Engaging Men And Boys In The Women, Peace And Security Agenda: Beyond The “Good Men” Industry

Kind of Resource: 

Since the signing of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325) in October 2000, there have been two explicit references to men in resolutions on the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda, which limit the agenda to that of ‘enlisting’ or ‘engaging’ men and boys in achieving the goals of WPS, rather than a more sustained treatment of men and masculinities.  This article situates the new push for ‘engagement work’ within the longer history of attempts to engage men in feminist politics and argues that the current forms of ‘engagement work’ are set to replicate the most pervasive tensions between the expansive goals of actors and the actual programmes that have been seen within national anti-violence campaigns.

Download or read this article below, or read the original by the London School of Economics Centre for Women, Peace and Security here


Since the signing of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325) in October 2000, there have been two explicit references to men in resolutions on the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda. For the first 13 years of the agenda resolutions included men by default without naming them directly, referring to gender broadly and many particular instances of violence presumably caused by men.1 The first explicit mention appeared in 2013 in Resolution 2106, which mentioned ‘the enlistment of men and boys in the effort to combat all forms of violence against women.’ Resolution 2106 was followed up in 2015 by Resolution 2242, which reiterated ‘the important engagement by men and boys as partners in promoting women’s participation in the prevention and resolution of armed conflict, peacebuilding and post-conflict situations’. These direct mentions of men within the WPS architecture limit the agenda to that of ‘enlisting’ or ‘engaging’ men and boys in achieving the goals of WPS, rather than a more sustained treatment of men and masculinities. While the focus on men and boys has entailed a broad effort to expand WPS to the ‘other side of gender’, the majority of current actions appear to follow the language within UNSCRs 2106 and 2242 by focusing on ‘engaging men and boys’.2

This work, deemed ‘engagement work’ in this paper, has involved a range of attitudinal change programmes that either work directly with groups of men or conduct awareness campaigns which encourage men to become partners in bringing about the aims of the agenda. Whereas ‘engagement work’ appears to be relatively novel within the WPS space, it reflects a particular strain of work from men in support of feminism that originated in the various 1970s and 1980s men’s movements. This paper situates the new push for ‘engagement work’ within the longer history of attempts to engage men in feminist politics and argues that the current forms of ‘engagement work’ are set to replicate the most pervasive tensions between the expansive goals of actors and the actual programmes that have been seen within national anti-violence campaigns. These six tensions are seen in efforts which have 1) a lack of clarity; 2) projects that reify masculinity; 3) agendas to engage men without holding them responsible; 4) those who hold up dominant men as ambassadors for change; 5) programmes which have co-opted feminist spaces; and 6) the creation of a neo-liberal ‘good men’ industry. The paper begins by explaining what ‘engagement work’ is and how it connects to the WPS agenda. It then charts the origins of ‘engagement work’ in pro-feminist men’s organising before investigating the tensions present in this work. Finally, it considers how we might learn from the tensions present in engagement work in order to guide future work on and with men within WPS.

‘Engagement work’ and WPS

To claim that the WPS framework has been inattentive to the role of men and masculinities in addressing the needs of women and girls in armed conflict and peace processes is not to suggest that men have been entirely ignored within WPS. After all, many actors working on the WPS agenda either explicitly name gender norms of masculinity as a primary cause of violence or implicitly invoke the spectre of men as the abusers of women.3 However, the paucity of attention to the role of men is reflective of the wording in the original WPS resolution (UNSCR 1325), which contained no mention of men, as Cockburn explains:

‘The Resolution’s focus had been on women – as victims to be sorry for, as competent actors with use-value in peace-making, and as potential decision-makers. Nothing had been said either, during the drafting and redrafting of the Resolution and its negotiated passage through the Security Council, about men and masculine cultures of violence. There was much in the Resolution 1325 text about women’s sexual vulnerability, nothing about those who were the main source of danger to women. It noted women’s absence from significant positions, not the overwhelming presence of men in places of power.’4

