Illustration photo. (Photo: Tom Peyre-Costa/NRC)

A failure to address the vulnerability of men and boys

Delphine Brun|Published 30. Mar 2021
The patchy attention given to adolescent boys and men has not allowed for understanding the gendered impact that crisis has on them. We need to expand our vision of who persons of concern should be, writes Delphine Brun, senior GenCap adviser at United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Cameroon.

Every year, events such as the International Women’s Day rightfully sheds light on the structural gender-based discriminations that girls and women bear, and that are exacerbated in times of crises.

In the north-west and south-west regions of Cameroon where the socio-political crisis, now entering its fifth year, has led to the displacement of over 700, 000 people, women and girls struggle to make ends meet, face violence and often lack access to essential services such as education and healthcare. With the killing or exile of their husbands, they often have to navigate an unnerving new reality, where all responsibilities lie on their shoulders.

While there is an undisputed need for the humanitarian response to address the risks affecting women and girls, the patchy attention that has been given to adolescent boys and men has not allowed for understanding of the gendered impact that crisis has on them.

What is it like being a young man affected by crisis?

Adolescent boys and men face specific threats and circumstances that leave them vulnerable. Analysis of protection incidents in the south-west region demonstrates that while girls and women are exposed to heightened risks of gender-based violence, more than nine out of ten people exposed to arbitrary arrests, beating, illegal detention, torture, kidnapping, extra-judicial executions and disappearance are males.

(Photo: Delphine Brun)

Being a man or a boy also means being more exposed to targeted armed attacks, with greater risks of injury or death directly related to the conflict. This peculiar exposure to threats is explained by the specific forms of discrimination, harassment and violence they face, from the military authorities and from the non-state armed groups. As it is men who are expected to fight, it is also them who are perceived as threats by both parties.

“When the crisis metamorphosed into an armed conflict, the youth was a target for the separatists, who wanted us to join the group. At the same time, the militaries could not think that a young man could be neutral. Women and girls didn’t face this suspicion, as they were not seen as fighters. All the young men had to flee”, explains Firmin, a 24-years-old man, who sought refuge in Yaoundé.

Often accused as prime suspects whenever any party is attacked and hurt, any attempt to adopt a neutral stand is doomed to fail: Not giving information is interpreted as a sign of being accomplice. Revealing it, with the risks of retaliation it entails, doesn’t in any way reduce insecurity: “There’s no safe position you can adopt”, adds Firmin.

This prevalent atmosphere of insecurity is aggravated by the fact that many people lack identity documents that have been lost, ceased or destroyed. While women and girls can usually manage to move around and cross check points without carrying proper documentation, men and boys face tremendous risks of being arrested.

Illustration photo. (Photo: Delphine Brun)

Caught in a spiral of fear, the male population who has not fled has often reduced its economic and social life to the bear minimum, limiting movement and avoiding gatherings. Boys and men must at all times stay on their guard. They can no longer speak freely, because of the fear of being denounced by military or separatist groups’ spies, which could result in abduction. Moving around to get the necessary income, allowing them to play the socially expected role of provider for the family, has often been rendered impossible.

For the younger men and boys, loss of employment and increased poverty often combines with attacks on education, further reinforcing their isolation and lack of prospects.

If vulnerability is defined by both the external threats characterising a specific environment, and by the coping capacity of those experiencing that environment, adolescent boys and men can clearly be described as a vulnerable group.

“You’re not man enough to look after your family”  

With no immediate solution foreseen to the ongoing crisis, adolescent boys and men feel dispossessed of control over their life and their future: Lack of proper documentation, restricted mobility, stigmatisation, targeted violence, lack of work and income, all contribute to a sense of helplessness, high amounts of anxiety, stress, frustration, and anger, and ultimately, a loss of self-esteem. Emotions can remain ‘locked inside’ due to the prevailing view that being a real man is about being tough and not showing fear or sadness.

Community learning school in Bamenda in the North-West region. (Photo: OCHA/Bibiane Mouangue)

In a society where men are expected to protect and to provide, they often find themselves incapable of fulfilling what is seen and what they understand as being their roles. This affects their identity as men:

“When we grew up, the first thing we had to do was to get married and look after our wives, our mothers, and our siblings. Before, we were going to our farm and had additional economic activities on the weekend. I had a fiancée before the crisis. But she left me because I didn’t have any financial means any longer. This was very hard… My mother looks at me as a failure. She doesn’t say much but I can feel it.”
Georges, a 35-years-old man, now displaced

Adapting to a hostile reality:  Shifts in gender roles and relations

Men adopt different strategies to cope with the situation. While many have fled to other regions, some decide to join the non-state armed groups, even when not adhering to their cause, to get money and to place their families under the group’s protection.

Others, who have previously been working as cash crop farmers, decide to engage in livelihood activities such as food crops, that were the domain of women prior to the crisis.

Too afraid of being abducted, many boys and men, particularly young ones, stay at home and resign themselves to immobility. To allow their wife to have more time to work outside the house, some of them increasingly play a caregiving and domestic role, engaging in these socially devalued and often invisible tasks that have been the domain of girls and women.

Because “women can move where men used to go”, they also send their wives to get humanitarian assistance.

Due to the demographic imbalance the conflict created, with many men dead, hiding or forced to exile, women are, on their part, playing the role of heads of households and providers for the family. They have engaged in a range of economic and social activities, formally played by men, generating a heavy workload. Some have resorted to undertaking risky activities, such as crossing borders as spies or to buy contraband. They are now the ones digging the graves and burying dead bodies.

Positively, the conflict has also opened space for women to play higher public roles, mobilising in favour of peace and having more say in community decisions.  But these heightened economic and social roles are not always synonymous with a genuine empowerment.

Expanding our vision of who the persons of concern should be

Examining the inter-connections and relations between different groups in crisis-affected communities forces us to recognise that failing to address the vulnerability and needs of adolescent boys and men has direct, or indirect, negative impacts on other groups. When men are arrested, killed or forced to exile, women are also victimised, with more burden and responsibilities and with more frontline activities that place their own safety at risk.

(Photo: Delphine Brun)

In the same vein, lack of prospects and the inability to conform to dominant and yet unattainable models of masculinity affects the male population’s well-being and sense of self-worth.  It generates frustration, anger, and idleness, often leading to addictions and mental illness, which in turn may create or exacerbate protection risks for the wider community. There is evidence that the distress men face has increased tensions that lead to a significant upsurge in household violence.

Failing to adequately acknowledge the devastating implications the crisis has had on boys and men in terms of protection, socioeconomic wellbeing and identity, is not allowing to address their needs and how this affects the wider community.

The gendered dimension of conflicts, including an understanding of how the lives of men, women, girls and boys interact, their needs and realities affecting each other, needs to be analysed to develop responses that are truly evidence-based, inclusive and in accordance with needs.