#WPSAdvice: Women, Peace and Security: Beyond A Vulnerability Lens

By Rebecca Tiessen

Rebecca Tiessen is a Professor in the School of International Development and Global Studies at the University of Ottawa. You can read more about her work on her website or follow her commentaries on Twitter @rebeccatiessen

Each year I have the opportunity to participate on a panel and talk to members of Canadian and other national military officers about ‘vulnerable groups’. The panel focuses on a range of issues that affect people in vulnerable situations including child soldiers, women and girls, etc. I always start this presentation by stating that I do not consider women a vulnerable group, nor do I use the language of ‘vulnerable groups’, preferring instead the language of ‘people in (temporary) situations of vulnerability’.  Women – like all people – have diverse experiences, depending on a range of societal, cultural, economic and political factors and these experiences change over time. Categorizing women as ‘a vulnerable group’ is both inaccurate and potentially harmful.

The problem with categorizing ‘women as vulnerable group’ is explained well by Charli Carpenter who critically examines how ‘‘women make better symbolic victims, especially in wartime, precisely because they—either as bystanders or as mothers of helpless children—can be seen as innocent.’’

The symbolism of vulnerability serves a particular purpose for media representations of conflicts. Three common images pervade the widespread media focus on the impact of conflict and war: the destruction of infrastructure, soldiers in action, and the ‘vulnerable women and children’. The latter images are often of groups of women and children walking long distances seeking refuge in neighbouring countries, or large groups of women and children waiting for donor assistance (food, medical treatment, etc.) These images perpetuate stereotypes of women’s passivity and helplessness, denying them agency and power in the processes of change.

One of the practical implications of this pervasive imagery is that it can undermine efforts to protect men and boys, failing to show the different kinds of vulnerability they experience (including, for example, kidnappings and forced combat roles). 

Stereotyping and generalizing about experiences in conflict can also lead to inadequate policy and programming, or to insufficient – or inappropriate – action.

Resolution 1325 – the United Nation’s commitment to recognize and address women’s specific conflict-related vulnerability and the importance of women’s participation in peace processes – underscores how women “are most vulnerable to conflict-related sexual violence” and experience other vulnerabilities. Identifying these vulnerabilities can be a good starting point when they are part of a gender analysis of power relations and when they do not overshadow other roles and experiences women have/can have in conflict and peace processes. The emphasis on women’s vulnerability, as well as assumptions of the impact of increased women’s participation in peace processes, as outlined in Resolution 1325, can have other unintended gender consequences (as Haastrap examines here).

Some of Canada’s previous policies and guiding documents on peace and security have also employed a highly essentialist language with regular use of the language of programs targeted at “vulnerable groups such as women and children”, critiques that are elaborated here.

Targeted efforts to support people in vulnerable situations are central to our defence, security, development and humanitarian work. The challenge is to strike the right balance between understanding causes and consequences of vulnerability without labeling entire groups as vulnerable. Without consideration of the diverse gendered experiences of people living through – and rebuilding after – conflict, programs will continue to target different groups in insufficient ways. 

Several strategies to enhance our work on women, peace and security – and to ensure we address vulnerability through an intersectional gender lens – are possible. Actions for future consideration include:

  1. Maintain a simultaneous focus on the needs, interests and voices of people experiencing vulnerability and the complex systems of inequality that perpetuate experiences of vulnerability. To do this, we must explicitly state the structural barriers to women’s safety and security, emphasizing the patriarchal norms and practices that cause inequality and vulnerability.  Emma Swan and I elaborate on this here with additional insights available from feminist scholarship.
  2. Connect with women’s rights organizations who understand the local context and the avenues for tackling the structural barriers to gender equality.  Putting women’s voices and knowledge at the centre of our commitments is crucial and the reasons for doing so are elaborated here.
  3. Learn with and from the human rights defenders who have knowledge about the risks and opportunities for peacebuilding in their local contexts. You can find more information here. 
  4. Collaborate with – and support – Canada’s civil society organizations, such as those actively engaged in the Women, Peace and Security Network Canada (WPSN-C), who have built strong relationships with local women’s rights organizations, and who can inform the policies and programs because of their immense knowledge on peace and security.
  5. Be more intentional and deliberate in the language we use to describe our work to promote gender equality in women, peace and security. Framing women as a ‘vulnerable group’ denies women their agency, and minimizes or erases their important roles as change agents in their own societies. 

Please note that the views in these blog posts are those of the authors and may not represent the views of all members of the WPSN-C.