Four ways to make sure gender in emergencies includes men and boys

February 8, 2018
Toral Pattni and Delphine Brun
Refugees gather in a disused factory on the Serbian side of the Croatian/Serbian border.

At CARE, we believe that a good humanitarian response has to consider the needs and priorities of boys and men as well as women and girls. It has been widely acknowledged in the humanitarian sector that greater priority must be given to women and girls due to entrenched gender inequalities. But when the world is in the throes of an unprecedented refugee crisis and the vast majority of lone refugees are adolescent boys and men, are we really understanding and responding to their assistance and protection needs?

In order to answer this question, CARE UK commissioned a study looking at men and boys in displacement, in partnership with Promundo. We focused on Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Greece – all countries with large numbers of unaccompanied male refugees. Our focus was boys aged between 13 to 17, single men and men travelling without their families. Based on our findings, here are four recommendations for humanitarian actors looking to better address the needs of this at-risk group:

  1. Don’t assume vulnerabilities belong to women and girls alone

When we do a gender analysis in a humanitarian context, there is a tendency to make some assumptions. This is often because we are tight on time, tight on resources and need to provide life-saving answers. In this case, who do we usually identify as being the ‘most vulnerable’ in a crisis? Women and girls. And certainly there is truth in this. Women and girl refugees face immense challenges and protection risks and suffer the bulk of gender-based discrimination. But men and boys can also face circumstances that render them vulnerable.

Boys and men, particularly when unaccompanied, face distinct mobility challenges. While women may not be able to move freely due to cultural constraints or heightened risks of sexual violence, men are often perceived as a potential security threat, and so are at particular risk of being harassed by the police or other security forces. They are also at risk of arrest and imprisonment, especially if they cannot provide proper documentation. As a consequence, lone boys and men are unable to maintain social relations, when, for them, visiting friends, walking and going out were common ways to release stress prior to displacement.

Lack of proper housing is another huge issue, for both female and male refugees. However, while the consequences of inadequate shelter for women are often recognised by social services and solutions usually found, the consequences for males are less well understood. In Greece, asylum applicants are sometimes kept in camps. Men have greater difficulty getting relocated as they are usually considered better able to cope with the conditions. To give an example, in the Greek camp of Moria, while others were rehoused in apartments and hotels when winter came, single men continued living in tents until containers were eventually brought to the camp. Unaccompanied children, the vast majority of whom are adolescent boys, are also kept in detention centres.

Boys and men also face distinct protection risks. The violence they face did not start with their exile: they often carry with them a legacy of past experiences of violence in their home country, including forced enrolment, torture, war injuries, forced detention and sexual assault. They may also have experienced violence as they fled the conflict, such as forced prostitution to pay smugglers. As noted, in host countries they are at higher risk of being abused by the police, of being forcibly encamped or of being sent back to their country of origin.

All of this means that we have to get more active with our gender analyses and capture the bigger picture. Let’s move away from static models of gender vulnerability, and conduct a context-by-context analysis of needs, expanding our understanding of who the persons of concern to humanitarians should be. Let’s remember to consult men as well as women, including young men who are no longer children but who are not quite adults. Sex- and age-disaggregated data is not enough without a thorough analysis of vulnerabilities based on that data.

  1. Target support to boys and men, particularly those who are unaccompanied

Waheed is 14 years old, and has travelled from Afghanistan alone to reach a CARE centre in Europe. Waheed tells us that yesterday he had his first hot shower and first night indoors since he left home a month ago. ‘I can’t use words to say how good it felt to wash the spiders out of my hair and the ticks from my body from living many weeks in the forest.’

Targeted support to lone boys and men is necessary and bears results. Boys like Waheed lack places they can go and ‘safe spaces’ where they can open up about the trauma they have suffered in their home countries and on their journey, and unload some of the stress of living as a refugee. Yet targeted support for men and boys, outside of basic assistance, is rare in the humanitarian sector. They sometimes feel that they are simply bodies to be fed, and that their skills, capacities, aspirations, plans and hopes remain largely invisible. Lack of funding to target them, particularly as they are often excluded due to vulnerability criteria, leaves them without assistance. The direct and longer-term effects of such neglect are too rarely taken into consideration, but not addressing their needs as survivors of violence prevents their healing and may also result in them becoming perpetrators of violence themselves. Lack of prospects, frustration that they are not conforming to models of masculinity that are in fact unattainable and the feeling of being neglected all affect their well-being and can lead to addictions and mental illness, which in turn may create or exacerbate protection risks for the wider community.

The results of providing the necessary support to boys and men are clear: with a social network, livelihoods and skills-building, and education and psychosocial support, men and boys will feel better, integrate better into communities and enjoy more peaceful relationships with women, girls and the broader society.

  1. Include risks affecting men and boys when it comes to GBV

Survival sex, rape, sexual exploitation, forced prostitution – these words automatically tend to get associated with women and girls. Yet unaccompanied boys and men are also affected. Transactional or ‘survival sex’ involving minors and young men has been a reality long ignored or minimised, both by the international community and by governments.

All the young refugees interviewed for this research say that they have been directly approached or know friends who have been asked by men for sexual favours. These risks are not well understood: sexual violence experienced by boys and young men is conflated with homosexuality or perceived as consensual sex going wrong.

While the need for support is there, subtle barriers may prevent men and boys accessing assistance. The services that have historically identified women and children as the most in need of support, and that have been conceived and rolled out, implicitly or explicitly, with women and children in mind (GBV, sexual and reproductive health) are often difficult for men and boys to access. This needs to change.

  1. Get funding that really understands gender and is longer-term

With so many people displaced from their homes across the world due to humanitarian crises, we need to move beyond simply responding to needs and see how these crises change and disrupt people’s ideas of their gender roles. Organisations interviewed for the study all report that boys and men are often in a state of psychological distress due to the loss of their gendered identity: the inability to be economically self-sufficient and to perform the role of provider puts an immense strain on male refugees, directly affecting their self-esteem.

Being a ‘real man’ in certain cultures is about being able to play the role of financial provider and protector for their families. They are expected to send back remittances to their family and to successfully reach their country of destination to eventually enable their relatives to come to Europe. If they are unable to do so, their sense of self-worth can be severely damaged. Boys and men need to be supported in identifying alternative models of manhood that are not out of reach, and that can help them rebuild a positive image of themselves. Gender-transformative interventions should no longer be seen as belonging to development interventions. They should be about providing safe spaces for refugees – whether women or men, girls or boys – to reflect on changes in their social identities.

This should also be about helping boys and men to adhere to models of equal and respectful relationships and manage anger and stress. To that end CARE is working to create safe areas for men and boys. This needs funding that recognises that vulnerability should not be attached to a particular characteristic such as gender, but rather stems from the threats, challenges and circumstances that create vulnerability.

Toral Pattni is Senior Humanitarian Advisor (Gender and Protection) at CARE International UK. Delphine Brun is an international consultant on gender and inclusion in humanitarian action. Read CARE UK’s report Men and Boys in Displacement: Assistance and Protection Challenges for Unaccompanied Boys and Men in Refugee Contexts.


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