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Let’s talk about ‘women’s issues’

Let’s talk about ‘women’s issues’
Photo: Flickr / UNIS Vienna.
Emma Bjertén-Günther

Today is International Men’s Day – a day that was first initiated by labour movements to protest against men’s working conditions. Later, in 1910, the event was recast as a day to support men’s universal right to vote and since then it has been used to celebrate men’s rights, protest wars, demonstrate against increased food prices, and more generally to promote men’s empowerment and equal rights around the world. It was not until 1975 – the start of the so-called United Nations Decade for Men – that the UN as an institution began to celebrate International Men’s Day on 8 March. 

Over history, the day has been used to – both – celebrate men’s rights and discuss related challenges. International Men’s Day also sheds light on men as a united group, which reminds us of how rare it is that women are addressed as a monolithic group.

In the fields of peace and security, development and humanitarian aid discussions on gender that present men as a homogeneous community are problematic.  Men are not just one homogenous group that think the same, act the same and have the same needs. Men are a diverse group, so the one-size-fits-all approaches are not a very helpful approach for contributing to sustainable development or peace.


Say what?

Some of you might wonder what I am writing about. 8 March is International Women’s Day, isn’t it? Yes, it is. I replaced ‘women’ with ‘men’ in order to illustrate an example on what it would mean if women were the norm instead of the exception.

This week, 5-7 March, the World Bank hosted the Fragility Forum in Washington, DC. Even though, more broadly, gender is often still associated with women’s empowerment, several sessions spoke to the importance of understanding men and masculinity to address the root causes of women’s limited participation in development and peacebuilding.  In discussions on the report ‘Pathways for Peace; Inclusive Approaches to Preventing Violent Conflict’, jointly launched by the World Bank and the United Nations, it was highlighted that in order to increase our understanding of how exclusion is being understood we need to know more about specific dynamics of exclusion, narratives and perceptions.

An unhelpful and common misconception is that  ‘gender’ is synonymous with ‘women’ rather than relationships between different genders.  Conversations about gender still rarely include men and people who do not fit expected gender norms. This reproduces the idea of men and masculinities as the default rather than as one of several genders.

So, what we have is a normative practice—where men are the ‘rule’ and women are the ‘exception’. This has consequences in the framing and implementation of peace and development policies. For example, the Report of the High-level Independent Panel on United Nations Peace Operations  (HIPPO) demonstrated that instead of integrating and mainstreaming a gender perspective in the organization, gender often was assigned to staff in gender units, as an ‘add on’. The report also emphasized that one of the challenges in implementing UNSCR 1325 on Women Peace and Security was that the (WPS) Agenda is mostly seen as a ‘women’s issue’. Ironic, isn’t it, that I’m addressing a gender issue on a day like International Women’s Day.

This narrow understanding of gender is often reflected in research and in how programs are designed. In a previous blog post, SIPRI has noted how gender programming often equals ‘having a woman’s focus group’ rather than applying a comprehensive approach to investigating the power relations between different gendered groups. Understanding this is crucial in order to reveal and challenge violent masculine norms intertwined with social power structures.


So, what are ‘Women’s issues’?

If there is such a strong notion that gender means ‘women’s issues’, how is the term understood and what is it meant to include? In a recent study by SIPRI on the gendered impacts on political processes, 14 of the reviewed research articles referred to women’s issues. The definition of ‘women’s issues’ varied but included women's sexual and reproductive health, child-care leave, domestic violence, ‘equal pay for equal work’, marital law, welfare policies and education. In several cases, women’s issues were defined as women’s struggles for the achievement of equal rights and privileges. Since women are often subordinate to men in societies, it might seem logical that gender equality is in women’s interests, but there are several reasons this assumption is counterproductive.

It creates a division between ‘women’s issues’ and ‘other issues’, reinforcing a false male–female binary where issues seen to be important to women are not also seen as important to other gender groups, including men. This reproduces gendered stereotypes which essentialise how women and men are (or should be) and what women and men do (or should do). These stereotypes may not reflect reality and run contrary to the idea that human beings should have equal opportunities.

Researchers and organizations like Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) rightly argue that, ‘all issues are women’s issues’. Other women’s organizations have noted that when their members are invited to briefings at the UN, they tend only to be asked to address security issues and analysis that are seen to concern women as if these aspects are easily distinguishable and differentiated from overall security concerns.


Women do not operate in a vacuum – neither should gender research

Policy discussions on women’s increased participation in relation to the WPS Agenda often seem to be characterized by an underlying assumption that women operate in a vacuum, and that adding more women to a process or institution would inevitably change its political outcome. But research shows it is not that simple. For example, a study by Anne Marie Goetz explores the common myth that women – due to tropes of their higher moral nature – would be less corrupt than men. This study shows that it is actually the gendered nature of access to politics and public life that shapes opportunities for corruption. In that case, how can the claim be made that women are more moral, or ethical?

When women participate in male dominated organizations and structures they usually have to adapt or relate to their cultures. Despite ‘participating’, women and other marginalized groups frequently face discrimination that hinders their access to certain rooms, respect for their voice and ultimately substantive influence in decision-making. Since adding more women to the peace table does not necessarily ensure influential impact, these researchers call for a greater focus on making women’s participation count instead of counting women. This requires a more nuanced and locally informed understanding of spaces of peacebuilding and development. Less is known about how men and others relate to male-dominant structures in the context of peace and conflict.


Time to focus on men and masculinities: exclusive processes in male-dominated spaces

Some studies focus on male dominance and its impact on organizational culture in order to better understand the political and security challenges faced by women and marginalized groups. Researchers like Elin Bjarnegård, Carol CohnCynthia Enloe and Annica Kronsell illustrate how existing gender dynamics reproduce male-dominated organizational cultures in International Relations. Due to the exclusionary nature, these cultural contexts systematically limit women’s participation.

If policymakers are serious about applying an inclusive approach to peacebuilding and development, they must shift the focus to study the majority and increase our understanding of how different gender groups operate in male-dominant contexts. It is important to move beyond the commonplace perception of gender as ‘women’s issues’. Researchers and civil society have been arguing for a comprehensive approach to gender in analysis, policy and implementation – it’s time policymakers and implementing agencies take this on board.


Emma Bjertén-Günther is a Researcher within the SIPRI Peace and Development Programme.