Empowerment: Women & Gender Issues: Definitions & Conceptual Issues

This section presents definitions for the main concepts related to:

  • Gender
  • Gender-based violence
  • Gender-based discrimination
  • Gender equality (vs. equity)
  • Gender mainstreaming
  • Protection
  • Empowerment
It also addresses some of the conceptual issues attached to them, namely:

  • The frequent conflation of the terms women and gender in discourses and practices;
  • The distinction between notions of gender equality and gender equity (which is not universally accepted);
  • The ambiguities attached to the notion of empowerment;
  • The balance between the approaches of women as vulnerable, as opposed to in positions of strength.
The most concrete challenges attached to the application of these concepts in policies and programs are addressed in the section. Go to Key Debates and Implementation Challenges


As a social construction, gender is generally viewed as a fluid and transformative concept.1 It changes not only over time, but also varies between cultures and among different groups within a given culture. Therefore, gender roles, inequities and power imbalances are not considered to be a result of natural biological differences (i.e. sexual differences), but rather are determined by the systems and cultures in which the individuals concerned live.

In other words, gender refers to the social attributes and opportunities associated with being male and female and the attributes, opportunities and relationships between women and men and girls and boys, "...are socially constructed and are learned through socialization processes. They are context/ time-specific and changeable. Gender determines what is expected, allowed and valued in a women or a man in a given context. In most societies there are differences and inequalities between women and men in responsibilities assigned, activities undertaken, access to and control over resources, as well as decision-making opportunities. Gender is part of the broader socio-cultural context. Other important criteria for socio-cultural analysis include class, race, poverty level, ethnic group and age."2

One important dimension in the understanding of gender issues is the sense that roles, differences and inequalities between men and women can be changed "by challenging the status quo and seeking social change."3 Because gender roles are not innate, they can be modified. Work on gender is therefore a very transformative one. By focusing on gender differences, rather than merely physiological sex differences, practitioners contribute to challenging education systems, political and economic systems, legislation as well as culture and traditions that shape and institutionalize gender issues.

Where the term gender is self-consciously used in relation to conflict and peace, the working definition that is usually offered is that gender denotes all the qualities of what it means to be a man or a woman which are socially and culturally, rather than biologically, determined. Gender includes the way in which society differentiates appropriate behavior and access to power for women and men. In practice, this has entailed the privileging of men over women.

Source: Pankhurst, Donna. The Sex War and Other Wars: Towards a Feminist Approach to Peace Building. Development in Practice 13 no. 2/3 (2003), 165.

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Gender-based violence

Gender-based violence (GBV) includes any sexual, physical or psychological violence and harmful practices based on gender, whether occurring in public or private life. The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women also includes "threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty."4 Such violence occurs in the family and in the general community, and is sometimes also condoned or perpetuated by the state through policies or the actions of agents of the state such as the police, military or immigration authorities, the majority of whom are men.

All of these forms of violence are associated with power inequalities, in particular (but not only) between women and men. For that reason, the term 'gender-based violence' is often used interchangeably with the term 'violence against women.' The term 'gender-based violence' highlights the gender dimension of these types of acts; in other words, the relationship between females' subordinate status in society and their increased vulnerability to violence. It is important to note, however, that men and boys may also be victims of gender-based violence, especially sexual violence."5 Hence, victims of gender-based violence are targeted specifically because of their gender (whether male or female), whereas sexual violence can be targeted, but may not. It may also be perpetuated against other groups, including children, youth, and men. While these abuses overlap, they are not synonymous.  Go to Empowerment: Children and youth

The nature and extent of specific types of gender-based violence vary across cultures, countries, and regions. The forms more specific to armed conflict and their immediate aftermath include rape, murder, abduction (for forced prostitution, forced military recruitment, trafficking, etc.). Other forms of violence (in particular those perpetrated in the domestic sphere, as well as harmful traditional practices) continue and are generally aggravated by the general situation.6 In conflict scenarios, gender-based violence may be particularly widespread and even systematic. In some instances perpetrators have been accused of using GBV as a weapon of war, a strategic tool of 'ethnic cleansing,' and a means of disrupting and breaking social and familial ties.

