The Relevance of Gender to Our Understanding of War Refugees

Tuesday, June 12, 2012
Sweta Kannan

‘Gender matters. To incorporate gender in migration research is not to “privilege” it but to accord to it the explanatory power it merits'[1]

Gender is an issue that has been noticeably on the agenda of refugee support organisations like the United Nations High Commission for Refugees since the 1970s. With feminists pushing for change within the structures of these organisations and the modification of their focuses to include issues of gender, governmental and non-governmental organisations soon found the issue of ‘gender' and ‘gender equality' one that required much attention – as well as one that would often be overshadowed by issues that were deemed more ‘important' or ‘pressing'. Due to the nature of the topic – large numbers of refugees fleeing from war zones or zones of ongoing conflict – it is not surprising that much of the work within the academic field of Refugee and Migration Studies has thus been preoccupied with notions of immediate survival among refugees – much attention has therefore been given to issues such as food, water, shelter and increasingly, human security. These examinations, however, tend to either neglect the issue of gender completely, or render a misguided understanding of ‘gender' as synonymous to ‘women'; indeed, it is thus often used as a term to refer to women and so-called ‘women's issues'. Yet gender, referring to the constructed social and cultural notions of femininity and masculinity could be seen as fundamental to the experience of being a refugee. Indeed, it is posited here that issues of gender are influential in determining which individuals are capable and are ‘socially accepted' to leave their home and flee the country, as well as dictating which individuals survive refugee camps and are then able to seek asylum. Gender, for instance, often dictates the levels of education that girls and women in certain countries may attain – higher levels of education, for instance, thus tend to encourage women to continue their quest for safety even if they are not accompanied by male relatives or partners. It is therefore not surprising that women who end up claiming asylum also tend to demonstrate higher levels of education generally.[2]

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