Elisabeth Olivius, Umeå University
My article in the current issue of IFJP (18:2) is a part of my doctoral dissertation, which I defended at Umeå University in December 2014. In my dissertation I analyzed how, and with what effects, gender equality norms are constructed, interpreted, and applied in the global governance of refugees. Thus, I was interested in how the idea of gender equality is given meaning and used as a governing tool in this field, and in the power relations that are produced as a result. This aim was primarily pursued through a case study of humanitarian aid practices in refugee camps in Bangladesh and Thailand, and I conducted a total of 58 interviews with humanitarian aid workers as a part of my dissertation research. In this article, however, I also analyze two of the most central international humanitarian policy texts on gender. The combination of policy texts and case studies makes it possible to identify patterns in how the meaning of gender equality is constructed in humanitarian aid as a field of global governance, and examine how international policy discourses are taken up in humanitarian field practices.
The analysis presented in this article focuses on two research questions:
- First, how is gender equality represented as a policy goal in humanitarian aid to refugees? In other words, what does it mean to promote gender equality in refugee situations?
- Second, which subject positions are constituted through the representations of gender equality that currently inform the global governance of refugees?
To answer the second research question I examined how three categories of people were described in the material: refugee women, refugee men, and humanitarian workers.
In the article, I identify two main representations of the meaning of gender equality in humanitarian aid to refugees. The first representation conceives of gender equality as synonymous with women’s participation. Refugee women are represented as strategic partners in the delivery of humanitarian aid by virtue of the reproductive roles they are assumed to perform, and harnessing refugee women’s specific contributions through increasing their participation is represented as essential to humanitarian aid effectiveness. By contrast, refugee men are represented as unreliable and problematic. Humanitarian workers are constructed as rational administrators, working to make gender differences useful.
Moreover, gender equality is also represented as a project of development, involving the transformation of “traditional” refugee communities into modern societies. Gender inequality is constructed as an expression of underdevelopment, to be remedied by the introduction of international human rights norms. The promotion of gender equality is thereby not only seen as essential to the immediate delivery of aid or the protection of women’s rights in the short term, but as an aspect of the reconstruction of more developed, peaceful, and stable societies in the long term. Refugee women are represented as victims of “backward” cultures in need of protection from humanitarian workers, cast in the role as saviors, while refugee men are represented as perpetrators of “uncivilized” masculinities in need of reform.
What I find problematic about both of these representations is that the promotion of gender equality in refugee situations is constructed as something that is done for refugees by humanitarian aid organizations. Thus, the agency of refugees themselves is marginalized, and power hierarchies between humanitarians and refugees, and between western and non-western peoples, are reproduced. However, this does not mean that attempts to promote gender equality in refugee situations are not relevant or desirable: rather, precisely because such attempts are important and hold potential to destabilize unequal relations of power, it is essential to examine the ways in which gender equality projects may entrench and reproduce forms of domination and marginalization despite their good intentions.
Working on this research project gave me several ideas about new directions for my research. One theme that I became more interested in as I wrote this article is how refugee men are represented and approached in humanitarian efforts to promote gender equality. The emerging trend towards increased attention to men and masculinities in humanitarian gender policy and practice is arguably part of a broader shift in this direction, and I wanted to explore what the implications of this shift might be. This analysis (which can be found here) built on and extended the examination of how refugee men were represented in my IFJP article. I found that three main representations of the role of refugee men in relation to the promotion of gender equality could be detected in my existing interview material combined with a new and broader set of humanitarian policy documents on gender.
As I had already noted when writing the IFJP article, refugee men are represented as perpetrators of violence and discrimination against refugee women, notably because they belong to “backward” cultures. However, I also identified two other ways in which refugee men and their role were described. First, refugee men are also represented as gatekeepers who, as power holders and decision makers in their families and communities, can both obstruct and enable change towards gender equality. It is therefore seen as essential to convince men to be partners and allies in the struggle for gender equality.
Secondly, I found that refugee men are represented as emasculated troublemakers. The inability of refugee men to perform masculine roles as providers and protectors in a refugee situation, in combination with aid agencies’ efforts to empower women, is said to leave men disempowered, emasculated, frustrated and bored. Male violence against women, alcohol abuse and criminality is represented as consequences of this situation, and gender equality policies that better respond to the needs of men is offered as the solution.
While consciously conceptualizing and addressing men and masculinities is no doubt necessary for the pursuit of more equitable gender relations in refugee situations as well as in other contexts, these ways of representing refugee men are problematic in ways which severely limit their usefulness to a project of gender equality and liberation: refugee men’s masculinities are pathologized through a representation of refugee communities as primitive; the power relations constitutive of gender differences are obscured; and the representation of refugee men as emasculated is frequently used to make an anti-feminist argument against the empowerment of women.
Another idea for further research that emerged from my dissertation project is to explore how refugee women themselves conceive of and work to achieve gender equality. While my dissertation project took the ideas and practices of external humanitarian actors as its focus, I came across local women’s organizations particularly in the Thai refugee camps who had been working for women’s rights and social justice long before the arrival of many humanitarian organizations. Thus, I became interested in knowing more about how these organizations defined their goals and how their struggles intersected, and possibly clashed, with the agendas of international donors, UN agencies and NGOs.
Fortunately I will get the opportunity to delve into these exciting questions in the coming years, thanks to a research grant from the Swedish Research Council (grant no 2015-01756). This new project focuses on how women’s organizations representing women from ethnic minorities who have fled from Myanmar/Burma, such as those I encountered in the refugee camps in Thailand, engage with and seek to influence conflict transformation, democratization and peacebuilding in their homeland. The aim is to examine how the activism of these organizations seek to shape the building of a new, post-conflict society, and how they navigate their relationships to other actors ranging from ethno-nationalist movements to international advocacy networks and donors. Hopefully this project will generate interesting insights into how women in exile organize and act politically, and how their activism contributes to reshape conceptions of gender, ethnicity, and nation.