The reticence to talk about men directly has meant that the impact of violence committed by men has remained in central focus on WPS, while little attention has been paid to what men or masculinities have to do with causing it. This imprecision presents distinct challenges for an agenda which hopes to engage men in achieving its goals, without first having established their relationship to violence or oppression. The lack of clarity is also reflected in the disconnection between the breadth of differing perspectives on the role of men and masculinities in making armed violence possible and ‘engagement’ approaches that have emerged so far.5 A brief survey of the literature focused on the role of men and masculinities in causing violence shows profound debates over the correct language to describe violence, on men’s collective complicity, the role of material structure compared to discursive factors and the relationship between masculinity and other axes of oppression.6 Similarly, work on the role of men and masculinities in ending violence is mediated by tensions over the usefulness of hegemonic masculine role models, men’s accountability to women’s organisations and funding to support men and gender diverse communities who have been targeted by gender-based violence.7

The primary model for targeting men and boys in WPS action is what this paper calls ‘engagement work.’ This approach, championed by member organisations of The Men Engage Alliance (coordinated by Sonke Gender Justice and Promundo-US),8 has undertaken the project of trying to get men and boys involved as active participants in promoting women’s peace and security. This work has been built on a few core beliefs including: ‘questioning men’s and women’s attitudes and expectations about gender roles’; promoting positive alternative models of manhood, showing men that they benefit from gender equality; encouraging direct participation; and broad support for existing UN mandates.9 These core beliefs are underlined by a model of societal change that emphasises the importance of attitude change among young men.10 This ‘engagement work’ proceeds from the idea that if you change men’s attitudes (and particularly young men’s attitudes due to their unique stage in the life cycle) about what it means to be a man and to achieve ‘gender equality’, then this will facilitate wider societal shifts around gender and violence against women.11


In practice, ‘engagement work’ appears to fall into a few categories. First, there is the development of educational resources (curriculum, manuals, video) that promote attitude and behavioural change by raising awareness about gender inequality, challenging violent notions of masculinity, and promoting positive alternatives. Second, there are marketing campaigns promoting changes in community values around specific norms of manhood or gendered practices. Third, there are efforts to allow young men to witness gender-equitable role models. Fourth, there is small-group work with men and boys that encourages participants to speak to one another to investigate norms related to feelings about and experiences of being a male. Finally, there is clinical service provision that looks to target the particular gender vulnerabilities of men and boys with a sensitivity to their positions and experiences, such as programmes for men who have experienced intimate partner violence or sexual abuse.12 In each of these categories there tends to be a range of approaches, from those that target very specific kinds of violence, such as anti-street harassment marketing campaigns, to projects that look to challenge notions of masculinity at a deep level. This is particularly the case for the fourth category of small-group work with men, which can range from work that has little to no engagement with feminist work, such as Christian men’s groups, to radical queer and pro-feminist men’s groups who aim to disrupt gender categories altogether.

The origins of ‘engagement work’

The various strains of ‘engagement work’ endeavour to express the goals of gender equality in a way that resonates with men’s own experiences, to promote alternative role models or attitudes, and to try to market gender equality as something that benefits men. It is helpful to distinguish what this paper deems ‘engagement work’, which are clusters of programme-led efforts to change the attitudes of men who are not already engaged in feminist politics, from the long and complicated history of men’s collective action within the feminist paradigm. Each of these strains has historical roots within the attempts by groups of men to take on feminist politics in a considered way.13 While earlier instances were closer to direct political lobbying, the more direct antecedents to ‘engagement work’ are the collective attempts of pro-feminist men to investigate and change their unconscious attitudes about, affective responses to, and behavioural practices of, masculinity which began during the mid-to-late 20th century.

The first informal anti-sexist and gay-affirmative men’s groups in the United States appeared in the late 1960s, and began with challenging the restrictive aspects of male sex roles and the need to ‘enhance men’s personal and emotional lives.’14 By the mid-1970s, these groups began to reject trends in the New Left to focus on ‘radical theories that abstracted away from the personal’, and instead asked men explore links between their personal experiences, such as masturbation habits or insecurity around gender non-conformance, to structural understandings of gendered power.15 These groups became a site to address ‘internal conflicts between profeminist ideals and patriarchally constructed experience.’16

