Empowerment: Women & Gender Issues: Key Debates & Implementation Challenges

This section presents a short summary of some of the key debates and implementation challenges discussed by stakeholders in relation to the process of mainstreaming gender in the peacebuilding agenda and practices. The points covered are not exhaustive, but rather seek to highlight some of the key areas of concern. They are encompassed within the following three points:

  • Ambiguities attached to the empowerment agenda;
  • Consideration of local cultures, norms and customs;
  • Material constraints of gender approaches.
These elements and other dimensions to concretely implement the gender agenda are detailed in the key documents and the wide range of guidelines presented at the end of this section.  Go to key resources

Ambiguities attached to the empowerment agenda

A gender approach to peacebuilding focuses on the inclusion of women in decision-making processes and their empowerment as decision-makers and actors in all areas of peacebuilding. But it also entails a better understanding and acknowledgment of the specificities of girls and women, boys and men's situations, needs, interests and roles in the peacebuilding process. In that context, the perpetuation of discrimination and sexual and gender based violence toward women in post-conflict settings receive specific attention as they can have lasting harmful effects on other sectors of peacebuilding.
Go to Women, gender and peacebuilding processes

Both protection and empowerment dimensions are stressed in most discourses and programs but some may note a tendency to more easily portray women as victims and to pay greater attention to the development of protection programs that may reinforce stereotypes and actually underestimate women's agency. "The portrayal of women as victims not only neglects the significant roles women have played in conflict and post-conflict, but also undermines their future potential as key participants in formal peace processes."1 These limitations actually refer to different elements, including:

  • The underestimation of the diversity of womens' experiences;
  • The underestimation of the changes brought by the conflict;
  • The assumptions about women as pacifists;
  • The risk to reinforce inequalities, limit women's agency and put them into 'ghettos';
  • The limits of add-ons approach and of the use of quotas.
Go to The protection of women's needs and interests in the aftermath of conflicts: Women and girls as former combatants

Underestimating the diversity of women's experiences

There might be a tendency to aggregate women's experiences into a single group, forgetting the diversity of positions and circumstances women generally face in any given society. Denying women's agency is "a potential outcome of the crude deployment of a gender concept in policy, where all women are presumed to act in the same way and are powerless to do otherwise. Highlighting the common difficulties that women face as a group can easily degenerate into seeing them as innocent victims and prevents an appreciation of the great variety of roles women actually embrace."2

Vulnerability factors, for instance, affect different groups in different ways. Although they may be specifically at risk for some categories of violations, such as sexual violence for women and military detention for men, it would be a gross oversimplification to consider either women or men as inherently more vulnerable than the other.3 All women do not share the same experiences during conflict; consequently, their post-conflict needs and priorities will be different. Women must have an opportunity to articulate these diverse gender specific issues as part of the formal negotiation process as at the policy and programming phase.

One important aspect of this diversity is the potential existence of tensions and hierarchies existing between and amongst women. "This is especially true in a post-conflict society where women 'compete over men and resources.' This can lead to a diminution of trust amongst women and weakens to work collectively towards the promotion and incorporation of their needs and rights within a new social framework."4 As symbolic and material resources (in particular those offered by the international actors) are limited, this also generates a lot of competition among women organizations, especially.

Underestimating changes brought by conflict

Discourses also often refer to the idea of 'restoring' or 'returning' to something associated with the status quo before the war. But as some analysts have underlined, changes brought by war may have actually undermined women's rights; they may place women in a situation that is even more disadvantageous than in the past. In some areas, women may, on the contrary, have gained more freedom or seen their role expand considerably under the constraints of war violence, such as the forced displacements or the absence of men.5 In many situations, those changes may be structural as war and violence have been going on for several decades and influence local cultural systems.

