A special issue of the Disasters journal published at the start of 2018 looks at the complexity of tackling gender-based violence (GBV) in humanitarian scenarios. We summarise its main talking points here.
By Carolina Are
This special issue of Disasters opens with an introductory essay titled “Gender, sexuality, and violence in humanitarian crises“, written by Dr. Dorothea Hilhorst, Dr. Holly Porter and Rachel Gordon. The essay – and the special issue more generally – examines how the use of the word ‘gender’ is often used synonymously with ‘women and girls’ in the humanitarian sector. As a result, gender-based programming can neglect the LGBTQIA+ community and simplifies gender issues – including those facing men and boys.
The wellbeing of women and girls in times of conflict has become a pillar of the UN’s agenda since the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) in Istanbul, Turkey, in May 2016. Following this summit, humanitarian action has focused on the ‘Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) Agenda’ and actively sought roles for women and girls in peace-building processes and in addressing conflict-related sexual violence.
Gender – Not Just Women
Interestingly, Hilorst, Porter and Gordon worry that “the framing and representation of ‘women’ on the agenda may have the troubling effect of entrenching the very gender binaries that feminist scholarship sees as the root causes of injustice and violence,”. It may also neglect the experience of the LGBTQIA+ community in conflict-related environments.
The authors argue that talking about a “Women, Peace, and Security Agenda,” is incomplete, and that we should widen the scope to a “Gender, Peace, and Security Agenda” instead. Doing so is a delicate matter, and it must not reverse or minimise the years of fighting to raise awareness about women’s issues: in short, we need “to understand gender beyond the binary categories of men and women,” and to start engaging with “ever-changing relations of power” that are distinct from the mere male/female binomial. This is an innovative stance since, as the authors argue: “There is a large and rich scholarship on gender, sexuality, and violence in relation to conflict, disasters, and forced displacement. The extent to which the findings of this literature make their way into humanitarian policy and programming, though, is uneven.”
A Burden and Stereotypes Weighing On Women
Hilorst, Porter and Gordon argue that aid programs that aim to promote women’s rights as part of fighting gender based violence (GBV) can inadvertently authorise Western imperial power by “posing as the ‘liberator’ of indigenous women from native patriarchal cultures.” Yet, the problem is even deeper.
The authors also suggest this focus on women in GBV portrays them as “vulnerable people or victims without agency”. Although it’s true that in times of conflict men tend to play roles of aggressors and combatants more often than women, the authors argue, this division of men as fighters and women as victims “obscures other realities in which men and women assume the opposite—or more complex—roles, leading to a kind of tunnel vision that only centres on the suffering of women.”
The Repercussions On Aid
When this vision is translated into providing aid, Hilorst, Porter and Gordon find that women may “effectively advance their status of victim to enable their access to aid—a kind of strategic essentialism.” They quote Utas’ ‘victimcy’ concept in relation to this attitude, which sees “women foreground their victimhood and downplay other aspects of their identity, including their political agency, to meet social expectations, which, in turn, yield a perceived benefit.” For the authors, aid workers respond to this with ‘ignorancy’, playing along with this narrative to secure donations.
This approach results in inconsistencies in the way we understand aid:
“That there are many women-headed households among refugees, for instance, is only seen as yet another example of women’s primary victimhood, with women having to bear lone responsibility for their families, without recognition of the fact that, in many of these households, men are missing because they were killed in conflict.”
Seeing women this way perpetrates a variety of stereotypes that may not translate into effective aid. If we assume that women are more nurturing than men, for example, we then target humanitarian aid to children or families assuming that we are working with women, who are often perceived as “more likely not to use available resources just for themselves” and to take care of children or other vulnerable people, such as the disabled, elderly, or sick.
For Hilorst, Porter and Gordon, this is problematic as, firstly, it places a burden on women “not only the proverbial ‘double burden’ of supporting the household through paid and unpaid labour, but also, in extreme contexts, the expectation that women essentially will facilitate humanitarian programming ‘on the cheap.'” Additionally, this does not encourage or take into account men with similar duties.
Lack of Complexity
Violence, crises and aid need to be examined in all their complexity. According to Hilorst, Porter and Gordon – and this special issue of Disasters. Unfortunately, the current, more exclusive focus on women and girls prevents aid workers, journalists and academia from appreciating gender in its wider context and complexity.