This project was not only centered on identifying the role of gender in structuring their lives, but was also an attempt to combat ‘the patriarchal male heterosexual script’ which continued to result in contradictory desires for masculine power or eroticised oppressive sexual practices in spite of their support for gender equality.17 To do this, men were asked to share their experiences in group settings where they could challenge one another’s unconscious attitudes by ‘engaging in introspection and self analysis’.18 Early examples of this work were closely linked to gay liberation groups who were undertaking similar projects to root out internalised homophobia and with radical feminist groups which had pioneered consciousness-raising techniques. While most pro-feminist men’s groups also took very seriously the role of intersections between class oppression, racial oppression, sexuality and other axes to understand how privilege impacted on their lives and how it structured their view of the world, in practice they varied substantially in the extent to which they prioritised intersectional analysis in their consciousness-raising activities.19

This meant that many of the group activities which now take place as part of ‘engagement work’ were developed in praxis-based groups that were motivated by a commitment to take feminism seriously by ‘self-consciously living the changes in gender relations’.20 This is obviously very different to the kind of models that are often raised in the ‘engagement work’ arena. Rather than trying to apply an external model of feminist change to groups of men who are not previously involved in those politics, these praxis-based groups emerged from the indigenous political practices of men who were already participating in anti-oppression politics and had often been active participants in socialist, gay liberation, anti-war and other social change groups prior to their involvement in pro-feminism.21 This work was also being undertaken as part of difficult conversations about what role men might have in feminism, or how men positioning themselves as experts could be politically compromising. This concern is directly visible in Hearn’s 1987 discussion of ‘liberal voyeurism’ and how a body of expertise on gender constructed by the privileged might mirror the attempts of earlier white academics “to ‘know’ the minds of black people.”22 These origin points of current ‘engagement work’ represent a very different context than we see today within the WPS agenda.

The similarity of these activities to current projects obscures the differences between a model of professionalised labour which characterises current ‘engagement work’ programmes and the organic development of earlier pro-feminist men’s organising. First, earlier activities were not external interventions imposed on perceived problem demographics. They were autonomously organised by men who were looking for ways to better support feminism and to address their contradictory experiences of having adopted feminist thought but continuing to default to patriarchal gender performances and attractions.23  Second, they were not professionalised labour led by a class of expert men who were accredited and paid to reform problem men. They were led by communities of men who were trying to reflect on their own problematic practices.24 It is worth noting that many of the men who were involved with earlier consciousness-raising efforts went on to undertake careers as experts on masculinities, and there are still numerous organic community activist groups working to transform gender. But despite these exceptions, the central role of international experts in designing professionalised engagement programmes reflects a fundamental, rather than tangential, shift in the nature of this work. Third, earlier attempts to reform masculinity were not funded by external development donors or national agencies which appears to be the economic model fueling ‘engagement work’ within the WPS framework. These differences mean that, even though some basic activities resemble those originating in pro-feminist men’s groups feature in current ‘engagement work’, their context is that of the international development project rather than grassroots pro-feminist organising. This makes ‘engagement work’ within WPS particularly at risk of the kinds of issues detailed below.

Tensions within ‘engagement work’

The methods for changing men which have come to make up the current ‘engagement work’ model are marked by a history of tensions between the broad goals they espouse and the limited programmes they employ. Each of these tensions began to appear during the time that the techniques pioneered in earlier pro-feminist men’s groups were translated into numerous top-down, policy-driven, national programmes trying to change men’s attitudes and turn them into active bystanders who could intervene if they witnessed violence. The level and nature of these tensions vary, but they all reflect the space that has grown between expansive feminist goals and the limited scope of many policies. Some space between these two things is likely inevitable, but the case is made that the six tensions listed below reflect fundamentally rather than situationally problematic dynamics in the implementation of ‘engagement work’.

