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Letting go of the gender binary: Charting new pathways for humanitarian interventions on gender-based violence

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 May 2015


Increasing acknowledgement in some quarters that women and girls are not the only victims of sexual violence, and that sexual violence is not the only form of gender-based violence (GBV), has yet to be adequately reflected in policy and practice in the humanitarian world.

Sexual violence in armed conflict: A polymorphous reality
Copyright © icrc 2015 

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1 The full title of the IASC 2005 Guidelines is Guidelines for Gender-based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Settings: Focusing on Prevention of and Response to Sexual Violence in Emergencies, September 2005, available at:

2 See the announcement of the second MenEngage Global Symposium, available at: (all internet references were accessed in October 2014).

3 Examples can be found at

4 It can be seen, for example, in the IASC's Gender Equality Policy Statement, which puts “Actively involving boys and men as allies in the promotion of gender equality” as one of its seven principles. See IASC, “Policy Statement: Gender Equality in Humanitarian Action”, 20 June 2008 (Gender Equality Policy Statement), available at:

5 See the webpage; and the video “It's On Us: Sexual Assault PSA”, available at: https://

6 The US Army's published 2012 statistics regarding sexual assault within the military, for example, show that 53% of 26,000 reported cases in that year involved male-on-male assault. What this means for the victims has been reported in depth in popular media; see, for example, Nathaniel Penn, “Son, Men Don't Get Raped”, GQ, undated, available at Stemple's work demonstrates how changing definitions of rape have led to new statistics that fundamentally re-draw the map when it comes to the gendered distribution of sexual assault and sexual violence; see Stemple, Lara and Meyer, Ilan H., “The Sexual Victimization of Men in America: New Data Challenge Old Assumptions”, American Journal of Public Health, Vol. 104, No. 6, June 2014, pp. 1926CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

7 It is not just rhetoric: the US State Department is thus far the first government donor to take seriously the issue of sexual violence against men and boys in conflict settings.

8 IASC 2005 Guidelines, above note 1, p. iii.

9 For humanitarians, the IASC's own 2008 Gender Equality Policy Statement already talked of the need to “ensure women, girls, boys and men have equitable access to and benefit from humanitarian protection and assistance response” (Gender Equality Policy Statement, above note 4, p. 4), but with regard to addressing sexual violence the most important signal of this shift towards including men and boys came with the declaration on preventing sexual violence in conflict adopted by G8 foreign ministers in London on 11 April 2013 and UNSC Res. 2106 of June 2013, which, within a statement on the women, peace and security framework, included men and boys as victims, albeit alongside secondary victims. For more detailed discussion, see Dolan, Chris, “Has Patriarchy Been Stealing the Feminists’ Clothes?”, IDS Bulletin, Vol. 45, No. 1, 2014CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The difference between these earlier statements and Obama's involvement in a 35-second video short a year later is in the level of intentional visibility; whereas UNSC Res. 2106 was a reluctant compromise that most people never heard about, Obama's statement is intended to reach millions.

10 UNHCR, “Age, Gender and Diversity Policy: Working with People and Communities for Equality and Protection”, 2011, available at:

11 My recent experience in some field settings suggests that the roll-out of these policy positions, or perhaps more accurately their internalization by country- and field-level staff, still has quite some way to go. However, having participated in one of the earliest pilots of the AGD mainstreaming approach in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2005, I believe I can safely say that even in its earliest formulations it opened the door to new discussions and dialogues and thereby to important attitudinal change.

12 AGD is defined as referring to “different values, attitudes, cultural perspectives, beliefs, ethnic background, nationality, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, health, social status, skill and other specific personal characteristics”; see UNHCR, above note 10, para. 5.

13 These are race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, and political opinion. See Article 1, on the definition of the term “refugee”, of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

14 UN, “Homophobic and Transphobic Violence”, fact sheet, available at:

15 In 2014, for example, the US government withdrew substantial HIV funding from the Inter-Religious Council in Uganda in reaction to the latter's public support for Uganda's infamous Anti-Homosexuality Bill and Act (2014).

