An Extended Gender Lens

There is no doubt, violence against women and girls is a global epidemic. It is estimated that 70% of the trafficking victims are female and that every third women has experienced physical or sexual violence[i]. The unproportioned risk women have to bear in fragile countries makes gender inequality a major obstacle to sustainable peace and inclusive development. This being said, it is important to systematically reflect on the implications of a gender lens in general and a focus on women and girls in particular. By nature, focussing on one issue means to depreciate another one. With the development sector suffering from a chronic lack of financial resources, it is crucial to get the priorities straight. Therefore, the following chapter looks at what lies behind and beyond the gender lens. The goal is not to challenge a gender focus but to expand it. The argument is not that a gender perspective is not useful but that it is limited. Or to put it frankly, a simple gender lens may not be the best way to overcome gender inequality and mitigate the risk to gender-based violence (GBV).



There is a big difference between the empirical argument that women are more vulnerable to many forms of GBV and the assumption that women are logically more vulnerable to GBV as a whole. Unfortunately, this distinction is not always clearly uphold. Many policies, position papers and reports likewise tend to create a stereotypical image of women as both the most vulnerable in a disaster setting and the most trustworthy. Such a generalization can be counter productive. The argument here is not that women are untrustworthy or not vulnerably but only that the stereotypical generalization of these attributes can hamper the effectiveness of GBV programming. 

Because neither women nor men are a default-at-risk-group, gender should always be understood in its relation to other identity markers, such as class, ethnicity or age. In regard to women, this means that they always hold multiple identities and cannot be understood as a homogenous group. Paramount to the meaningfulness of aid services is not the gender people hold but how this gender is experienced by the beneficiaries. Because the very core of gender is that it is always socially constructed and not biologically given, we need to acknowledge that the social construction of gender is context-specific and hard to be put in a fixed form. 

What does this mean in practical terms? First of all, it means that assessments, monitoring tools and evaluations are not simply gender sensitive once a question about the sex is included and data disaggregated. To be gender sensitive means to grasp the social effect of gender by understanding how it interrelates to other drivers of marginalization. More concrete, any assessments should add emphasis on how gender relates to other markers. They should at least include age, ethnicity, place of residence, socio-economic position and disability. Especially the last one is crucial in countries like CAR where the number of disabled people is staggering and their risk to GBV much higher. The Spotlight Initiative revealed that women with disabilities are 10 times more likely to experience violence.[ii] Other intersecting drivers of GBV, however, are still excluded from the Barometer. 

Similarly, ethnicity, for example, is often not part of gender sensitive assessments. Since most fragile countries are multicultural and suffering from conflicts that are partly driven by ethnic tensions, ethnicity is as important to gender as the biological sex. This remains true in more stable countries. For example, the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, demonstrated that the impact upon women differed substantially on the basis of their caste[iii]. Because assistance had mainly to go through the high-caste Hindu dominated government and low-caste women lived in more unsafe areas, the security risks among women was unevenly distributed. This does not mean that “women” as a category should be questioned but only that it is not genuinely more important to GBV then ethnicity, age, disability, socio-economic status or place of living.  



On a conceptual level, it is important to remember that gender is not a binary category but that people may identify neither as women nor as men. The binary concept of gender is problematic because it, despite stressing social differences and power relations, remains logically linked to the biological sex. Because of this, some development actors have gone beyond a narrowed gender perspective and have started to include the concept of LGBT into their work.[iv] Even though this step seems useful to go beyond the naturalization of gendered power relations along the two biological sexes, there are a number of problems that should be kept in mind. First of all, LGBT is a Western category and puts emphasis on the sexual orientation. A number of studies, however, revealed that such an identity does not always correspond to people with fluid gender identities in developing countries where, for example, social roles and responsibilities within the family hold paramount importance.[v] Instead of adding just another fixed gender category into assessments and reports, it may be more useful to take a step back and focus on the social position of people within the wider society. 