1) The first and most ubiquitous tension within ‘engagement work’ is created by a lack of clarity, both in the goals that programmes establish and in the concepts that these programmes employ. For example, CARE’s 2013 training Module 501: Engaging Men and Boys for Gender Equality emphasises that gender equality is a state in which men and women are free to ‘make choices without limitations set by predefined stereotypes, gender roles and/or prejudices.’ This kind of articulation of the final goal of ‘engagement work’ is common within the field, but appears to be at odds with the activities being employed, such as a task which separates ‘males and females’ into same-sex groups and then make statements such as ‘I am glad I am a man because…’ and then followed by a statement that ‘If I were woman, I could…’. It is clear that these statements are meant to be positive affirmations rather than negative ones:

‘Make sure that the responses from the participants are positive aspects of their own gender rather than responses that center on not having to experience something the other sex experiences. For example, instead of men in the group making statements like, “I’m glad I’m a man because I don’t have a period,” they could concentrate on statements like “I’m glad I’m a man because I’m strong.”’25

The final stage of this activity is to reflect on these categorical allocations and decide whom they benefit or if they are good. While this task focuses on trying to disaggregate ‘good’ and ‘bad’ aspects of gender, the activity and the document is profoundly torn between its stated understanding of gender equality that seems to want to deconstruct gender and actual activities focused on challenging ‘bad’ masculinity and reinscribing a new ‘good’ way of being a man.. As a major WPS actor, CARE has initiated engagement programs in the Balkans, Burundi, Rwanda, Jordan and elsewhere which frame their contributions in relation to a desire to empower women after war.

2) The CARE document’s lack of clarity is an archetypal example of how ‘engagement work’ can quickly default to the reification of masculinity as a way to get men involved.  This kind of reification often takes the form of calls for ‘real men’ or ‘good men’ to stand up for women (who must need protection from some ‘other’ group of men).26 This work, which has become common in anti-sexual violence campaigns with young men, relies on a dichotomy between “‘good’, non-rapist masculinity and ‘bad’, rapist masculinity”, and coheres to what Masters refers to as a strategy of othering ‘rapist masculinity.’27 This dichotomous approach is in contrast to campaigns which instead focused on challenging gender rigidity such as ‘Walk a Mile in Her Shoes’, a charity walk where men walk a mile in women’s shoes to raise funds for local rape crisis centres.28 In comparison to ‘good men’ campaigns, Walk a Mile in Her Shoes intends to disrupt the coherence of gender categories through transgression (temporary drag) while raising awareness about the harm that gendered norms create. The distinction between these two campaigns is not to indicate that one is right in their end goals, rather that they reflect fundamentally different understandings of what causes violence (‘bad masculinity’ and ‘rigidity’).

By extension, ‘good men’ approaches reflect a tension between the aim to disrupt the limitations set by predefined stereotypes, roles and prejudices around gender, and the desire to disrupt very particular rape-enabling social scripts. For WPS work adopting a ‘good men’ approach presents particular barriers to intersectional thinking around masculinities.  By relying on simplistic figurations of rapist masculinity (which are often classed and racialised in harmful ways) we risk ignoring the complex interplay of gender, sexuality, race, class, nationality and other axes of oppression in making gender-based violence possible. These programmes have the potential to effectively target particular attitudes which valorise rape, while simultaneously occluding the role of intersecting oppressions in enabling the diversity of gender-based violence that is present in conflict-affected societies. As WPS has also tended to rely on reductive notions of gender, integrating reductive modes of ‘engagement work’ into WPS is likely to contribute to its continuing failure to develop an ‘intersectional understanding of how class, race, sex and gender operate in conjunction to make individuals vulnerable.’29

3) Reification within ‘engagement work’ is related to the tension between attempts to engage men and the need to hold them responsible.  Numerous campaigns begin their attempts to engage men by avoiding an ‘accusatory tone’ and reminding them that most men are not directly violent.30 Especially within bystander intervention programmes, which aim to get men to speak up if they see violence happening or peers expressing pro-violence norms, they ask all men to be ‘part of the solution’.31 These programmes make the case that there is a need to bring men ‘into the fold’ with softer language at the start before a more profound transformation can be made.32 The framing employed builds on the problems seen above to do with reification by framing violence as ‘other’ men’s problem, while rewarding men as champions if they provide even the most tokenistic sign of support for the project. This messaging means that men who are engaged in these efforts are often held to a low standard or demand recognition for even small contributions to violence prevention work that had been led by women long before men were ‘engaged’.33 Pease has challenged this approach by showing how reassuring well-meaning men that they are not the problem makes it harder for them to see their role in ‘reproducing a violence-prone culture’. Attempts to engage men without holding them responsible are often justified as being necessary steps for activist work. Research on the effectiveness of these approaches suggest that they make it harder for men to challenge their peers, however, because, in a context in which only the ‘bad apples’ contribute to violence, to bring a peer to account for having done wrong would ‘wreck the whole system of bonding’.34