Assumption of women as pacifists

Some academics and practitioners have also questioned assumptions and stereotypes present in the discussion of women and peace. "For instance, there is the danger of equating women with peace, assuming that women are necessarily pacifist. In actuality, women also assume roles in waging and supporting war."6 Some studies assume a correlation between higher numbers of women in governance and the improvement of governance indicators. However, the idea that more women in leadership positions would favor peace, limit corruption, and improve governance is criticized both for a lack of empirical basis but also because "the association of women with peace has long been used to keep women out of the realm of international politics and national security, reinforcing the gender stereotype of women as passive not active, victims not agents, emotional not rational."7 Women are easily portrayed as "natural nurturers and carers who enjoy working with children,"8 for instance. Such notions may encourage the role of women in certain professions but also send them back to the private sphere and limit the extent of their choice.9 To counter-balance this vision of women's interests as determined by women's supposed essential natures as care givers, some analysts and practitioners suggest to conceive women's interests as "defined by their social positions and the need to defend their rights and would include lobbying for legislation that, for example, enables women to vote or own property on an equal basis with men."10

The risk of reinforcing inequalities

"Drawing on images of women's supposedly innate qualities (in this case the predisposition to work against violence and for peace), interveners [also] conceive of projects which rely on womens (free) labour and exclude men."11 For example, programs may assume or rely on women voluntarily giving of their time in the interest of peacebuilding. Such an approach may actually reinforce gender inequality and put even more pressure on women who may have more pressing calls on their time in order to guarantee their family's survival.12 In other words, some programs may compound burdens on women or underestimate their need to have financial resources (in particular when women as supposed to participate on a volunteer basis) instead of actually empowering them.

At times, these stereotypes can also prevent women from accessing different fields of work. For instance, many peacebuilding programs allocate funds and resources in the form of 'micro-credit.' "While this is a positive inclusion of women in business, there is a growing body of work pointing to the particular ways that women are falling into a micro-finance ghetto, where small loans limit them to small purchases and the persistent cultural bias that perceives women as supplementary wage-earners, rather than as entrepreneurs, often keeps them stalled at the level of household and cottage industries."13

A common criticism is also that many programs may risk marginalizing women into 'special programs.' Such initiatives may constitute an important interim strategy to safeguard womens rights to participate and access resources where mainstream programs may exclude them but a more consistent gender mainstreaming strategy should replace them as quickly as possible.14 Other critics have also pointed to the over-simplification and superficiality in, and when implementing gender policies.15

Limits of 'add-on' approaches and gender quotas

Gender quotas often distill and oversimplify policy discussions on women, and are reflective of policy decisions that perceive solutions to the 'gender issue' as simply a matter of 'add women and stir.'16 For instance, "in peacebuilding, efforts undertaken in Sudan, Congo and Uganda, women activists admonished what they called 'vague and inappropriate programs' that they felt were implemented simply to draw donor funding and media coverage, but were not properly monitored, nor sustainable. In this case, quotas and gendered programs were developed more for show than for actual results from gender mainstreaming."17 According to the UNIFEM sponsored study on Women, War and Peace, "quotas must be seen as a temporary solution to increase gender balance...they are a first step on the path to gender equality, both a practical and a symbolic measure to support women's leadership."18 As some analysts have noticed, the structural obstacles need to be considered: more women may be included to fill lower posts, but under-representation often persists in the highest levels of political and security hierarchy.19 Moreover, with or without quotas, a key factor is to strengthen women's capacity for leadership.20   Go to Definition: empowerment

Generally speaking, "simply adding women to existing programs or structures is unlikely to bring about lasting change. The challenge lies in building a discourse on peace and security that includes the perspectives of both women and men and holds as central the values of coexistence, nonviolence, and inclusivity. Real structural, economic, political, and social change in the ways all people relate to each other must be the ultimate goal."21 All actors now try to incorporate gender considerations in the structures of their organizations and their overall programs to avoid the possibility that gender-oriented issues get trapped in a special branch or specific programs without possibility to influence the overall work of the organization.22 As stressed in a UNHCR handbook, these should be integrated early on into planning so as not to be treated as simple "add-ons."23
Principle of Neutrality and Gender in Refugee Camps

