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The other half of gender: Are humanitarians blind to the vulnerabilities of male refugees?

Thea Hilhorst

By Thea Hilhorst on 20 May 2016.

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In 1949, Simone de Beauvoir wrote that one is not born a woman (or man) but becomes a woman (or man) by upbringing and society’s differentiated space for men and women. Nearly 70 years later, when it comes to refugees, it is unfortunately still all too relevant. Perceptions of the social roles of men and women play a decisive, if not reductionist role in the way non-Islamic politicians and media deal with refugees from the Syria crisis.

In short, women symbolise innocence and deserve our compassion. Men, on the other hand, depict danger. They are a danger to their own women, who they beat, oppress or rape. And they are a danger to society, as they are associated with violence, or even terrorism. When people depict refugees as a ‘terrorist threat’, without being explicit, they are invariably referring to the male refugee.


As Heather Crawley of Coventry University told me, male refugees are increasingly seen as a dangerous and criminal ‘other’. In reality, however, the vast majority of men have run away from violence and violent groups, and are also vulnerable victims seeking refuge.

Having just completed research on refugee responses in Greece, Lebanon and Turkey, I have come to fear that humanitarian aid is similarly caught up in gender-stereotyping. There seems a complete blindness for what Maria Correia and Ian Bannon called ‘the other half of gender’, i.e. men.

While the concept of gender stands for the social roles of, and the relationships between, men and women, in the practice of humanitarian aid, gender almost always means women. Women are seen in the humanitarian sector as a vulnerable category of people. Even to the extent that we are presented with womenandchild, as if it’s one word, one amorphous category of vulnerable people. This is not necessarily positive for women either. Equating women with children, renders them as an object of care, not a social actor with agency to be taken seriously.

Psycho-social assistance often exclusively focuses on women as victims of violence. Men could be forcibly recruited, tortured, molested, shot or castrated, but their involvement in psycho-social support projects are rare. When these projects reach out to men, it is usually to engage them for the cause of women and make the advocates to stop violence against women. During my research I have seen numerous social projects for refugees, and I have not encountered a single exception: all projects are for women only.

Women are also seen as more reliable, and hence a better investment than men. There are fantastic and necessary projects that help women refugees advance economically. Many women are given the chance to start a small business. In cash transfers, women are also seen as the better recipient. One of the organisations I interviewed had a strongly gendered policy. “We provide women-headed households with direct cash transfers. When there is a man at the head of the family, we pay the rent directly, but we do not give cash. Men spend money on cigarettes and we have even had cases where men used the money to spend money on a new young bride to his household.” I have no reason to doubt this statement, but I am concerned in the lack of confidence in refugees has become too generalised and leads to denial of male suffering and vulnerability.

Let’s think about the dangers of this stereotyping for male refugees. A recent study has showed how especially young men may find themselves in a terribly difficult position. Men are expected to earn income. Yet in Lebanon, refugees are not allowed to work legally; in Turkey it has recently become possible to enter the labour market, but many employees prefer to hire refugees in informal jobs; and in Jordan there are no legal restrictions to work, yet there is very little employment. While many men manage to get involved in wage-earning, a substantial group of men sit idle at home: vulnerable and desperate.

It is only now, five years into the Syria Crisis, that organisations are starting to open up and recognise male gender-based vulnerabilities. The International Rescue Committee, who conducted the research,  is one of the organisations reconsidering its gender policies, and carefully starts experimenting with socio-economic projects for men.

Male-female relations among refugees is a complex and unsettling topic, and studying the unintended effects of organisations’ attention to women leads, in the words of Maria Erikson Baaz and Maria Stern, to a ‘method of unease’. Many refugee women are abandoned or mistreated, and too many men play into the vulnerability of refugees to marry young girls. Abuse should be addressed. However, this should not lead to lumping all men together and massively cast them aside from the humanitarian gaze. There are countless male refugees who are vulnerable, reject violence, and are sincere in their intention to protect their loved ones. It is time to put the spotlight on our gender-biases.

The World Humanitarian Summit takes a core responsibility to bring about ‘safe, healthy and dignified lives for women and girls’. Let the WHS be where we also recognise the suffering of male refugees and bring about gender-based male problems to the surface.