4) The shift away from ‘accusatory’ language noted above is indicative of how ‘engagement work’ has co-opted feminist spaces in some instances. While ‘engagement work’ originates in feminist and pro-feminist organisations, Michael Flood notes that from the beginning there have been ‘concerns that the development of efforts to engage men in preventing violence against women may reduce funding for women’s programmes and services’ and ‘dilute the feminist orientation of prevention agencies’.35 This has been particularly problematic within national anti-violence projects pioneered by autonomous women’s organisations, which have come under increasing pressures to include men and boys. This pressure is not exclusively the results of pro-feminist ‘engagement work’ but also represents the extended history of anti-feminist men’s rights campaigners attempts to blunt the gendered focus on these efforts and to directly sabotage feminist-led projects. Though notions of accountability and allyship have been active conversations in pro-feminist men’s politics, there are real concerns that ‘engagement work’ will subvert feminist work through problematic understandings of men as agents of change.36 Flood notes that there are few instances of ‘engagement work’ directly taking funds away from women, and that most ‘engagement work’ is staffed by women. But, also that men involved in ‘engagement work’ often do so in patriarchal and homophobic ways. In addition to a pattern of bad behaviour, Flood found that men are disproportionately lauded for their contributions leading to a ‘glass escalator’ which benefits those men who are already particularly privileged due to their race, sexuality and class.37

When exploring this issue, there appear to be few directly documented examples of displacement of funds from work with women in conflict and crisis settings, but a substantial body of anecdotal evidence that a shift in funding priorities has occurred. The 2017 Coalition of Feminists for Social Change review of funding priorities for sites affected by armed violence and natural disasters argues that since 2000 there has been a substantial shift away from funding core services for women and girls who had been subjected to violence.38 Instead, their review indicated providers were increasingly called to address a wide range of agendas, including ‘engagement work’ but without additional funding. This meant that in a context where gender-based violence protection efforts were some of the most under-funded, donors were increasingly gravitating towards providers who appeared to give value for money by doing ‘engagement work’ in addition to core service provision.39 These findings have been supported by Lisa Vetten’s review of violence prevention work in South Africa which found that increased funding for prevention work (which prominently featured ‘engagement work’) coincided with a decrease in post-rape care services.40 Formal feedback from the Sexual Violence Research Initiative’s 2015 meeting on ‘Engaging the Elephant in the Room: Facilitating a feminist way forward for women and men to work together on violence against women’ also recorded concerns about funding shifting from services to primary prevention, but recorded substantial disagreement from the community of practitioners on the extent to which ‘engagement work’ was at fault for this shift.41 The feedback from the meeting also emphasises the huge divergence of views on whether ‘engagement work’ was colonising feminist spaces. The extent to which ‘engagement work’ is actually taking funding away from core services is not clear, a tension compounded by profound debates over the extent to which ‘engagement work’ attempts to address the consequences of violence by addressing their root causes. The risk of ‘engagement work’ co-opting space in WPS remains a clear concern for feminist groups already working on the agenda, but should not be used to justify a wholesale rejection of prevention work when it is done cautiously and in sync with other parts of the agenda.