16 The UNHCR should be commended on its Guidelines on International Protection No. 9: Claims to Refugee Status based on Sexual Orientation and/or Gender Identity within the Context of Article 1A(2) of the 1951 Convention and/or its 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, HCR/GIP/12/09, 23 October 2012, available at:; on its Need to Know Guidance Note on “Working with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Persons in Forced Displacement”, 2011; and on the availability of an extensive collection of LGBTI-related policy documentation, at

17 For example in response to the influx of LGBTI asylum seekers from Uganda into Kenya in the wake of the presidential assent to the Anti-Homosexuality Act.

18 For a discussion of the manner in which the Women, Peace and Security architecture arising from UNSC Res. 1325 and subsequent related resolutions have contributed to this discourse, see C. Dolan, above note 9.

19 The IASC was created by UNGA Res. 48/57, A/RES/48/57, 14 December 1993. It comprises nine full members (FAO, OCHA, UNDP, UNHABITAT, UNHCR, UNICEF, WFP, WHO) and nine standing invitees (ICRC, ICVA, IFRC, InterAction, IOM, OHCHR, UNFPA, World Bank, Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response, Office of the Special Representative on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons).

20 Several of the standing invitees are themselves umbrella bodies for a multiplicity of organizations; InterAction, for example, has more than 180 members. See

21 Jeanne Ward, “Revising the 2005 IASC Guidelines for Gender-Based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Settings: Prioritising Accountability”, Humanitarian Exchange, No. 60, February 2014, available at:

22 IASC 2005 Guidelines, above note 1. They also gave rise to a range of derivative related materials, such as the UNFPA's e-learning course on “Managing Gender-Based Violence Programmes in Emergencies”, available on the Global Protection Cluster website at:

23 J. Ward, above note 21.

24 In 2008 the number of people newly displaced by natural disasters was estimated at 36 million, while in 2014 the estimates for internally displaced persons and refugees are above 43 million. See

25 IASC 2005 Guidelines, above note 1, p. 1.

26 Ibid., p. iii, emphasis added.

27 The list of “vulnerable groups” further forecloses consideration of males: “Groups of individuals that are often more vulnerable to sexual violence include, but are not limited to, single females, female-headed households, separated/unaccompanied children, orphans, disabled and/or elderly females.” Ibid., p. 8.

28 Ibid., p. 4.

29 For a fuller discussion of available literature and statistics, see Chris Dolan, “Into the Mainstream: Addressing Sexual Violence against Men and Boys in Conflict”, briefing paper prepared for the workshop held at the Overseas Development Institute, London, 14 May 2014, available at:

30 The organization 1 in 6, for example, provides a number of sources for the statistic that one in six boys in North America experiences sexual abuse; see The British organization Mankind argues that three in twenty men are affected by sexual violence; see

31 See, for example, Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration, “Blind Alleys: The Unseen Struggles of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Urban Refugees in Mexico, Uganda and South Africa”, February 2013, available at:

32 For an important discussion of this, see Carpenter, Charli, “Recognizing Gender-Based Violence Against Civilian Men and Boys in Conflict Situations”, Security Dialogue, Vol. 37, No. 1, 2006, pp. 83–10CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Jones, Adam, “Gendercide and Genocide”, Journal of Genocide Research, Vol. 2, No. 2, 2000, pp. 185211CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

33 For an insider view of how militaries purposively work on men's sense of self, see Lt. Col. Grossman, Dave, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, 2nd ed., Open Road Integrated Media, New York, 2009Google Scholar. See also Belkin, Aaron, Bring Me Men: Military Masculinity and the Benign Façade of American Empire, 1898–2001, Hurst & Co, London, 2012Google Scholar.

34 IASC 2005 Guidelines, above note 1, p. 7.

35 Gender Equality Policy Statement, above note 4, p. 7.

36 Ibid.

37 IASC 2005 Guidelines, above note 1, p. 2.

38 For Rwanda, “it is estimated that between 250,000 and 500,000 [women] survived rape”. For Bosnia and Herzegovina “[i]t is estimated that between 20,000 and 50,000 women were raped during the war”. Ibid., p. 4.

39 The 2005 Guidelines draw on a global figure and apply it unquestioningly to complex emergencies: “At least one in three of the world's female population has been either physically or sexually abused at some time in her life.” Ibid., p. 3.