Acts of gender-based violence violate a number of universal human rights protected by international instruments and conventions. Many-- but not all-- forms of gender-based violence are illegal and criminal acts in national laws and policies.

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Gender-based discrimination

Gender-based discrimination means, for example, that girls and women do not have the same opportunities as boys and men for education, jobs training, employment, meaningful careers, political influence, and economic advancement.7 This lack of equal access to education and labor is often exacerbated by violence.8

Practitioners and international agencies such as the United Nations Childrens Fund (UNICEF) stresses, "by understanding gender discrimination, we are not only better equipped to help women and children realize their human rights, but also to better understand other kinds of inequalities, such as those based on age, race or class."9   Go to Main actors: outsiders

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Gender equality

Gender equality-- or equality between women and men-- refers to the equal rights, responsibilities and opportunities of women and men and girls and boys. Equality does not mean that women and men will become the same, but that women's and men's rights, responsibilities and opportunities will not depend on whether they are born male or female. Gender equality implies that the interests, needs and priorities of both women and men are taken into consideration-- recognizing the diversity of different groups of women and men. Equality between women and men has both a quantitative and a qualitative aspect. "The quantitative aspect refers to the desire to achieve equitable representation of women-- increasing balance and parity, while the qualitative aspect refers to achieving equitable influence on establishing development priorities and outcomes for women and men."10 "Equality between women and men is seen both as a human rights issue and as a precondition for, and indicator of, sustainable people-centered development."11

The emphasis on gender equality and women's empowerment does not presume a particular model of gender equality for all societies and cultures, but reflects a concern that women and men have equal opportunities to make choices about what gender equality means and work in partnership to achieve it.12 This is an important precision on the part of those who work in that domain as this approach may be challenging some well established cultural models. However, achieving gender equality "requires changes in institutional practices and social relations through which disparities are reinforced and sustained."13
Go to Key debates and implementation challenges

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Gender Mainstreaming

Gender mainstreaming is a strategy to support the goal of gender equality. It has two general dimensions:

  • The integration of gender equality concerns into the analyses, formulation and assessment of all policies, programs and projects in any dimension of peacebuilding, at all levels and at all stages. It is a strategy for making the concerns and experiences of women as well as of men an integral part of the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies and programs in all political, economic and societal spheres, so that women and men benefit equally, and inequality is not perpetuated. The ultimate goal of mainstreaming is to achieve gender equality.14
  • Initiatives to enable women as well as men to formulate and express their views and participate in decision-making across all development issues.
Thus gender mainstreaming in peacebuilding initiatives is not just about adding on a "women's component," or even a "gender equality component," to an existing activity. It also involves more than increasing women's participation.15 The introduction of "the gender dimension" cannot either be an afterthought, limited in scope. "Mainstreaming situates gender equality issues at the centre of policy decisions, medium-term plans, programme budgets, and institutional structures and processes. [...] Mainstreaming can reveal a need for changes in goals, strategies and actions to ensure that both women and men can influence, participate in and benefit from development processes. It can require changes in organizations-- structures, procedures and cultures-- to create organizational environments which are conducive to the promotion of gender equality."16

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The notion of protection is frequently referred to when speaking about gender issues more broadly in post-conflict scenarios. It refers to all actions aimed at ensuring the equal access to and enjoyment of the rights of women, men, girls and boys, in accordance with the relevant bodies of law (in particular, international humanitarian, human rights and refugee law). "Protection activities [include those that] prevents or puts a stop to a specific pattern of abuse and/or alleviates its immediate effects; restores people's dignity and ensures adequate living conditions through reparation, restitution, and rehabilitation; fosters an environment conducive to respect for the rights of individuals in accordance with the relevant bodies of law. Protection activities may include responsive action, remedial action and environment-building and may be carried out concurrently."17
Go to A short history of a gender approach to peacebuilding

