Empowerment: Women & Gender Issues: Definitions & Conceptual Issues
This section presents definitions for the main concepts related to:
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.
[Back to Top] 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.
[Back to Top] 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
[Back to Top] 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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Go to A short history of a gender approach to peacebuilding
[Back to Top] 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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The role of men and women in genderAll 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 equitySome 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 empowermentSome 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 strongWomen 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.
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).
27. ICRC, Study on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Women, 12.