WHY WOMEN FIRST?
Pity the innocent men
We are outraged when innocent women and children are injured or killed in war zones. Yet the slaughter of civilian men raises nary a complaint
Saturday, February 20, 1999
Special to The Globe and Mail
Vancouver -- In September, 1996, after 14 months rotting in the woods and fields, the victims of the Srebrenica massacre are finally removed. Among the skeletons is "evidence of a people hoping to survive," Associated Press reports: "loose pieces of clothing soiled by a year of rains and snow, ID cards . . . a pair of broken eyeglasses."
The 7,079 dead were victims of Europe's greatest atrocity since the Second World War. They shared two characteristics. They were Muslim. And they were male.
The previous year, 450 Dutch UN troops had stood by as Serb forces under Ratko Mladic occupied the Srebrenica "safe area." Thousands of men were rounded up. Thousands of women and children, along with several hundred men, made it to the UN base at Potocari. Dutch troops watched as Serb soldiers entered the compound and selected women for sexual assault, men for torture and execution. Elsewhere in the safe area, the mass killings of male detainees were already beginning. At least some of the Dutch knew this.
The Dutch troops negotiated with the Serbs to evacuate the women and children to safety. In return, the peacekeepers compiled lists of all males aged 17 to 65 in the UN compound. The Dutch expelled the 239 remaining Muslim meninto the arms of waiting Serb soldiers. Then they left, not even bothering to sound the alarm about the mass executions. All told, David Rohde writes in Endgame (citing Red Cross sources), "nearly 3,000 men were summarily executed" at Srebrenica, and "over 4,000 hunted down like animals."
The following month, the UN again fled the field. The women, children and very old men of another "safe area" --Zepa--were evacuated, leaving about 3,000 "battle-age" men trapped. This time fortune was kinder. Ably led, almost all survived a hazardous trek to Muslim-controlled territory.
Srebrenica's dead returned to the headlines in early 1996, when women from the city stormed Red Cross offices in Tuzla to protest the stalled investigation into the fate of their missing male relatives. "My husband was taken away, my brother too, like all the men," said a young Muslim woman. The women's anguish was plain, and the passage of time had added practical concerns as well: "The younger women have no hope of finding another husband until the death of the first husband has been proved," said a Red Cross official.
Why would UN peacekeepers stand idly by as hapless male victims were carted off to the slaughterhouse? Why would they then expel the remainder to face certain death? Somehow, the Dutch peacekeepers could not "see" the vulnerability of Srebrenica's men. "It was not easy, watching wives and kids taken away from their men," said one Dutch corporal after the massacre. It neatly summarized the prevailing mindset.
In numerous conflicts, men have been exposed to conscription, detention, torture and summary execution. Women and children, despite vulnerabilities of their own, are more likely to receive safe passage through battle lines, as well as effective protection from the UN and other international agencies. Even the men of threatened communities like Srebrenica tend to contribute to the bias, by respecting the ancient edict of "women and children first."
In Canada, the issue of men's gender-specific suffering has been ignored. In March, 1993, the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) introduced changes to the way it adjudicated refugee claims, with a document titled "Guidelines for Women Refugee Claimants Fearing Gender-Related Persecution." The acceptance rate of women as refugees was already higher than that of men. But now Bosnian and Croatian women, along with Somali women threatened with genital mutilation and Chinese women fearing forced sterilization, could claim refugee status on the grounds of a "well-founded fear of persecution" deriving from the "social traditions or cultural norms" that threatened them.
Updating the guidelines in 1996, the board indicated that claims could be made on the basis of being forced into an arranged marriage; or "failing to conform to . . . certain gender-discriminating religious or customary laws," such as those governing "the wearing of make-up, the visibility or length of hair, or the type of clothing a woman chooses to wear."
