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The Missing Piece: Lessons from Ukraine for integrating masculinities in Women, Peace and Security

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Picture: Wikimedia / Taken on March 24, 2023 – Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy greets a woman soldier during the festivities marking the ninth anniversary of the National Guard of Ukraine and the graduation of officers of the National Academy of the National Guard of Ukraine and the Kyiv Institute of the National Guard of Ukraine.

By Simon Carpentier

One of the key objectives of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda is to integrate a gender perspective into all peace and security efforts. Yet, discussions on gender tend to focus on issues relating to women and girls, neglecting the broader spectrum of gender dynamics. This omission is palpable in the ten resolutions adopted by the United Nations (UN) Security Council in the context of the WPS agenda, where there are only three references to men and boys. This limited representation fails to acknowledge the multifaceted roles that men can play in conflict situations, whether in perpetuating or resolving them.

Drawing on my experience as a gender officer at the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, this article provides insight into what a masculinities perspective could teach us about gender dynamics in the context of the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine, and how a few national action plans (NAPs) are making small steps. But without a comprehensive gender analysis that encompasses men and masculinities, the WPS agenda not only risks becoming ineffective, but also has the potential to exacerbate gender inequalities, ultimately leading to greater instability and insecurity.

Ukraine’s National Action Plan on WPS

In 2016, Ukraine launched its first national action plan (NAP) to implement UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on WPS. Its second plan covered 2020-25, with a strategic focus on several key areas, including promoting women’s participation in decision-making processes, enhancing resilience to security challenges, facilitating post-conflict recovery and transitional justice, among others.

Unlike many states in the “Global North”, Ukraine’s NAP takes a comprehensive approach to implementing the WPS agenda, addressing its domestic and international aspects. Russia’s full-scale invasion added a new dimension to the Ukrainian NAP, leading to its subsequent update in 2022. Consequently, certain areas have gained more prominence, including the prevention and response to gender-based violence (GBV) and conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV), financial inclusion, access to paid employment for displaced women, and the involvement of women in decision-making processes, particularly in the realms of humanitarian response and recovery.

Reflecting some of the limitations of the WPS agenda, the Ukrainian NAP focuses its efforts primarily on addressing the needs and concerns of women, overlooking the roles and experiences of men in the conflict, even in the context of CRSV. Moreover, while the plan acknowledges the impact of gender stereotypes, this recognition is mainly limited to the specific challenges faced by displaced women. This limited perspective ignores the wider implications of prevailing gender norms on women’s diverse experiences of the ongoing conflict. Equally important, it neglects the implications for men.

Shifting Gender Norms

While the changes to Ukraine’s NAP in 2022 demonstrated a willingness to adapt quickly to changing realities, the war has brought into stark relief areas where gender and gender identity are strong determinants of one’s lived experience in conflict. In February 2022, Ukraine declared martial law and banned men aged between 18 and 60 from leaving the country, as they might be called upon for mandatory military service. Women were not subject to the draft; however, a new conscription law now mandates that women with medical or pharmaceutical education register at enlistment offices.

This divergence in gender-based conscription rules has led to several noteworthy developments for men. First, civilian men who have not yet joined the military forces or received formal military training have seen their freedom of movement considerably restricted. Additionally, since a considerable number of women have been internally displaced or left the country, many men find themselves separated from their loved ones. Men also constitute a significantly higher share of casualties. As of August 2023, estimates indicate that nearly 70,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed, and around 120,000 have been wounded since the beginning of the conflict.

Disparities also exist among Ukrainian men, as conscription includes legal provisions for deferment or exemption from conscription, including for men with disabilities, fathers or three or more minor children or higher education students residing abroad, or work in fields that may qualify them for deferment based on “justified need”. In this context, young men without children, men from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds, and middle-aged men with older children may be disproportionally drawn into conflict.

Despite the legal framework put in place by the Ukrainian government, several media reports recount Ukrainian men fleeing or attempting to flee the country. As of December 2022, the Ukrainian State Border Service reported that over 12,000 men tried to exit the country illegally (15 reportedly have died). Furthermore, more than 2,100 criminal proceedings have been initiated for falsification of documents, unlawful transportation of persons, and draft evasion.

Many Ukrainian men who have been evading the draft have expressed a deep sense of unreadiness and overwhelming fear when faced with the prospect of combat. Simultaneously, they frequently articulate sentiments of shame. These narratives not only underscore the diversity of perspectives among Ukrainian men, but also challenge the essentialist beliefs that often portray men as inherently predisposed to be soldiers. They also reveal that not all men are willing to conform to traditional gender expectations, despite significant societal pressures.