This is well illustrated by the Aravanis and their plight during the 2004 Tsunami in India[vi]. Unofficial numbers suggest that up to 200’000 Aravanis live in Tamil Nadu, a region heavily affected by the 2004 Tsunami in the Indian Ocean. Aravanis hold unique gender identities and social positions which cannot appropriately be grasped with predominant gender categories. They are often abandoned by their families, pushed into extreme poverty and highly vulnerable to sexual abuse. Due to their marginalization, they were systematically excluded from relief assistance and compensation schemes during the aftermath of the tsunami. Even though most NGO’s did not deliberatively hold back assistance, Aravanis were excluded due to social barriers, such as stigma. Moreover, settlements along caste-lines posed a safety risk to Aravanis and exposed them to further forms of harassments. This example shows well that fluid gender identities need to be understood in their socio-cultural context. Aravanis can hardly be categorized as LGBT because their vulnerabilities are linked to the local norms and institutions, such as the caste-system, and do not necessarily correspond with the difficulties LGBT’s face in other parts of the world. Breaking up the narrowed perspective of a fixed gender lens by emphasizing the overall position of Aravanis and their predominant roles in the Indian society allows development actors to assess gendered vulnerabilities in a more comprehensive manner. This should be considered relevant in all disasters, as the case of the Aravanis is no exception. Similar issues have emerged regarding the Fakeleiti of Tonga, the Bakla of the Philippines or the Waria in Indonesia.

Although mainstreaming gender allows us to become more sensitive towards GBV and VAWG, it tends to standardize the interpretation of vulnerabilities. Instead of categorizing beneficiaries on the basis of their gender identity, it could also be useful to have a stronger emphasis on the actual social roles. Doing so would have clear-cut practical implications. For example, every need assessment could have a section about the distribution of responsibilities within the family and the community. Not measuring the social roles means to generally assume that women always bear the same responsibilities. For example, the access and control over household resources does not steam from the gender itself but from the gendered distribution of social roles. Because men are often the family’s income generator, they often hold the decision-making power over the financial resources. The point here is, however, that the power does not come from the gender alone but from the specific roles. And while there are clearly global patterns, an assessment should be open to grasp the local realities of such roles. 


Following the SDG 5.1, the international community is committed to “end all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere” until 2030. At the same time, the SDG agenda emphasizes the importance of cultural diversity which was praised by UNESCO as an “unparalleled recognition”.[vii] Mainstreaming cultural diversity makes sense as it forces development actors to go beyond blueprints and base programmes on local realities. But what to do when cultural practises, for example of indigenous peoples, reinforce gender inequalities? What if traditional ways of dwelling increase the risk of women to sexual violence? Although there are no straight forward answers to such questions, it is important that we are conscious and explicit about friction points within the SDG agenda. 

First of all, it is important to acknowledge that the way people think and act cannot simply be changed by imposing new forms of living. If the history of development reveals one insight, then it is the realization that assistance is ineffective if it is not based on local realities. This is a simple and empirical argument which does not say anything about the importance of gender equality. However, as the developed world has experienced decades of emancipatory struggles and started to institutionalize the value of gender equality in the course of at least the last 70 years, fragile countries have not gone through the same historical process. GBV programming, therefore, should always be based on the recognition that people interpret gender relations differently than we do. Or in other words, programming needs to be informed by how people genuinely perceive different genders and not by how they should perceive it. 

More practically, GBV prevention programming can become more effective if the function of gender inequality in a given community is made explicit. It can appear odd to talk about the function, purpose or outcome of inequality. But the reluctance to talk about it may compromise the attempt to overcome it. Assistance that aims to equalize gender relations should be able to cover the outcome which uneven power relations generate. Policies and position papers are often outspoken about the necessity to shift gender roles and challenge stereotypes without clarifying why those even exist in the first place. Transforming norms and beliefs which disadvantage women is important. But if we want to do this sustainably, then we need to provide assistance that can cover what they provide. Or to put it simple with an example: if people are trafficking their daughters because they need the money, then we cannot combat trafficking simply through awareness raising which aims to transform gender-relevant norms but need to supplement it by economic support that dissolves the underlying purpose of trafficking.

Another illustrative example is the issue of forced marriages in South Sudan [viii]. A study in South Sudan revealed how the underlying function of forced marriages often goes unrecognized which limits the effectiveness of development interventions. As the economy has collapsed due to the protracted crisis, forced marriages are often informed by the need for bride wealth. While mitigating the risk for forced marriages would, therefore, lie in the provision of a stable income for impoverished families, the international community tends to emphasize war-related GBV and widely excludes the economic dimension of the problem. This example shows that GBV in conflict affected areas is not always war-related but can be informed by clear-cut needs, such as the necessity of families to sustain themselves economically. Looking at harmful practises and norms in terms of their function allows us to change them by covering the purpose those practises fulfil. 

Given the dilemma between equality and culture and the fact that social change needs to evolve through locally owned progress, the emphasis should not lie in establishing new gender relations but promoting and supporting local people to build up gender relations by themselves. The balance lies in finding a way to empower women without disturbing local relations and practises up to the extend that women are exposed to the risk of backlashes. By working closely together with the local civil society, change towards equal gender relations can become sustainable.