5) This privileging of already privileged men in ‘engagement work’ can be most clearly seen in attempts to draw on prominent men as ambassadors for change. Widespread public efforts such as the White Ribbon Campaign, The Demi and Ashton Foundation’s Real Men Don’t Buy Girls campaign and the recent HeForShecampaign have all used publicly recognised men as lived examples of ‘good masculinity’ for others to emulate.42 These campaigns tend to replicate the worst tensions explored above by holding up the examples of privileged men (usually wealthy, white, heterosexual celebrities) as role models that young men will hopefully look up to. The importance of role models has been championed by pioneers in engagement work, such as Gary Barker who writes about the importance of ‘having a family member or other influential individuals who modelled or presented an alternative, more equitable and non-violent views about gender roles to the young man.’43 While Barker’s formation was focused on how counter examples (such as women in men’s lives taking on non-normative roles) could challenge the rigidity of gender, campaigns like Impact 10x10x10 organised by HeForShe have focused on already-valorised state leaders and corporate bosses condemning some small part of normative manhood.44 The use of these highly privileged men as ambassadors reinscribes the importance of listening to, and attempting to emulate, privileged men, and does not address the way in which their positions of power rely on gender, race, sexuality, class and other axes of oppression. The complex ways in which hegemonic masculinity supports violence are missed by these approaches and the campaigns they are delivered is a far cry from the idea that role models can show men that ‘other ways of being women and men are possible.’45

6) All of this has led to the emergence of the current ‘good men’ industry. The international move to ‘engagement work’ should be understood as the development of a ‘good men’ industry, rather than an independent movement. This is because of the rapid shift to engagement work, the role of donors in driving this shift, and the central role of international actors in promoting programmes centred around positive notions of masculinity. At the 2nd Men Engage Global Symposium: Men and Boys for Gender Justice held in New Delhi there were more than 1,000 participants from over 94 countries.46 This is a small indication of the scale of current efforts to undertake ‘engagement work’ both in nationally led programmes and as part of the development industry.  Some of those involved were part of autonomous men’s groups and community activist organisations such as Aliansi Laki-Laki Baru from Indonesia which agitate for local men’s support for gender equality. There are also a small set of dedicated professional organisations who have specialised in ‘engagement work.’ Of these specialised organisations, a number have been far more conscious of the issues identified in this paper; Promundo stands out particularly as having given detailed considering in some of their research reports.47 However, it appears that globally only around 20 per cent of the organisations doing this kind of work had engaging men as their sole focus, and of those that did almost all were focused on North America.48

What we have seen in recent years is an explosion of ‘engagement work’ being carried out in conflict-affected countries by agencies that have traditionally been concerned with other aspects of global development and violence prevention industries. Key international funders such as the Oak Foundation, who as of 2012 had provided more than $2 million to WPS efforts,49 have shifted their priorities to include ‘engaging men and boys’ as a central pillar of their anti-violence work.50 When an organisation such as the Oak Foundation singles out ‘engaging men and boys’ from the other two pillars of its funding strategy for ending violence against children it places pressure on professional organisations working in this arena to take up ‘engagement work’ if they are to maintain their other projects. The shift in development and violence prevention industries to focus on ‘engagement work’ appears to be pushed by international actors, such as the United Nations Population Fund who have set the agenda for funders by placing ‘engaging men and boys’ as one of their top six focuses for human rights and gender equality.51

This kind of agenda has led to common manuals being developed for doing ‘engagement work’ in the Global South, such as CARE’s Module 501 which was explored previously. These manuals then structure programmes in conflict sites, such as CARE’s Young Men’s Initiative in the Balkans. The Young Men’s Initiative is animated by a ‘guiding philosophy’ which is that ‘boys should be understood not as obstacles to peace and gender equality, but rather as critical allies in promoting nonviolent, healthy relationships and communities.’52 To achieve this goal they initiated the ‘Be a Man’ lifestyle campaign and founded ‘Be a Man’ students clubs which promoted ‘positive’ models of masculinity and opposed harmful practices such as violent conflict resolution and smoking. The ‘Be a Man’ campaign did include some aspects that challenged dominant masculinity, such as a minor focus on anti-homophobia, but had more success in targeting very specific attitudes towards violence rather than deconstructing broader patriarchal attitudes in participants such as that ‘a man should have the final word in his home.’53 Having been rolled out in the Balkans, this model is now being employed in Burundi and eastern DRC, indicating the transference of ‘engagement work’ models across sites as part of NGO projects within the WPS framework.54 The ‘good men’ industry replicates models developed by international experts on a mass scale, both through direct interventions and in response to international priorities. Because of the reliance on international expertise, and the funding preference for replication of pre-existing models the emergence of a ‘good men’ industry risks promoting a singular vision of good masculinity through a common set a resources and programme models that are implemented internationally.