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Empowerment is generally defined as a bottom-up and participatory process that engages women in reflection, inquiry, and action. "Understanding empowerment in this way means that development agencies cannot claim to empower women. Women must empower themselves."18 Devising coherent policies and programs for women's empowerment requires careful attention, because external agencies/bodies tend to be positioned with power-over target populations. Similarly, empowerment requires an understanding of power relations in a given community.19 International actors can support women's collective empowerment "by funding women's organisations which work to address the causes of gender subordination, by promoting women's participation in political systems, and by fostering dialogue between those in positions of power and organizations with women's empowerment goals."20

Yet, participation should not be conflated with empowerment itself. Inclusion of women in positions of power does not equate to their sense of voice in those forums. Thus initiatives must extend beyond participation to identify means of encouraging equality of women's views and comfort representing ideas within arenas in which they are active. Investing in women's capabilities and empowering them to exercise their choices is not only valuable in itself but is also perceived as the surest way to contribute to economic growth and overall development.21

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Conceptual Issues

The role of men and women in gender

All actors stress the importance of mainstreaming a gender approach to peacebuilding instead of simply focusing on the interests and needs of women. Gender refers to both women and men, and the relations between them. A debate at the UN Commission on the State of Women, in 2004, reflects the importance of that semantic distinction: "Gender equality was not a female enterprise, noted one representative. It demanded that men share power with women. Likewise, it was imperative for women to embrace male participation in the discourse on gender equality. Women and men needed to work together in partnership to achieve gender equality, stated another speaker. It was necessary to create a new partnership based on mutual respect, ongoing dialogue and shared responsibilities."22

Gender mainstreaming processes therefore clearly imply the full inclusion and engagement of men as well as women. In fact, "in recent years there has been a much stronger direct focus on men in research on gender perspectives. There are three main approaches taken in the increased focus on men. Firstly, the need to identify men as allies for gender equality and involve them more actively in this work. Secondly, the recognition that gender equality is not possible unless men change their attitudes and behaviour in many areas, for example in relation to reproductive rights and health. And thirdly, that gender systems in place in many contexts are negative for men as well as for women-- creating unrealistic demands on men and requiring men to behave in narrowly defined ways."23 A considerable amount of research is, for instance, being undertaken, by both women and men, on male identities and masculinity. In particular, young men tend to be stigmatized in some conflict and post-conflict settings as associated with violence. This increased focus on men should have significant impact on future strategies for working with gender perspectives in development and peacebuilding.   Go to Empowerment: Children and youth

However, it is important to note the frequent conflation of the terms women and gender in discourses and practices. Most actors use them interchangeably and some programs heavily focus on issues relating to women only. This tension is not easy to reconcile as a gender perspective may very well requires some actions targeting specifically women and girls or primarily involving women organizations who are generally very active both at the community and society level.

Gender equality versus gender equity

Some actors also refer to the notion of gender equity, understood as "the process of being fair to women and men. To ensure fairness, measures must often be available to compensate for historical and social disadvantages that prevent women and men from otherwise operating on a level playing field."24 In that sense, equity is conceived as leading to equality. However, this notion is far from being universally accepted and has been the subject of many international debates. Therefore, gender equality is the preferred terminology within the United Nations, rather than gender equity. "Gender equity denotes an element of interpretation of social justice, usually based on tradition, custom, religion or culture, which is most often to the detriment to women. Such use of equity in relation to the advancement of women is unacceptable. During the Beijing conference in 1995 it was agreed that the term equality would be utilized. Gender equality means that the rights, responsibilities and opportunities of individuals will not depend on whether they are born male or female."25

Power and empowerment

Some ambiguities may sometimes be attached to the notion of empowerment, in particular as it refers to the notion of power. "Power in empowerment strategies does not refer to power over, or controlling forms of power, but rather to alternative forms of power: power to; power with and power from within which focus on utilizing individual and collective strengths to work towards common goals without coercion or domination."26 This has very concrete implications at the implementing stage.
Go to Key debates and implementation challenges

