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

by 25th Jan 2018
Young men at a refugee centre in Belgrade, Serbia Young men at a refugee centre in Belgrade, Serbia

At CARE we believe that a good humanitarian response has to respond to anyone in need, regardless of their gender. This comes with an understanding that greater priority must be given to women and girls due to entrenched gender inequalities. But when the world is impacted by an unprecedented refugee crisis and the vast majority of lone refugees are adolescent boys and men, are we really understanding and responding to their unique assistance and protection needs?

In order to find answers to this question, CARE International UK commissioned a study looking at men and boys in displacement, now published in partnership with Promundo. We focused on Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Greece – all countries in which there are high numbers of unaccompanied male refugees. Our focus was boys aged between 13 to 17 and men who are single or took the route of exile without their families. Based on our findings, here are four key recommendations for humanitarian actors to better address the needs of this at-risk group.

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

When we tackle 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 a life-saving answer to those most deeply affected. In this case, who do we usually identify as being the de facto ‘most vulnerable’ people affected by crises? Women and girls. And certainly there is truth in this. Women and girl refugees face immense challenges and protection risks and bear the bulk of gender-based discriminations. But let’s not overlook the bigger picture. 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 to heightened risks of sexual violence, men are at particular risk of being harassed by the police and other security forces, of being arrested and imprisoned, especially if they cannot provide proper documentation. The reason for this harassment is that they are often perceived as potential threats.

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 relieve stress prior to displacement.

Lack of legal status means most refugees are unable to earn an ‘official’ income – and many are coerced or forced into informal labour. With little to no legal protection, they are unable to report exploitation or abuse, and have no bargaining power with unscrupulous employers. Child labour is particularly common for adolescent boys, who are often under pressure to send remittances to relatives back home.

In Greece, asylum applicants are sometimes kept in camps. Men have greater difficulties getting relocated as they are usually considered better able to cope with harsh situations. To give you an example, in the Greek camp of Moria, while others were relocated in apartments and hotels when the winter came, single men continued living in their tents until containers were eventually brought.

In the absence of sufficient suitable accommodation, unaccompanied children, who are in their vast majority adolescent boys, are also kept in detention centres.

Lack of proper housing is a huge issue for both female and male refugees. But the consequences of homelessness for male refugees are not very well understood.

Boys and men face distinct protection risks. The violence they face did not start with their exile. First, they often carry the legacy of past experiences of violence in their home country due to social expectations for men to be the protectors of the community and the nation. The violent events they faced include forced enrolment, torture, war injuries, forced detention and, in some instances, sexual assault. They also sometimes experienced violence in fleeing the conflict, such as forced prostitution to pay alleged debts to the smugglers. In the host country, 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.

So let’s 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 vision of who the persons of concern to humanitarians should be.

Let’s remember to consult both women and men, remembering to include young men who are no longer children and who are not quite adults yet and who face huge protection risks. Sex and age disaggregated data is not enough without thorough analysis of vulnerabilities based on the data collected.

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

Let’s hear Waheed’s story. Waheed is just 14 years old and has travelled from Afghanistan alone. He meets new friends in CARE’s ‘teenage corner’ at the refugee centre. 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 to and their own ‘safe spaces’ where they can unburden the immense traumas they carry from the painful situation they lived in their countries and from their journeys, and to unload the stresses of living as a refugee. Yet targeted support for men and boys, outside of the basic humanitarian assistance provisions, is rare in the humanitarian sector. They sometimes feel that they are just ‘bodies to be fed’, having the impression that their skills, capacities, aspirations, plans and hopes remain largely invisible in the humanitarian response.

Lack of funding to target them, particularly as they are often excluded from vulnerability criteria, leaves them unaided. The direct and longer term effects of such neglect are too rarely taken into consideration. Not addressing their needs as survivors of violence prevents their healing and may also result in them becoming perpetrators of violence against others. Lack of prospects, frustration from not conforming to models of masculinity that are in fact unattainable, and the feeling of being neglected, affects their well-being and can lead to addictions and mental illness, which in turn may create or exacerbate protection risks for the wider community.

On top of this, many men struggle to identify their own needs as they are not culturally used to asking for help. Due to entrenched gender roles, there is a prevailing view that being a ‘real man’ is about not showing emotions – so many men keep their feelings locked inside. This can create additional challenges for agencies responding to displaced men and boys.

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

3. 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 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 needs for support are there, subtle barriers may prevent men and boys from access to 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 to access for men and boys.

This needs to change.

4. Get funding that really understands gender and goes 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 allow their relatives to come to Europe.When 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. It should be about providing safe spaces for refugees – whether women or men, girls or boys – to reflect on changes in their social identities.

It would also be about supporting boys and men in adhering to models of equal and respectful relationships and in managing anger and stress. Looking at the safe shelters for men and boys with CARE Greece, we are working more on creating safe areas for men and boys to acknowledge the difficulties and build on their skills. This needs funding that moves beyond simply responding to women and girls as victims. Attaching vulnerability to the person rather than to the threats, challenges or circumstances that create vulnerability, makes it a permanent characteristic of that person, and reinforces victimhood.

Read more: Men and boys in displacement: Assistance and protection challenges for unaccompanied boys and men in refugee contexts

This blog was co-authored by Toral Pattni and Delphine Brun. Delphine, an international consultant on gender and inclusion in humanitarian action, conducted the research and drafted the report.
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Toral Pattni

My job is to make sure that CARE’s humanitarian work addresses the specific needs and capacities of women, men, boys and girls. I support CARE’s country offices on projects in humanitarian contexts that improve specific protection measures for women and girls, promote gender equality and prevent/respond to gender-based violence. This involves designing projects, training staff, carrying out assessments, sourcing funds and identifying issues that need to change through advocacy and lobbying. I also work to improve knowledge and understanding around gender and protection in humanitarian work, through policy briefs, guidance notes and other tools, and representing CARE in external meetings on GBV and protection.

I joined CARE in February 2016 and have worked on the Ethiopia drought response, Syria refugee response and the Mosul crisis in Iraq. I previously worked with the United Nations peacekeeping mission in DR Congo, the International Rescue Committee in South Sudan and as a consultant for the UK Foreign Office Stabilisation Unit in an EU military training camp in Mali.

One good thing I’ve read

The Women in War report from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is a comprehensive look at how International Humanitarian Law protects women and the different ways that women are affected by war.


Twitter: @Toral_286