The emergence of this ‘good men’ industry intensifies the above listed tensions, stripping the efforts of their political qualities and instead focusing on reforming the few ‘bad men’ who are at fault for violence through a civilisational project which asks them to become more like the privileged neo-liberal ambassadors that they can hold up as good role models. While most of these actors are not yet directly focusing on the WPS agenda, it is worth remaining attentive to how WPS might become a new frontier for the ‘good men’ industry to invest in.

Learning the lessons from ‘engagement work’

If we are to ameliorate particular effects of war on women by working with men and (presumably) on masculinities, we can learn a great deal from the history of ‘engagement work.’ At a basic level, learning from the tensions present in ‘engagement work’ is of strategic importance; these lessons will ensure that the very limited resources will not get squandered on projects that replicate the harmful configurations of gender that made the WPS agenda necessary. Learning from these lessons is important because the above-listed tensions contribute to the harmful ways in which we understand the relationship between men, masculinity and violence. The importance of these understandings can be seen in feminist debates over whether to talk about ‘violence against women’, ‘gender violence’, or the ‘violent reproduction of gender’.55 These variances present profoundly different understandings of what violence is and what causes it, and signify differences in the WPS agenda that are yet to be disaggregated more generally. In short, the way these programmes talk about gender and violence cannot easily be separated from the phenomena they describe.

Viewing masculinity simply as notions or attitudes held by a divergent few is both inconsistent with the historical origins of ‘engagement work’ and presents a grossly simplified understanding of how gender impacts on the landscape of peace and security. It is certainly true and well established that patriarchal attitudes are closely correlated to many kinds of violence.56 However, developing policies that treat masculinities only as conscious attitudes (excluding issues of affect, practice, economic structure, relations to other positions, identity, etc) risks reinforcing harmful narratives that violence is caused by a few bad men who consciously hold misogynist beliefs about women.57

We need to learn from the tensions within many national programs that have sought to engage men in the problematic politics of convincing those who identify as men to become reformed ‘good men’.58 This is doubly important due to the international dimension of many of these programmes which can entail white men from the Global North, whose position within the gender order is relatively secure, asking apparently violent men from the Global South to reform their violent ways. Such an approach misses how economic systems tend to exclude such men from living up to their socially expected roles, and who are benefiting from the depiction of them as the isolated problem population. This is not to suggest that violence committed by men in the Global South is not a problem that needs to be addressed. However, Northern driven models of ‘engagement work’ risk following the colonial mode of justifying the hegemonic authority of development actors ‘by inviting the sub-men to become human’ through a process of reforming their masculinity.59 Some of the key innovators in ‘engagement work’ such as Gary Barker from Promundo have been very aware of the dangers that come with a preoccupation with violence committed by poor young men of colour.60 This concern appears to be diluted in work that targets war-related sexual violence and that has a long tradition of agonising over rape committed by young, poor, African militiamen as a justification for international intervention.61

In this way, each of the above listed tensions can be drawn back to a lack of clarity around men, gender and violence. Delineating what one understands the categories of ‘men,’ ‘masculinity’ and ‘violence’ to be is a profoundly difficult, but unavoidable, part of an effort that hopes to work with men.62 Unpacking these relationships is very much a live issue within academic feminism, as can be seen in debates on men’s responsibility for sexual violence, and in practical debates such as the one between Chris Dolan and Jeanne Ward on the usefulness of talking about violence against men as a form of gender-based violence.63 These debates mean that, before work can begin, actors need clarity on what the things men do (practices), the attitudes they express (norms) and how they feel (affect) have to do with the WPS agenda, and what role those things might play in achieving its goals. It is for the above reasons that attempts to engage men and boys in the WPS agenda must remain cautious of repeating the mistakes of the past. The risk of repeating past mistakes is particularly high in instances where the ‘engagement work’ model is imported as a quick-fix solution to criticism that WPS is not adequately addressing men and masculinities.