Women as 'vulnerable' and strong

Women often tend to be categorized as 'vulnerable,' even though they may also display remarkable strength, as evidenced by their role as combatants or agents for peace and change, or by the roles they assume in wartime and in the immediate aftermath to protect and support their families, and help their communities. "The very nature of women's vulnerability often lies more in the fact that armed conflicts have evolved to the extent that the civilian population is totally caught up in the fighting and women are frequently the ones trying to maintain and provide for the everyday survival of themselves and their families. The notion of vulnerability also comprises the problem of being at risk (exposure to danger), the ability to cope with the situation and the stress, shock and trauma of warfare."27 Women and girls are also far more exposed to sexual violence, regardless of the perpetrators motive, although men are also victims of such violence.

Vulnerability, as such, does not fit into an easily determined category or definition-- especially where women are concerned. It is therefore in accordance with the specific nature of each situation and the different factors involved that groups of women can be identified as being particularly vulnerable and in need of special assistance, e.g. pregnant women, nursing mothers, mothers of small children, female heads of households, survivors of violence, HIV positive women, displaced and trafficked women, and so forth. A balance needs to be kept between the consideration of women as true actors and agents of change, while also being understood as potentially more vulnerable in specific situations, and having specific needs that must be addressed.28

1. C. Reiman. All you need is Love and what about gender? Engendering Burtons Human Needs Theory (Working Paper 10, Centre for Conflict Resolution, Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford, January 2002), 7. C. Reiman. “All you need is Love… and what about gender? Engendering Burton’s Human Needs Theory” (Working Paper 10, Centre for Conflict Resolution, Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford, January 2002), 7. 
2. United Nations Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women (OSAGI), Concept and Definitions.
3. United Nations Childrens Fund (UNICEF), Gender Equality: the big picture.
4. United Nations General Assembly, "The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women," 1993, art. 1.
5. Inter Agency Standing Committee (IASC), Guidelines for Gender Based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Settings (IASC, 2005), 16.
6. Jeanne Ward, If Not Now, When? Addressing Gender-Based Violence in Refugee, Internally Displaced, and Post-Conflict Settings (New York: The Reproductive Health for Refugees Consortium, 2002)
7. Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), Gender Equality.
8. Amnesty International, Empowerment of Women.
9. UNICEF, Gender Equality: the big picture.
10. OSAGI, Important Concepts Underlying Gender Mainstreaming: FactSheet 2, (2001)
11. OSAGI, Concept and Definitions; and OSAGI, FactSheet 2, (2001).
12. CIDA, Gender Equality Peacebuilding, CIDA peacebuilding unit and Gender Equality Unit, 2001, 4.
13. Ibid.
14. The United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), Mainstreaming the gender perspective into all policies and programmes in the United Nations system, extract from ECOSOC Report for 1997 (A/52/3, 18 September 1997), 2; The Council of Europe,Gender mainstreaming, (1998).
15. CIDA, Gender Equality Peacebuilding, 2001, 4.
16. OSAGI, Fact Sheet 1, (2001), 2.
17. International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), "Workshop on the Development of Human Rights Training for Humanitarian Actors," International Council of Voluntary Agencies, 2001.
18. Oxaal, Zoe and Sally Baden, Gender and Empowerment: definitions, approaches and implications for policy: briefing prepared for SIDA. Bridge: Development and gender (Brighton: Institute of Developmental Studies, 1997), 16.
19. Ibid and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Handbook for the Protection of Women and Girls, 21.
20. Oxaal, Zoe and Sally Baden, Gender and Empowerment, Brighton: Institute of Developmental Studies, 1997, 16.
21. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Human Development Report (New York: UNDP, 1995), 12.
22. UN Commission on the State of Women, Womens Equal Participation in Peace Processes, Mens Role in Achieving Gender.
23. OSAGI, FactSheet 2 (2001).
24. See for instance: Status of Women Canada, Gender-based analysis: A guide for policy-making (1996).
25. OSAGI, FactSheet 2, (2001).
26. Ibid.
27. ICRC, Study on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Women, 12.
28. Ibid.

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