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Anthony Land

Anthony Land (Fordham University) 23 May 2016, 17:40

You cannot imagine how happy I am to read the opinions you express in your blog. I began thinking along these lines while working with refugees in Pakistan and each situation I worked in during the following 20 years only served to strengthen my belief that "gender" was, and is, detrimentally gender biased. Having tried to discuss this with a number of gender specialists and having experienced varying levels of rebuff, I realised that in this my own gender was an impediment. I needed to be patient and wait for a woman to raise and champion this important issue.

I am sure that you will have your ideas challenged by some. I would like to assure you of my wholehearted support and congratulate you on raising what will inevitably be a controversial issue. I look forward to reading further entries on your blog, I will share it widely and, when the opportunity arises, contribute myself.
Anthony Land, Senior Fellow, Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs, Fordham University.

Christine Knudsen

Christine Knudsen (Sphere Project) 27 May 2016, 08:24

Thea--thanks for this commentary and drawing attention to the important research being done. The oversimplification of gender concepts does no good to either men or women, nor society as a whole. I didn't see the issue raised at WHS, hoping we can continue the dialogue and influence in the refugee/migration summits more over the coming months leading to September. Thanks for the work.

Anu Pillay

Anu Pillay (UN Women) 2 June 2016, 09:37

It is indeed unfortunate that gender is often reduced to an activity that addresses a practical need for women and /or girls (like nutrition for lactating mothers, or higher enrolment of girls in school). This is detrimental to addressing strategic gender needs that arise from unequal power relations based on gender and broader intersections of gender with race, ethnicity and so forth.

We must also be mindful of swinging the pendulum so hard to the other side that it dilutes the fact that while men and boys are also negatively affected, they are still in a power preferential role and the impact is vastly different to the everyday experience of women and girls under patriarchal systems of domination. For example in some countries, a raped woman is killed while a raped man is merely humiliated. The balance of focus needs to be maintained through proper gender analysis of every situation rather than working off assumptions that could be harmful to both women and men.

Tess Dico-Young

Tess Dico-Young (Oxfam) 9 June 2016, 12:40

We need to institutionalise gender analysis as the bedrock of finding out the gendered impact of the crisis and factoring in the inclusion context. Through the gender contextual analysis the affected women, girls, boys and men are able to express their needs, capacities and aspirations; instead of us having pre-set selection of responses. Through this evidence base information we and together with the affected women, girls, boys and men we are able to identify appropriate interventions. However, we must take into account the fact that women and girls are generally more vulnerable due to pre-existing inequalities.

Heather Cole

Heather Cole (Consultant) 17 June 2016, 06:57

In my experience, humanitarian programming supporting women is not based in 'rendering them as objects of care'; rather, it is about recognising their agency and their capacity for social action, and recognising that their spaces to act are severely constrained by social norms, structural gendered power dynamics, and by associated gendered violence, including the threat and reality of sexual violence.

Socio-economic programming with women is grounded in women's agency and capacity, and is intended to support them in increasing their spaces to act. For example, women face specific threats in public spaces, including when they are employed. Women also face specific risks within their families. Sexual exploitation and abuse is very much enabled by women's reduced access to education, employment and resources, including within their marriages (see the International Rescue Committee's previous research "Private Violence, Public Concern"). Increasing women's access to, and control over, resources and their social assets, is critical as a preventative measure to help to address sexual abuse and exploitation, and domestic violence.

Talking about women and their children is equally not about equating women with children, but rather recognising the realities that women carry the primary burden and responsibility of care for children, even as they do not have social authority. There is a strong evidence base that one of the most effective ways to improve child protection is to support their mothers, socially and economically.

I think it is unhelpful to suggest a conflation between the current stereotypical media representations of refugees with the approaches and programme design priorities of donors and of NGOs. Being a refugee is a horrific experience, and without question, anyone in that position has by definition experiences of fear, trauma, disempowerment, and marginalisation. Recognising that the inequalities of gender present in all social groups mean women and girls are exposed to specific and on-going violence, reinforced by their economic and social dependency on men, is not a disavowal of men's experiences. At the same time, not recognising differential gendered power, and not programming to mitigate that, would be a dereliction of our commitment to protection and to doing no harm.

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