Many relief organizations continue to highlight the importance of the principle of neutrality in humanitarian operations, observing the immediate need of populations as critical. Such groups believe that avoiding political decisions as vital to continuing such activities. However, in context, such principles confront difficult realities. One argument given is that even removing the overarching political climate, local cultures may inherently have biases, and neutral policies may exacerbate inequities on this basis. For instance, Refugee assistance programmes have failed to recognize that the forces and mechanisms of subordination, domination and exclusion of refugee women are located in both the reproductive sphere of the household and the political and power structures of [refugee] camps, which, in all cases, reinforce and strengthen the patriarchal tendencies of the community.32 By claiming to be gender blind in camps where discrimination exists, and by providing aid on that basis, agencies are criticized for perpetuating and intensifying gender inequality. Some have argued that this extends further as neutrality on the part of aid agencies in militarized camps makes them culpable for violence against women by security agents.33

Source: Management of Field-Based Knowledge: Locally Driven Organizational Learning, Advanced Training on Humanitarian Action (ATHA) Thematic Brief, January 2008: 6.

In addition, it is important to keep in mind that formalized structures do not always equate to real and practical change for women. "...while there are many cases where women's rights and priorities have been incorporated in peace agreements and post-conflict legislative and policy reform, these formal measures do not necessarily translate into better access for women to decision-making processes, nor to increased protection from violence at the community level."24 While policies of empowerment are essential, erecting structures that ensure implementation on that basis are also paramount.

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Variances between local cultures, norms and customs

Local norms and customs may keep women in bondage to men (in particular their husbands), and prevent them from speaking out.25 In many cultures, women "only have authority when it is given by men; so it's authority without power."26 They do not have control over or rights to inherit property--including their home or land. Laws or customs may also prevent them from owning other productive assets, from getting loans or credit.27 For outsiders, in particular, it may be difficult to challenge those norms and customs, maintaining a balance between the affirmation of international human right standards and the respect of local cultures and practices.

This is also important in considering how the gendered experience of violence is informed and linked to a wider social-cultural context. "Many cultures have beliefs and customs which serve to normalize and justify violence of this form."28 This may make these practices more difficult to address. Moreover, "if sexual gender based violence is seen as 'fundamentally social' then challenges to a social norm, such as male dominance in the private sphere, can lead to violence against women because they highlight a mans sense of vulnerability."29

Here, an important principle emphasized by some practitioners is the necessity to take on a 'do no harm' (DNH) approach and to be cognizant of the unintended consequences some aid programs may have. In general terms, the DNH approach has been defined by Mary Anderson in the following terms: "...given what has been learned, it is not necessary or justified to act as if aid has no responsibility for its negative--or positive--side effects on conflicts. While pursuing humanitarian and developmental imperatives, aid workers should also know and do more to ensure that their aid does no harm."30 Regarding gender issues, CARE international mentions, for instance, cases where "emergency response prioritized women and children, whose needs were greatest, but left the women at greater risk of attack from men who would steal food and other aid items," or "instances around the world in which women suffered abuse from husbands who feared that their participation in a project of any stripe would alter the status quo."31

It is important to move beyond simplistic, and at times essentialist visions of what constitutes cultures and so-called 'traditions' and looking at the way these traditions are constantly changing and being changed according to evolutions in the societies in which they are embedded, in particular under the lobbying of both women and men.34  Go to Traditional and informal justice systems

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Material constraints of gender approaches

Gender approaches of peacebuilding often face concrete material constraints, in particular the lack of access to information in the countries themselves and a lack of knowledge on the part of practitioners. On the first dimension, the lack of awareness regarding the gender dimensions of conflict and peacebuilding often constitutes an important obstacle to the advancement of the agenda and may reinforce existing attitudes.35 For the practitioners, because the field is relatively new, "huge gaps persist in knowledge on gender and peacebuilding and in how it is created and used intellectually, politically and in meeting practical needs. From management skills to infrastructure, technical expertise to resources, capacity is lacking within women's peacebuilding institutions, and within and outside of government and the multilateral system."36 Even if there is increasing expertise on the subject, it is not always available soon enough and in sufficient quantity to gather all the information requested to get an informed understanding of the gender specificities of the situation at hand. Experts also often feel that public support and resources are not sufficient to ensure a true engendering of the peacebuilding processes.37

