Each year, I have the opportunity to participate on a panel and talk to members of Canadian and other national military officers about women, peace and security. The panel focuses on a range of vulnerable groups including child soldiers, women and girls, etc. I always start this presentation by stating that I do not consider women a vulnerable group, nor do I use the language of ‘vulnerable groups’, preferring instead the language of ‘people in (temporary) situations of vulnerability’. Women – like all people –have diverse experiences, depending on a range of societal, cultural, economic and political factors and at different moments in their lives. Therefore, categorizing women as “a vulnerable group” is both inaccurate and potentially harmful.
The problem with categorizing ‘women as vulnerable group’ is explained well by the works of Charli Carpenter who critically examines how ‘‘women make better symbolic victims, especially in wartime, precisely because they—either as bystanders or as mothers of helpless children—can be seen as innocent.’’
The symbolism of vulnerability serves a particular purpose for media representations of conflicts. Three common images pervade the widespread media focus on the impact of conflict and war: the destruction of infrastructure, soldiers in action, and the ‘vulnerable women and children’. The latter images are often of groups of women and children walking long distances seeking refuge in neighbouring countries, or large groups of women and children waiting for donor assistance (food, medical treatment, etc.) These images perpetuate stereotypes of women’s passivity and helplessness, denying them agency and power in the processes of change.
One of the practical implications of this pervasive imagery is that it can undermine efforts to protect men and boys, failing to show the different kinds of vulnerability they experience (including, for example, kidnappings and forced combat roles). Stereotyping and generalizing about experiences in conflict can also lead to inadequate policy and programming, or to insufficient – or inappropriate - action.
Resolution 1325 – the United Nation’s commitment to recognize and address women’s specific conflict-related vulnerability and the importance of women’s participation in peace processes – underscores how women “are most vulnerable to conflict-related sexual violence” and experience other vulnerabilities. Identifying these vulnerabilities can be a good starting point when they are part of a gender analysis of power relations and when they do not overshadow other roles and experiences women have/can have in conflict and peace processes. The emphasis on women’s vulnerability, as well as assumptions of the impact of increased women’s participation in peace processes, as outlined in Resolution 1325 can have other unintended gender consequences (as Haastrap examines here).
Some of Canada’s previous policies and guiding documents on peace and security have also employed a highly essentialist language with regular use of the language of programs targeted at “vulnerable groups such as women and children”, critiques that are elaborated here.
Targeted efforts to support people in vulnerable situations are central to our defence, security and humanitarian work. The challenge is to strike the right balance between understanding causes and consequences of vulnerability without labeling entire groups as vulnerable. Without consideration of the diverse gendered experiences of people living through – and rebuilding after – conflict, programs will continue to target different groups in distinct ways.
Several strategies to enhance our work on women, peace and security to ensure we address vulnerability through a gender lens are possible.
1. Employing a feminist epistemology foundation: As Emma Swan and I argue here, we must also address “the broad, latent, and pervasive nature of gender inequality from the grassroots through to state institutions and the UN”. A feminist foreign policy that addresses gender and security recognizes the diverse needs and roles of women as well as patterns of gender inequality and the need for strategies to tackle structural changes in power dynamics and gender relations.
Feminist scholarship on security and development is an important starting point for uncovering the complex ways that gender inequality contributes to the particular experiences of women, and to other groups.[i]
2. Bringing in different perspectives, voices and knowledge from community partners: As Beth Woroniuk (2016) argues, we need to shift the way we understand security by bringing in different perspectives including those of “women peacebuilders and gender perspectives to the centre of conflict prevention and response”. For example, efforts to recognize and legitimate the efforts of human rights defenders, including women, are central to reducing conflict and shaping new policy, legal changes and practice. For more on human rights defenders, see this blog post.
Canada’s civil society organizations, such as those actively engaged in the Women, Peace and Security Network Canada (WPSN-C), are playing a central role in shaping the way we address gender inequality in conflict. Their efforts to ensure the voices, perspectives and knowledge of people directly affected by conflict have led to initiatives to increase funding for locally-based or ‘grassroots’ women’s organizations. These women’s organizations can be instrumental in employing culturally-effective and comprehensive strategies to engage community members in gender equality practices.
As these examples demonstrate, there are ways of recognizing the impact of conflict on women, and the opportunities for their participation in peace building, without falling into essentialist language of ‘women as a vulnerable group’. We’ve come a long way in our use of language to define the challenges some people may experience without labeling entire groups or essentializing their experiences. It is essential that we continue to recognize the limitations of terms such as “vulnerable groups” and be more intentional and deliberate in our efforts to represent and include diverse voices and perspectives in peace and conflict work.
[i] See Smith, Heather & Turenne Sjolander. 2012. Canada in the World: Internationalism in Canadian Foreign Policy, Toronto: Oxford University Press; Turenne-Sjolander, Claire, Heather Smith & Deborah Stienstra. 2003. Feminist Perspectives on Canadian Foreign Policy, Toronto: Oxford University Press; Tiessen, Rebecca & Baranyi, Stephen. 2017. Obligations and Omissions Canada’s Ambiguous Actions on Gender Equality. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press; and Woroniuk, Beth and Sarah Tuckey (2015) “Looking Back, Looking Forward”, WPS-C here.