with his wife, and to surrender the weapon he had been hiding for military authorities.

Discussions on gender mainstreaming into small arms control must incorporate men. As the work of LPI shows, prevention and ending the link between violent masculinities and gun culture can be broken.

*The LPI methodology is implemented in eastern DRC with support of the kingdom of the Netherlands and in Kinshasa with support of the Swedish International Development Agency. The LPI approach was adapted to other conflict affected populations in Cameroon, Mali, Lebanon and Iraq with support of different donors.

Henny Slegh is Director International programs for Living Peace Institute DRC. As Medical Anthropologist (Msc)- and former psychotherapist- she is specialized in mental health, gender and culture in conflict areas and she is working more than 20 years in African countries. For Promundo-US, she coordinated the International Men and Gender Equality Studies (IMAGES) in Rwanda, DRC, Mali and Mozambique. She conducted studies on the effects of conflict on masculinities and gender relations and developed, piloted and tested gender transformative interventions in African and MENA countries. She is co-author of the Living Peace methodology in DRC, a gender specific Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) model. She coordinated scaling up and adaptation projects of the Living Peace methodology for former combatants in DRC and for youth in conflict areas in Far North Cameroon, Mali, Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Iraq.

This blogpost was written as part of IANSA’s “Civil society engagement in support of gender mainstreamed policies, programmes and actions in the fight against small arms trafficking and misuse, in line with the Women, Peace and Security agenda”, which is funded by the United Nations. This document was produced with the financial assistance of the United Nations through contributions received from the European Union. The views expressed herein are those of the Implementing Partner and do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or the European Union.

The global movement against gun violence, supporting civil society organisations working to stop the proliferation and misuse of small arms and light weapons.