40 Ibid., p. 4.

41 For further discussion about recent data on sexual assault against men, see C. Dolan, above note 29.

42 If the same logic were applied to landmine victims there would be very little attention to women and girl victims, given that they represent only 15% of direct victims globally.

43 The review process, prompted in part by the fact that “the 2005 Guidelines predate the Humanitarian Reform and Transformative Agenda processes and therefore do not reflect the Cluster System and other changes in humanitarian coordination, leadership, accountability and partnership”, involved “direct dialogue with over 100 individuals representing all regions of the world, all clusters and AoRs [Areas of Responsibility], all crosscutting areas, 26 international NGOs, 11 UN agencies and other entities (e.g. Red Cross/Red Crescent) and five donor agencies. In addition, two surveys were distributed globally in four languages to approximately 160 individuals and organisations and eight interagency distribution lists, which resulted in 428 completed responses.” J. Ward, above note 21.

44 Ibid.

45 Gender Equality Policy Statement, above note 4, p. 7.

46 Ibid., p. 2 (emphasis added).

47 The specific health needs of male victims of sexual violence, for example, include medical personnel with particular attitudinal competencies, as well as specific surgical skills in repairs to rectal and genital damage.

48 It is generally agreed that men and boys constitute 85–90% of landmine victims. See “Why Mainstreaming Gender in Mine Action?”, Gender and Mine Action website, available at: It is important, however, to take the analysis deeper, lest it lead us to the kind of “majoritarian” thinking that has done such a disservice to male victims of sexual violence. Additional questions to be posed in determining whether landmines are a form of GBV might take us back to intention: did those who set the mines intend to target men more than women? Does it matter, if the impacts are felt not just by the direct victims but also – particularly if the victim is the household breadwinner – by their families?

49 These are gender-based forms in the sense that they are informed by gendered assumptions about masculinity and femininity. They are complex in that gender constructs – particularly militarized masculinities – simultaneously craft perpetrators and victims out of the same human being (deliberate de-individuation in boot camps and their equivalent military training processes, coerced participation into acts of extreme violence that are antithetical to the individual's own moral framework, etc.).

50 See above note 27.

51 This itself raises questions about the professionalization and technicization of “gender”: as the issues of GBV, and within that of sexual violence, have gained increasing traction, there has been a corresponding professionalization of the field of “gender”. While this is in principle a good thing, it is also a problem if those professionals have been trained in terms of the unsatisfactory frameworks outlined here. There is also a tension between the need to develop specific expertise on gender issues and the resultant tendency to technicize and compartmentalize what are fundamentally social, cultural, economic and political issues that require profound increases in self-awareness and resultant attitudinal change across the board.

52 IASC 2005 Guidelines, above note 1, p. 2.

53 This is neatly captured as the first of the IASC 2008 Gender Equality Policy Statement's seven principles for achieving gender equality, namely: “Routine collection and reporting of key data by sex and age to allow analysis of the different needs and capacities of women, girls, boys and men of all ages.” Gender Equality Policy Statement, above note 4, p. 7.

54 It will flesh out the implications of the IASC's own argument that gender “refers to the social differences between females and males throughout the life cycle that are learned, and though deeply rooted in every culture, are changeable over time, and have wide variations both within and between cultures.” Ibid. (emphasis added).

55 In many cultures, for example, the vast majority of people expect to marry in their early twenties; the existence of single persons above a certain age on food distribution lists might trigger enquiries into whether their solitary existence was an indicator of prior experiences of GBV that resulted in either stigmatization and exclusion by the community, or depression and withdrawal by the affected person.

56 Ibid., p. 1.

57 It is important to note that the ICRC added a disclaimer to the Gender Equality Policy Statement, arguing that while the “ICRC, standing invitee to the IASC, consistent with its unique mandate to protect and assist all victims of armed conflict, strives to address specifically the needs of women in all its programs”, it “does not have a policy of transforming gender relations in the contexts it works in”. Ibid., p. 1. The need to place such a disclaimer indicates a recognition that it is not easy to separate gender equality from a social change or transformation agenda, and that in the process the commitment to all victims of armed conflict, which is the core of the humanitarian imperative, can easily be compromised.

58 See Sphere Project, Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response, 2011, p. 20, available at: