Refugee Women: Key to the Global Compact on Refugees Logo

Developed by Associate Professor Eileen Pittaway and Dr Linda Bartolomei, Graphics by Damayanthi Muthukumarage, Website by Anja Wendt

Session 7. Including Refugee Men

A Definition * B Background * C Tools & Exercises * D Stakeholder Exercises

The session is closely linked to Session 9 The Power of Privilege, in particular the sections on the privilege of being born male.

Aim This session addresses how to effectively include men in two important areas. The first is to ensure their specific needs are identified and met.  The second is to gain their support in tackling gender inequality. While many needs are common, women and men, girls and boys and non-binary individuals have specific challenges, and they all should be addressed. That is the aim of gender equality.

Suggested Timing for Sessions

Timings are suggested in each of the tools.  They each can be completed in a half-day session, but to achieve maximum benefit they will take a full day.

A. Including Refugee Men – A Useful Definition

Gender equality is not only a fundamental human right, but the necessary foundation to achieve a peaceful, thriving and sustainable world. Fighting together for equality and justice is the only way to build an equal society.


Men and boys also have specific challenges, and these also must be addressed.

B. Background Readings on Including Men

Different but equally important

The question is often asked: “Why such a focus on women and girls — surely men and boys are just as important?”. The needs of both groups are equally important, but different, and without effective policy frameworks and tools, these differences are not recognized.  

Many single young men take dangerous journeys to seek asylum, as a result of forced recruitment into terrorist groups; they face human rights abuses, including rape (Freccero et al. 2017; UNHCR 2017b). Gender affects every stage of the refugee journey, from reception to durable solutions. Unless these realities are acknowledged, there will be a failure to develop effective responses to meet the different needs of refugee women and girls, men and boys. Men and boys are also victims of sexual and gender-based violence, which again generates the need for different and appropriate responses. (Freedman 2016; Krause 2015)

Lack of involvement by male policy makers, service providers and refugees in promoting gender equality

I saw my single Mum, who did so much to keep our family and community together in the camp while the men just sat around, then she got constantly put down and shut out of meetings with UNHCR and NGOs by the men.  It made me very angry.

Male refugee youth representative from Sudan, Fourth Thematic Discussion for the Global Compact on Refugees. UNHCR November 2017

For too long, men have not been involved in addressing gender inequality, under the assumption that it is “just a women’s issue” and not central to the refugee protection response. This is despite the fact that “women’s issues” affect whole families and communities (UNHCR 2011a). Involving men at every level of the response, from the global to the local, is imperative to advancing gender equality. At the institutional level, if gendered policy frameworks are to be developed, it is essential that high-level internal advocates for gender equality include both men and women. This has been increasingly recognized in the international humanitarian system and within the work of UNHCR (Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Lewis and Cole 2017; Krause 2015).

However, while men do need to be equally responsible for preventing and addressing women’s rights abuses, this should not mean they speak for women, nor should they receive greater public accolades than women do when they speak out on gender issues (UNHCR 2017d). Care must be taken to ensure that men’s self-declared commitment to feminism, whether those men be they policy makers, service providers or refugees, translates in practice to working with refugee women as equal partners, and not as a rhetorical trope to assume power.

For more detail, see https://www.cigionline.org/publications/rhetoric-reality-achieving-gender-equality-refugee-women-and-girls/

An excellent paper on men’s role in addressing gender inequality has been produced by Plan International: https://plan-international.org/campaigns/what-is-a-mans-role-in-gender-equality-activism/

What is a man’s role in gender equality activism?

Allies are essential in the quest for gender equality blogs Salvadoran activist Gonzalo Montano.

Men have responded to the feminist movement in very different ways, some supportive, some antagonistic. However, feminists too have at times taken a hard line, separatist stance, seeing the challenge of achieving gender equality as resting exclusively with women, ignoring the issue of men and their socialisation within the patriarchal system.

Thankfully, this is changing. Most gender equality advocates now realise that solidarity and an understanding of intersectionality are essential to achieving our shared objectives. But there are other steps I’d like to share with men, boys and non-binary people who support gender equality to help take the movement forward.

1. Acknowledge male privilege. Men must begin by acknowledging the privileges we have been born into as a result of the patriarchy – the system of society and government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it. The patriarchal system has historically placed the masculine at the centre of the universe, favouring men and excluding women. Often men are not aware of this system because we have always enjoyed these privileges. This system has marked relations and forged unequal power between the genders. This is clear in most countries in the political, economic, cultural and social spheres, and is a regressive system that must be challenged.

2. Show solidarity Although raising awareness of male privilege and acknowledging that girls and women face discrimination shows progress, this alone will not stop the perpetuation of those forms of oppression. It is necessary to stand with women and girls in their daily struggles for the eradication of patriarchal, sexist, and misogynist constructs so they may have access to equal freedom, equal respect and equal power. Solidarity and understanding of intersectionality are essential to achieving our shared objectives, blogs gender equality and LGBTIQ+ campaigner Gonzalo, 24.

