Hyper-masculinity: a threat to inclusive community development in fragile environments by Holly A Ritchie

About the author:
Picure_Holly_R_2Holly A Ritchie is a (post doc) research fellow at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University with a strong interest in gender, norms and social change in economic development in fragile environments. Her work has spanned Afghanistan, East Africa and the Middle East.


‘Hyper-masculinity’ describes the exaggeration of stereotypical male behaviour, which can result in increased incidences of gender-based violence for men as well as women. In war-torn developing countries, Holly Ritchie argues that such behaviour also acts as a fundamental barrier to change, and inclusive community development.

Galvanising action against Gender-Based Violence (GBV), this year’s 16 days of Activism campaign draws special attention to the underserved and marginalised, ‘Leave No One Behind: End Violence against Women and Girls’. This comes on the heels of the recent #MeToo movement, with social media highlighting the prevalence of so-called ‘toxic masculinity’, and a call for victims to speak out and to raise awareness of men’s abuse and harassment of women around the world. In less developed and conflict prone environments, we may see a more serious and extreme version of this behaviour, often described as ‘hyper-masculinity’.

Stemming from psychology, the concept of ‘hyper-masculinity’ describes the exaggeration of stereotypical male behaviour, particularly related to men’s physical strength, aggression, and sexuality. Such behaviour fuels the dominance of men over women, and competitive behaviour between men. This often results in increased incidences of gender-based violence against women, and even violence against men. In war-torn developing countries, I believe that such behaviour also acts as a fundamental barrier to change, and inclusive community development.

Dance party before ‘Strong Man’ competition in Twich East, Jonglei, South Sudan (Credit: Holly A Ritchie)

In pastoralist groups in sub-Saharan Africa, society is strongly patriarchal with gender-related roles and responsibilities. Men are expected to be the decision-makers and protectors, with women in secondary roles, as ‘homemakers’. Pastoral women have been described to be ‘doubly marginalized’, since they experience both regional marginalization in rural communities, whilst also negotiating a lifestyle that is often culturally gender-biased. In my extensive research across the region over 2015-17[i], pastoralist communities are now increasingly fragile, with growing populations and scarce resources. Women and girls remain particularly vulnerable. But simultaneously, women and girls also stand at the potential forefront of social change, with new access to basic services such education and health, and livelihood opportunities.

Yet my research emphasised the complexity of the humanitarian situation in South Sudan, with the persisting phenomenon of hyper-masculinity in a context of underdevelopment and risk. In Dinka groups in the central region of Jonglei, traditional attitudes are reinforced through the entrenched practice of marriage dowries (with livestock pledged to the bride’s family). This feeds into the perception that women and girls belong and answer to men. As a warrior culture, there is also still value attached to men’s ability to demonstrate ‘manliness’, including through ‘strong man’ competitions such as wrestling. Reinforcing this, women will equally reject men as potential husbands that have not proven their manhood through such displays. And despite deteriorating environmental conditions and drought, men are equally shunned for helping out with ‘female’ activities (e.g. collecting water or firewater). My research showed that access to firewood in particular has dramatically worsened across the region, with deforestation and population explosion. Insecurity in South Sudan further restricts movement and access. Adolescent girls in Eastern Equatoria bemoaned the influence of local peer pressure on possible shifts in behaviour: “Men and boys cannot help out with ‘women’s’ chores since they will face abuse by their peer groups, be considered ‘voiceless’ and ‘not manly”.


Women discuss gender roles in Jonglei, South Sudan (Credit: Holly A Ritchie)

Beyond daily workloads, these traditional attitudes and practices have fostered harmful power imbalances between men and women (and children) in South Sudan. This often leads to gender-based violence, and other forms of violence in the home, community and beyond. Yet such behaviour is often condoned in rural life in South Sudan, with over 80% of men and women agreeing that women should tolerate domestic violence to ‘keep the family together’[ii]. The phenomenon of wife battery, a traditional household practice used to discipline and control women, thus remains normal. In my research, men’s focus groups indicate that domestic violence was still both highly prevalent, and for many, an acceptable way of managing their women (and even often described as ‘wife correction’). Pastoralist women even defined their husband’s ‘care’ through such abusive practices. And within marriage, sex is considered a ‘non-negotiable’: “Your husband can demand sex and you must give it or be beaten.”  However, others described new perspectives being slowly brought in with education and community development.