The revised guidelines were even more resolute in their equation of "gender" with "women." "Gender is an innate characteristic," the board determined, "and, therefore, women may form a particular social group" under the Canada Immigration Act. "Although gender is not specifically enumerated as one of the grounds for establishing . . . refugee status [in the Act], the definition of . . . [a] refugee may properly be interpreted as providing protection for women who demonstrate a well-founded fear of gender-related persecution." A careful reader could discern hints that women usually were not the ones most at risk. "Women frequently claim fear of persecution in common with their male fellow citizens," the IRB noted, "though not necessarily of the same nature or at the same level of vulnerability."
Between 1994 and 1998, the IRB finalized just under 1,500 gender-based claims. Female claims outnumbered male claims by more than 7:1 (1,320 to 178), although the acceptance and rejection rates were roughly equal. The new female-focused IRB initiative was followed by similar moves in the United States and Australia, two other leading sanctuaries for refugees.
This new emphasis on gender-based suffering opened up vital new avenues of analysis and activism: around women's vulnerability to sexual violence, for example. But where is the evidence to show that this overwhelming emphasis on women is warranted? Indeed, the double standard is so deeply embedded that the term "gender" has now come to be used interchangeably with "women." It has yet to be widely acknowledged that men face discrimination that is both systematic and injurious.
For example, the practice of gender-selective military conscription is so widely accepted that we have lost the ability to see it for what it is: namely, perhaps the most ubiquitous, severe and physically destructive act of gender-specific discrimination of all. Why is conscription not considered a "social tradition or cultural norm," capable of harming men every bit as severely as women are harmed by domestic violence, genital mutilation or fundamentalist harassment?
Just as women experience marginalization and physical victimization in subtle ways, economic and social structures also inflict devastating damage on men. Summary detention and execution, the travails of international migrant labourers, eunuchry, hazardous work, abbreviated life expectancy, incarceration and sexual abuse in prisons, alcoholism and drug-addiction, homelessness and suicide all affect men disproportionately.
Just how deeply the double standard is embedded was driven home when I sought to engage the president of the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development (ICHRDD) on the Balkans issue. Edward Broadbent was one of the staunchest supporters of the IRB initiative. I wrote to him in early 1994 to express the concerns I have raised in this article.
I asked that the ICHRDD take the lead in confronting acts of injurious and unwarranted discrimination against males, including acts of political violence such as preventive detention, incarceration and execution. Despite the supposed benefits accruing to their sex, men in a conflict zone may be every bit as exposed and vulnerable as any woman or child--usually a good deal more so. The unspoken assumption, though, is that because they are male, they are complicit in their own victimization.
On Nov. 8, 1994, I received a three-sentence response signed by Mr. Broadbent's assistant, who thanked me for my "reflections on the term 'gender.' " My letter, although "very interesting," concerned itself with issues that were "not part of our mandate." Eight months later came Srebrenica. The following year, the ICHRDD founded an international Coalition on Women's Human Rights in Conflict Situations.
Last November, right-wing militias in Colombia, "using chainsaws on some of their victims, killed 11 peasants and kidnapped 13 others, accusing them of collaborating with leftist guerrillas," according to an Associated Press report. Ten of the 11 peasants were men. The 11th was a young woman who was kiled by militiamen seeking her husband.
These ghastly events occurred in Antioquia, the most violent province in the most atrocity-ridden country on earth. "In this macho society," wrote Ken Dermota in The Globe and Mail, "women are protected and only the men are murdered, leaving about a thousand widows in the region." Again the IRB's pontifications on "social traditions" and "cultural norms" leapt to mind.
Later in November, Mr. Broadbent and the current chairman of the ICHRDD, Warren Allmand, addressed a conference in Edmonton on "Universal Rights and Human Values," commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
With much fanfare, participants drafted "The Edmonton Resolution: A Blueprint for Peace, Justice, and Freedom." The resolution called "upon all states to promote and protect the human rights of all citizens, and especially those of women [and] girl children."
Adam Jones is completing his PhD in political science at the University of British Columbia. Supplementary materials are available on his website, http://www.interchange.ubc.ca/adamj
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