Remaining at the edge

IssueJune - August 2001
Feature by Anu Pillay

At a recent seminar on peace building in Africa, the question of why gender and not women was raised. What is the difference? Although I was surprised that this question came up at all, it made me realise that one makes the assumption that this question has been sufficiently dealt with and that everyone is moving on from there.

Yet, this question helped me to understand why we often remain stuck in our attempts to transform gender relations in our society. The politics of gender which shape women's lives are often not understood or are ignored in most social analyses.

An absent analysis

The person who had spoken before me talked of conflict management in general and offered some interesting and valuable commentary on current and past conflicts. However, because his presentation did not include any kind of gender perspective or gender analysis, he missed some very crucial insights and neglected to provide recommendations for interventions that would impact on those issues.

For example, the many roles that women play during war was not investigated and the women were portrayed only as victims, when in fact they may have been active perpetrators of violence. His recommendations for structural and non-structural interventions therefore did not take this into account.

Another examples is that a gender analysis of refugee camps often reveals gains made by women in terms of power, and control over resources. Without this analysis, these gains are not acknowledged and are lost when people are sent back to often worse situations. The fact that peacekeeping interventions are largely planned and implemented from such a skewed perspective means that lasting transformation is impossible to achieve. Yet, these plans are generally accepted as being the best, without investigating who drew them up, who was consulted and whether all views were incorporated into the planning and execution.

Why gender – not women?

So, why talk of gender and not just what is happening to the women? Without a gender analysis, we miss the power differences, the inequalities and the roles that are assigned to people because of their sex rather than their abilities or capacities. We see only the obvious things, like sexual violence against women, women as the victims of war. War is seen as a patriarchal institution from which women are excluded but victimised. The “politics of gender”, meaning the power relations between men and women, are structured around opposing notions of masculinity and femininity, and this is what shapes these conceptualisations.

Instead of focusing on acts of violence against women, the entire culture that creates current conceptualisations of masculinity and femininity needs to be analysed and challenged. These are complex phenomena which are the results of a combination of biological, social and cultural influences and our understanding of power. For example, masculinity is associated with aggressiveness, competitiveness, dominance, strength, courage and control, while femininity is associated with care-taking, nurturing, motherhood, submissiveness, physical weakness and dependency, to name a few.

Predominantly, gender power relations have left a legacy whereby women are more likely to be disadvantaged relative to men, have less access to resources, benefits, information and decision-making, and have fewer rights in the household and the public sphere. These concerns and the struggle for equality have been narrowly perceived as “women's issues”, and programmes are most often designed to focus only on women.

But what really needs to be focused on is the relationship between men and women, among groups of men and women, and on the equity and equality issues within these relations.

Gender and conflict management

When using the term conflict management, I am referring to a process and not an event. Conflicts therefore do not end but are forever in a process of transformation. The elements of conflict management as used here are preventative diplomacy, peacemaking, peacekeeping and peace-building. In order to integrate gender issues into the focus of conflict management initiatives we need to shed light on how major organisations such as the UN deal with these issues and what provision is made within these structures to accommodate the concepts of masculinity and femininity. How does post-war reconstruction processes influence the reconfiguration of gender roles and positions in the wake of war, and how do women's actions during the conflict shape the construction of post-war social structures?

An examination of women's participation in formal and informal peace-building activities shows that in most cases women are excluded from formal peace negotiations. Such high-level negotiations are identified as male domains, which means that they also employ discourses and practices that are closer to men's reality than to women's. As a result, women also lack direct influence in the identification of reconstruction priorities that are usually part of a peace agreement. What does this mean?

Inclusion is not enough

Since women's realities are characterised by the notion of femininity, then it must mean that the negotiations, discourses and practices are predominantly masculine. Experience has demonstrated that it is not enough to merely include women in these structures. Many countries emerging from armed conflict have adopted new constitutions that grant women equal political, social and economic rights, and many governments have developed new quota systems to ensure women equal representation in decision-making institutions at all levels. However, the implementation of these laws and good intentions often runs into major obstacles at the social level, where the new discourse of gender equality may run counter to existing social norms regarding gender roles. In some cases, local authorities and conservative members of society may discourage or prohibit women from participating in political activities. Moreover, the fact that the division of labour has not changed in favour of women, but rather added to their burden, also poses practical limitations on the possibilities for active involvement of women.

Participation at the design stage

So, while many advocates for achieving gender balance and equality call for the increased participation of women, without the re-educating of society—on gender politics and the positive impact that could be achieved if there was gender equity and equality— women placed in those positions of change find it very difficult to achieve any lasting transformation.

However, women's participation in the design of strategies is essential to add value to the process of negotiating peace and reconstructing society after conflict by highlighting the gender impact issues. There is usually very little, or no, attention paid to gender issues during these negotiations, for fear of scaring away a settlement. As a result, transformation of society in the wake of war is limited and women not only remain at the periphery of social life, but face increased social and domestic violence as a result of the unequal power relations that are reinforced and re-instated.

Space for healing

One of the most compelling insights coming out of the War Crimes Tribunal held in Japan in December 2000 was the damage that the silence did to the “comfort women” after the war was over. It was impossible for a single one of them to heal from their trauma without the space to talk about what had happened and to be accepted and re- integrated into society as survivors of the most heinous crimes against humanity. The stereotypical gender environments to which they returned could not accommodate the fact that they had been brutally raped and tortured, and that many would be unable to have children. They were “soiled, unclean, leftover” and, aside from being terribly scarred physically, were filled with self hatred and guilt. They lived in fear of the men in their society finding out about their past. They internalised the blame and took on the shame of what had been done to them.

The result of this is that more than 50 years later they are still suffering terribly. This still happens and women continue to be rejected by their families after they have been raped or impregnated during recent and current wars in Africa and Europe.

Topics: Global south, Gender