Much has been written about the popular topic of women’s empowerment. Empowerment relates to the changing nature of women’s individual and collective ability to act (agency), which may bring about changes in every day life practices. In my research across the Horn of Africa, the strongest positive influence on women’s empowerment and change was shown to be girls’ education, and women’s participation in village savings and lending associations (VSLAs), shifting public perspectives on women and girls’ capacities and value at home, and even in business. In South Sudan, women’s groups also highlighted the growing influence of the church in reducing incidences of domestic violence, “bringing changes to these [male] habits”.


Yet during times of heightened instability – including localized village conflict, and now renewed civil war in South Sudan – a reversion to stereotypical men’s behaviour is observed. This may be described as a sort of coping mechanism as men grapple with additional stress, frustration and disorder. Men’s community groups explained that whilst there may have been positive shifts in their behaviour in recent times, domestic violence rose once more during crises: “because of the hardship of life”. Sexual violence may be perpetrated against women and children, as well as men by local gangs and militia. Women may also be traded for food or used as sexual slaves (and forced into prostitution). Between the onset of civil war in 2013 and 2016, an increase in sexual violence by ‘multiple armed actors’ was reported across the country.

Reflecting upon such spikes in violence, whilst education, and NGO-facilitated social dialogue is opening up new ideas on gender rights and roles, women’s empowerment may face a glass ceiling in a context of fragility or war, particularly with strong male behavioural tendencies. From a development perspective, I believe that this requires a new and bolder approach with more strategic interventions that involves community male leaders and youth, as well as women to address cultural attitudes, and to steer a new narrative around gender roles and behaviour. In forging new sets of values and beliefs about women and girls, ‘deeper’ empowerment approaches may include the deliberate and careful use of songs, theatre, dance and even (progressive) religion. For many communities in South Sudan, this can build on recent experience and exposure as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Kenya and Uganda, with new perspectives emerging related to family and community life, particularly amongst women and youth. Notably in my research, elders and men were reported to be a community group that had the least positive influence on women and girls’ empowerment, or were simply described as ‘neutral’ on such topics, busy instead with ‘community security and protection’. Here, it may be critical to learn from neighbouring countries and projects. An instrumental social movement initiated in Burundi known as abatangamuco (‘he who brings light’) has brought men and boys on board with domestic violence and women’s development through cross-community discussions and story telling.


Yet in protracted humanitarian situations such as South Sudan, besides new programmatic approaches involving men, it is worth noting that women’s own smaller collective initiatives, particularly related to peace-building[iii] may both aid in curbing violence but also allow critical ‘social space’[iv] for women to reimagine their lives and to explore cultural processes of transformation and development.

[i] Ritchie, H. A. (forthcoming/2018) Synthesis paper (Trends in Gender and Pastoralism in the Horn of Africa), CARE International.

[ii] Scott, Jennifer, Averbach, Sarah, Merport Modest, Anna, Hacker, Michelle R., Cornish, Sarah, Spencer, Danielle, Murphy, Maureen, and Parmar, Parveen (2013) ‘An assessment of gender inequitable norms and gender-based violence in South Sudan: a community-based participatory research approach’, Conflict and Health 7:4.

[iii] Dini, S. (2009) ‘Women building peace: Somali women in Puntland and Somaliland’, Conflict Trends 2 (31-37).

[iv] Cockburn, C. (2000) Gender and Democracy in the Aftermath of War: Women’s Organization in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Inaugural lecture. Utrecht: University for Humanist Studies.



What do you think?

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • Rebekka Lien
    27 May 2018

    What ?

  • Mohammed Abakar Ibrahim Dahab
    24 August 2020

    Thnks for this golden opportunity to share you in this very significant research . I agree that women are suffering so much in South Sudan as it has mentioned in this research because of war and tradition , customs and believe . I think that also the crucial reasons of what is happening in South Sudan is the lack of education which enlightens people to their rights specially women and young girls and it has been proved that most of the suffered women and young girls are far away from the centre they live in rural areas where there are less schools and services I am not denying that there aren’t any violence and abusing against women but it nor as we find in rural areas I am keeping say that because the same things are practised here in my country Sudan so that women who live in villages are suffering so much than women in cities , so the role of the education is very important to help and develop the women image to live better and happier life beside men. we can’t build a nation (woman) without education.