The existing tokenistic inclusion of references to ‘engaging men and boys’ in resolutions should not be used to guide work being done on men and masculinities within the WPS agenda. While attempts to work with men are unavoidable, significant consideration is needed regarding what men and masculinities are, what the core goals of feminist objectives are, and what role men have in achieving these goals. The four pillars of the WPS agenda (prevention, protection, participation, relief and recovery) all rely on engaging men to various degrees. On a superficial level, this includes eliciting their support for the most formal components of the agenda, such as supporting women’s participation in peace processes. When taken more holistically the WPS agenda relies extensively on shifting men’s attitudes or practices as well as changing their relationship with masculinity. There is, as a consequence, need for much clearer articulation of the intended goals of activity that seeks to ‘engage’ men and boys, whether this is the basic level of encouraging support for a very limited policy recommendation, or expansive objectives of altering foundational notions of gender.

Despite the positive effect of some ‘engagement work’, the inclusion of ‘engagement’ in a tokenistic, vague or poorly thought out way is likely to have a worse outcome than failing to include it at all.64 As shown above, the worst examples of ‘engagement work’ at the domestic level have tended to come about through tokenistic inclusion of references to men and masculinities as ambassadors or protectors of women. This kind of inclusion risks valorising the masculinity of already privileged men, sidelining the role of women’s organising, re-centring male protector narratives, downplaying the difficulty in creating societal change, and further marginalising other men and gender diverse groups that do not have the kind of privilege and visibility of ambassadors.

By focusing on stereotypical patriarchal attitudes ‘engagement work’ risks downplaying the difficulty of changing violent behaviour and challenging oppressive gender regimes. Research evaluating ‘engagement work’ has tended to emphasise just how difficult it is to change men’s affective and behavioural responses to violence or inequality even if their attitudes become relatively equitable.65 It was the realisation that consciously accepting feminist politics did not free men from their affective attachment to, or behavioural reproduction of, oppressive gender relations, which motivated the early pro-feminist men to start the consciousness-raising groups described earlier in this paper. Work on attitudinal change has further demonstrated that programmes working with men are quite effective in creating changes on very specific topics (such as their support for rape), but evidence on how this relates to behaviour change is far less clear.66 The emphasis placed on attitudinal change is further complicated by programming which draws on harmful gender stereotypes to market messages to men.

Attempts to market gender equality are marred by a history of problematic attempts to draw on stereotypes of deviant, violent men and strong masculine protectors to bring men into the feminist fold. This can be seen in numerous bystander intervention campaigns in the Global North which have used tropes of male strength, a natural protector role and of monstrous male abusers to get men onboard. These efforts regularly fall into the trap of failing to recognise the way in which men can benefit from violence even if they don’t directly commit it, and the complex ways in which men who are not themselves directly violent remain complicit in other men’s use of violence. This means that problematic policy framings that reinforce narratives of barbarous violent men and the reformed ‘good men’ who can protect women and girls are often smuggled into ‘engagement’ materials. In domestic violence prevention campaigns, this has also involved setting a very low bar for men’s involvement and then rewarding men with praise for tokenistic contributions that do little to unmake cultures and structures of oppression. These presentations reinforce the idea that violence is the problem of ‘a few bad apples’ rather than a cultural and systematic force which relies on ‘everyday’ articulations of gender as well as extreme manifestations.

To avoid this trap, ‘engagement work’ needs to remain conscious of the multiple axes of oppression that shape masculinities in any given context. This requires a direct focus on  how structures of sexuality, age, ethnicity, caste, class, etc, all contribute to destructive performances of masculinity, and how less visibly harmful masculinities (such as professional business masculinities) might rely on the oppression of other groups.67 Taking such an approach is particularly important in conflict-affected areas, where violent masculinities may be emerging in response to deep structural issues such as histories of colonialism or centre/periphery tensions which can privilege older city elites over younger men at the margins.68

By reflecting on the historical tensions in ‘engagement work’ and giving active consideration to the purpose of including men and masculinities within WPS, future actions have the capacity to address men’s role in gender-based violence and insecurity adequately. But for this to be done, the real challenges in working with men to reform gender cannot be downplayed, and inclusions cannot remain tokenistic mentions of ‘engagement’ in efforts which have otherwise not considered the relationship between men, masculinities and violence.