3. Understand that the causes of gender inequality are universal The pursuit of gender equality in my home country, El Salvador, is unlikely to take the same route as it will in Pakistan, or the UK. Context is important, but the root causes of discrimination and inequality are the same – unfair gender roles, normalised abuse and harassment, and a tendency to undermine women in order to exert control over them. To illustrate, Plan International’s research – Unsafe in the City – sheds light on the universality of harassment and abuse in the world’s cities, from Stockholm to Cairo. To tackle issues of this scale – gender-based violence has been described as epidemic in proportions worldwide. Girls everywhere are undervalued, undermined and underestimated. 
It’s time to tackle inequality at its root. 

4. Challenge negative masculinities In its most extreme form, negative or ‘toxic’ masculinity is discrimination, subjugation or violence towards the feminine. In El Salvador, we often see a toxic masculinity in the form of social violence that manifests itself in the street, at home, at work, in schools and in public spaces. This has led to high levels of femicide and murder of individuals because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression. Negative masculinity can also encompass pressure to display ability and not make mistakes. Fulfilling this social role leads men to high levels of stress and conversely, an accumulation of emotions. Such ‘macho’ attitudes affect men’s health and their interpersonal relationships. In short, these masculinities serve no-one.

5. Have an intersectional lens. Intersectionality has become fundamental within the social justice movement to work towards a shared vision of progress.  The pursuit of gender equality must include social progress for other groups in society that have less power. This includes, but isn’t limited to those with disabilities, minority or indigenous groups and the LGBTIQ+ community. 

6. Help transform power dynamics. Men often fear that the empowerment of girls and women will mean losing out but equality benefits us all. For example, distribution of care and domestic tasks in the home encourages more satisfying and happy relationships. In the labour force, greater equality leads to better levels of production and satisfaction.  Simply not displaying male superiority is not enough. We must be allies against all forms of discrimination and abuse, and we must help create a new type of man by addressing men’s fear and resistance. We can also become positive role models for other men, to show that caring for ourselves and the wellbeing of others is not just a feminine trait.

7. Share your platform: support girls in taking the lead. Unfortunately, men under patriarchy have tended to massively underestimate girls’ and women’s power to create change and to benefit the whole community. Therefore, it is our role, as progressive boys and men, to share those spaces that patriarchy has granted us and promote girls’ and women’s leadership. Gender equality is not only a fundamental human right, but the necessary foundation to achieve a peaceful, thriving and sustainable world. Fighting together for equality and justice is the only way to build an equal society.

Thanks to PLAN International for this Article.

C. Tools to encourage the inclusion of refugee men in the fight for gender equality, and to identify the specific needs faced by refugee and displaced men and boys

Two exercises to explore men’s needs and experiences:

Ci. Men’s Matrix Exercise.

Please note that all the exercises which can be used when working with women and girls are equally appliable when working with men, even when examining SGBV.

To understand the experience of men in refugee sites, use the men’s matrix, which can be found here: https://agd-matrix-tool.com/story-of-tool/

Cii. In order to harness the lived experience of diverse groups of refugee men Storyboards can be used. This exercise allows for engagement of refugees who cannot read and write but whose life experience can provide a huge body of knowledge to inform service provision.

Suggested storyboard questions are:

  •  What are some of the barriers experienced by refugee men and boys in having their voices heard?
  • How does this make them feel?
  • What is the impact of them not sharing their knowledge and experience?
  • What needs to be done to address these barriers, what support, and resources would the groups need to feel confident to speak out?
  • Who can help with this?
  • What would be the positive outcomes of this happening?

Two exercises exploring how men can assist in the fight for gender equality:

Ciii. Changing Gender roles?

This exercise explores how gender roles change over time. This happens in nearly all cultures.  Sometimes the authoritarian regimes from which refugees have fled try to reverse these changes, but this causes even more resistance.

Ask the participants to write a short paragraph answering the questions on the slide, and then discuss the answers. Brainstorm actions that can be taken at a local level to support gender equality and the protection of women and girls from SGBV.

Civ. Again using Story boards How refugee men might be able to assist in the fight for gender equality.

Suggested questions:

  • What are some of the reasons men resist programs aimed at creating more equality for women?
  • What would be the worst things that could happen if women gained more equality?
  • What would be the benefits to the community if women and girls did gain more equality?
  • What needs to be done to address the fear and encourage gender equality? What support and resources would the groups need to do this?
  • Who can help with this?
  • What would be the positive outcomes of this happening?

D. Exercises which can be used when working with community groups and service provider networks to gain their insights

The same exercises are equally important to use with all stakeholders, and the most value is gained when the results from each group involved are brought together to inform program design, implementation and evaluations. 

Once this information is analysed, and collated, a rich source of evidence and potential solutions based on a broad spectrum of lived experience will have been collected.  This will be invaluable to inform program design and strategic planning.