Women’s increased participation in the Ukrainian military further supports this view. Since the onset of the conflict in the Donbas in 2014, the number of Ukrainian women serving in the army has more than doubled, with a notable increase in women enrolling following the Russian invasion in February 2022. As of March 2023, the Ukrainian armed forces employed a total of 60,538 women, among whom 42,898 served as military personnel. This data underscores the significant involvement of Ukrainian women in the hostilities, challenging the traditional portrayal of women in conflict only as victims.

The progress towards achieving greater gender parity in the Ukrainian army has been largely attributed to the “Invisible Battalion” initiative supported by the Ukrainian Women’s Fund and UN Women following the start of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. However, personal accounts from women serving in the military reveal that gender-related challenges persist, largely due to the hyper-masculinised military environment and culture. For instance, women are less likely than men to be assigned to positions within combat units or as troop commanders, primarily because their male counterparts perceive them as less suitable for these roles based on their gender.

Similarly, several media outlets reported stories of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI+) Ukrainians voluntarily joining the Ukrainian national army. At the same time, Ukraine has witnessed positive developments for LGBTQI+ people since the beginning of the conflict. According to data collected by the Ukrainian research agency Info Sapiens, the share of Ukrainians who believe that LGBTQI+ people should have equal rights as other citizens almost doubled. Additionally, Ukraine enacted a ban on anti-LGBTQI+ hate speech, and in February of this year, a Ukrainian legislator introduced a bill in the country’s Parliament to grant partnership rights to same-sex couples.

While this may lead to positive changes, research has demonstrated how states often strategically mobilise marginalised communities in response to war. However, these groups just as frequently revert to their marginalised status once the state of exception ends. In this regard, although research on the experiences of LGBTQI+ soldiers in the Ukrainian military is limited, preliminary findings from ILGA-Europe reveal instances of discrimination, harassment, and violence based on gender identity and sexual orientation within the military and recruitment centres.

Gender, Violence, and Masculinities in Ukrainian Conflict

Sexual violence can be pervasive in conflict settings, with masculinities playing a significant role in exploiting gender norms. A vast body of literature has revealed that when conflict arises, characteristics traditionally associated with manliness, such as strength, control, aggression and dominance, are generally exacerbated. In such challenging circumstances, men frequently find themselves subjected to heightened expectations, pressured to embody these ideas and symbols of manhood. Within military institutions, these very attributes are often promoted as the most effective means to confront the enemy and establish dominance over adversaries.

One deeply distressing way in which some armed forces, armed groups and individuals seek to attain or express this masculinity is through sexual violence, particularly targeting women and girls. Numerous instances of sexual violence against Ukrainian women by Russian soldiers have been reported, often manifested as forms of punishment or acts of domination.

Despite the widespread evidence of the long-term physical and psychological consequences faced by women and girls as a result of this violence, there has been relatively little focus on the impact of men having to conform to hyper-masculinity resulting from conflict, particularly regarding their mental health and well-being. Research conducted among war veterans indicates that adhering to traditional masculinity has a detrimental effect on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) severity and their willingness to engage in medical treatment.

In addition, while conflict-related sexual violence disproportionately affects women and girls, men can also be subjected to such violence. In Ukraine, the United Nations (UN) Special Representative on Sexual Violence in War reported cases of sexual violence against men and boys. Between February 2022 and January 2023, the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine documented 133 victims of conflict-related sexual violence. This comprised 85 men, 45 women and 3 girls, with security individuals from Russia linked to 109 of the cases, and Ukraine security forces and civilians associated with the remaining 24.

The true extent of the issue is significantly under-reported, similar to incidents involving women and girls, though with men and boys it is even less visible. One contributing factor is the prevalence of traditional gender norms and stereotypes, causing sexual violence experienced by men to be categorised more broadly as a form of torture, inhumane or cruel treatment rather than acknowledging it as a distinct violation in its own right. In fact, a bias persists in the perception of sexual violence in conflict, often leading to the assumption that it exclusively affects women and girls. Consequently, the available data on sexual violence against men and boys is severely constrained.

In the context of conflict, it is essential to recognise the intricate competition among various forms of masculinity, each linked to distinct power dynamics. As such, existing literature reveals that rape and other forms of sexual violence against men and boys are often wielded as tools to demean and undermine their masculinity. At the same time, failing to conform to the dominant heteronormative norms and traditional social standards of masculinity can serve as a trigger for such violence.

