This is part of a series we hope to maintain on the Watchdog blogs, specifically alerting individuals to issues affecting young men in development. We will certainly be writing extensively on gender affecting both men, women, and those in between in other blogs, but hopefully others will find these entries valuable to explore concerns affecting men that have otherwise remained invisible in international development work.
As the world has broadcast overwhelming attention to the recent US election and win of Sen. Barack Obama, little notice has been paid to status of terrorist groups that provoked the current intervention in Iraq and War on Terror. Indeed, CIA director Michael Hayden reported this week that while Osama bin-Laden may be cut off from the daily operations al-Qaeda, the organization still poses a significant threat against the United States. Furthermore, he notes that al-Qaeda’s influence has grown in the Middle East and Africa, with special attention to the surge of support in Somalia and Algeria, where extremist groups in both areas have joined with al-Qaeda.
Although gendered perspectives are often applied exclusively to women and girls (sometimes by feminists themselves), I am perplexed as I consider the possibilities facing young men around the globe today. In the aftermath of 9/11, some writers, such as Lionel Tiger, have focused on the specific role of young, Muslim males in recruitment of terrorist organizations, such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Yet questions about young men have dissipated over the past seven years, despite the fact that recruitment has increased within ‘Islamist’ terrorist organizations and that young remain important, though invisible, in all parts of the world. In his article from 2001, Tiger, a professor of anthropology, writes,
One of the most difficult tasks for any social system is figuring out what to do with its young males. These are invariably the most impressionable, energetic, socially exigent, and politically inept members of any group. They cause trouble for their elders and ruthlessly hassle each other. They pose chronic danger to public order when they drive, drink and take drugs.
Though Tiger’s article highlights the dilemmas young Muslim men face (granted, in a problematic way that seems to generalize young men while ignoring that men of many cultures also face difference challenges and influences), he is correct to recognize that young males are vital as well as vulnerable in populations.
But then why do we (as students, academics and practitioners) continuously forget young men? In development work, the focus remains on providing services and assistance to vulnerable populations such as ‘women’ and ‘children’. Don’t we see that highlight ‘women’ and ‘children’ as vulnerable creates distinctions that girls and women are forever victims while ‘men’, rather than boys, can never be victimized? While this type of thinking is problematic for too many reasons to count, at its fundamental roots, conceptualizing male identity without vulnerability is simply an inaccurate depiction. It is essential that international development projects directly incorporate the potential of young men, especially in African countries where militancy and violence can be attractive and overbearing influences. Arguably, focusing specific and directed attention on young men and boys may even be ways to stop and prevent conflicts, depending on what techniques are used.
Focusing on young men is certainly not to suggest that women and girls are not important or vulnerable populations. It is crucial, however, that academics and practitioners alike recognize that young men face their own challenges that also need targeted solutions and assistance. And as more organizations that recruit civilians into militias creep into the African continent (on top of the ones that were already there), it is truly important that international development practices create safe, sustainable spaces for young men to participate in their communities outside of violence.