1. Duvvury and Strickland, "Gender Equity and Peacebuilding," 2003, 1. See also International Crisis Group Africa Report 112, Beyond Victimhood: Women's Peacebuilding in Sudan, Congo and Uganda (28 June 2006).
2. Donna Pankhurst, "The Sex War and Other Wars: Towards a Feminist Approach to Peace Building," in Development in Practice 13, no. 2/3 (2003): 169.
3.ICRC, Women in War: A particularly Vulnerable Group?
4. Pankhurst, "The Sex War," 2003, 162.
5. Ibid, 161.
6. Donna Ramsey Marshall, "Women in War and Peace: Grassroots Peacebuilding," United States Institute of Peace, 7.
7. J. Ann Tickner, "Why Women Can't Run the World: International Politics According to Francis Fukuyama," in International Studies Review, vol. 1, no. 3 (1999).
8. Kirk, Promoting a Gender-Just Peace, 2004, 51.
9. Ibid and Pankhurst, "The Sex War," 2003, 161.
10. Hunts Alternatives Fund, Inclusive Security, Sustainable Peace: A toolkit for advocacy and action (2004), 3.
11. Pankhurst, "The Sex War," 2003, 167.
12. Ibid.
13. Sirleaf and Rehn, "Women War Peace," 2002, 127.
14. Duvvury, Richard Strickland and Nata. Gender Equity and Peacebuilding: From Rhetoric to Reality: Finding the Way. Washington DC: International Center for Research on Women, 2003, 30.
15. Hilary Charlesworth, 'The Gender of International Law', in John Lawrence Hargrove (ed.), On Violence, Money, Power and Culture: Reviewing the Internationalist Legacy, Washington: American Society for International Law, 2000, 207.
16. Schirch and Sewak, Using the Gender Lens, 2006, 9.
17. ICG, "Beyond Victimhood," 2006, 16.
18. Sirleaf and Rehn, "Women War Peace," 2002, 81.
19. Posa, Swanee Hunt and Cristina. "Women Waging Peace." Foreign Policy, no. 124 (2001): 46.
20. Greenberg and Zuckerman, "The Gender Dimensions of Post-Conflict Reconstruction; an Analytical Framework for Policymakers." Gender and Development 12, no. 3 (2004): 70-82.
21. Schirch and Sewak. "Introduction Chapter," 2006, 9.
22. UNDPA Division on the Advancement of Women, "Peace agreements as a means for promoting gender equality and ensuring participation of women A framework of model provisions, Report of the Expert Group Meeting," 32. See also Duvvury and Strickland, "Gender Equity and Peacebuilding," 2003.
23. UNHCR, Handbook for Repatriation, 2004, 3.2, 3.4.
24. Stephanie Ziebell. "E-Discussion for the SG Report Phase 2: Gender Equality in Recovery and Peacebuilding," UNIFEM, December 10, 2008.
25. UN Commission on the State of Women, Women's equal participation in peace processes, mens role in achieving gender.
26. ICG, Beyond Victimhood (2006), 20.
27. Leatherman , Sexual Violence, 2007, 53; UN, "Women Peace and Security: Study," 2002; Greenberg and Zuckerman, "The Gender Dimensions": 70-82.
28. IRC, "Traditional Justice and Gender Based Violence: Research Report," submitted by Ainsling Swaine, 2003, 14.
29. Sheila Meintjes, "The Aftermath: Women in Post-War Reconstruction," Agenda 43 (2000): 9.
30. Mary B. Anderson, Do No Harm: How Aid Can Support PeaceOr War (Boulder, Colo: Lynne Reinner Publishers), 38.
31. CARE, Women's Empowerment (2005), 12.
32. Agnes Callamard, "Refugee women: a gendered and political analysis of the refugee experience," in Refugees: Perspectives on the Experience of Forced Migration, ed. Alastair Ager ,(London: Cassell, 1999), 196-214.
33. Ibid.
34. Roberta Culbertson and Beatrice Pouligny, "Re-imagining peace after mass crime: A dialogical exchange between insider and outside knowledge," 273-274.
35. UNIFEM, Women Building Peace and Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict-Affected Contexts: A Review of Community-Based Approaches (New York: UNIFEM, 2007).
36. Klot, "Women and Peacebuilding," 2007, 3.
37. Ibid.

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