In a recent report, the UN Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity shed light on the persecution of LGBT and gender non-conforming people in armed conflicts. This persecution is based on their actual or perceived gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation and/or sex characteristics. In the first half of 2023, 24 incidents related to homophobia, transphobia, discrimination, and other violations of human rights based on sexual orientation and gender identity have been documented. Russian troops have arrested and detained LGBT Ukrainians solely based on their sexual orientation.

Yet, victims often find themselves reluctant to report sexual violence to Ukrainian authorities due to the prevalent climate of homophobia. It has also come to light that certain violations of LGBT rights were actually perpetrated by Ukrainian law enforcement officers themselves. In addition, the UN report also notes that, within the Ukraine conflict, separatist regions are galvanising support for opposition to pro-European movements through the strategic use of homophobic and transphobic messages in propaganda. This tactic not only exploits gender norms and expectations but is also part of the promotion of traditional masculinity, reinforcing a narrow and rigid conception of gender roles in order to rally support.

Norway, the UK: Building a Comprehensive Way Forward

The significant engagement of individuals in the Ukrainian conflict and the severe impact of conflict-related sexual violence provide an opportunity to observe the role of the WPS agenda in addressing various gendered factors, including men and masculinities. Simultaneously, this serves as a stark reminder of the continued efforts needed to comprehensively address these issues.

In recent years, some UN member states have taken steps toward incorporating a masculinities perspective within their NAP on WPS. The Norwegian Government’s Action Plan on WPS (2019-2022) underscores that sexual abuse and violence against men as a more extensive issue than previously understood. To this end, Norway commits to combating the stigmatisation of and providing assistance to men and boys who have experienced sexual violence. Similarly, in its 2021-2023 National Action Plan on WPS, Australia acknowledges that even though the WPS agenda primarily focuses on women and girls, it is essential to recognise the substantial role men and boys can play in combating violence against women and girls and supporting women’s participation and needs.

Going even further, the United Kingdom (UK) explicitly addressed masculinity as contributing to insecurity in its 2023-2027 WPS National Action Plan, marking a profound shift in the WPS approach to peace and security. Most notably, the UK’s new NAP identifies men as the primary perpetrators of GBV. It also notes that CRSV experienced by men and boys is deeply rooted in detrimental interpretations of masculinity and power dynamics. The NAP further highlights that security agencies are predominantly male-dominated, which often perpetuates harmful patriarchal norms, leading to discriminatory and biased practices against women and girls.

Although these NAPs offer a more nuanced assessment of the gender dynamics at play within conflicts, with explicit consideration of masculinities, it is still not entirely clear how matters related to men and masculinities will be translated into practical actions.

In this regard, the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) presents a series of recommendations. Firstly, it emphasises the importance of clearly defining the specific manifestations of masculinity that a NAP seeks to address, and tailoring approaches. Moreover, just as women do not constitute a homogenous group, NAPs should explicitly acknowledge the diversity among men.

Additionally, USIP suggests that NAPs should go beyond identifying and addressing harmful forms of masculinity; they should also proactively provide concrete and actionable alternatives. These alternatives could encompass the promotion of positive masculinities and the encouragement of men’s active engagement in peacebuilding and gender equality initiatives.

In addition, it is crucial for WPS policymakers to foster collaboration and leverage the efforts of feminist civil society organisations, both within Ukraine and internationally. In particular, queer feminist organisations in Ukraine have been instrumental in this process, extending their contributions far beyond traditional gender binaries to encompass the full spectrum of gender identities, expressions and sexual orientations. For instance, Nash Mir Centre monitors the Russia-Ukraine conflict, covering socio-political developments and incidents of violence and discrimination and other violations of the rights of LGBTQ people. Furthermore, KyivPride and Insight LGBTQ are key in providing community-based humanitarian assistance to queer Ukrainians but also to the general population, especially older people and displaced persons.

Integrating the experiences of LGBTQI+ individuals into discussions about gender and security creates a more comprehensive understanding of the complexities surrounding gender-related issues. This inclusive approach can also serve as a catalyst for challenging harmful traditional gender norms and fostering the adoption of healthier and more constructive models of masculinity.

Simon Carpentier is a Policy Researcher for Gender, Equality and Social Affairs at PPMI. He was the Gender Officer OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine from September 2021-May 2022. This article is part of a series reflecting on the 23rd anniversary of the WPS agenda. This article was published on Global Observatory