Le Panoptique

Perspectives sur les enjeux contemporains | More Perspective on Current International Issues

(Re)Considering gender equality

Publié le 1 décembre, 2008 | Pas de commentaires

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High levels of sexual and gender-based violence characterize current civil conflicts. Canada prides itself on upholding human rights and gender equality in such conflicts and during peacebuilding. It has adopted a narrow approach to gender equality, however, that does not address the rights of LGBT populations. A broader approach is necessary to uphold human rights and promote justice for all victims of conflicts.

Jan Krömer, WC, 2007
Certains droits réservés.

(Re)Considering gender equality

Sexual and gender-based violence is a tool of modern warfare. Not a week goes by that horrific stories of rape and sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo are not printed by a newspaper somewhere in the world. Before that, it was Sierra Leone, Liberia, Kosovo, Rwanda, Bosnia. Following the mass violations of human rights that occur during conflicts, addressing these violations is one, if not the, greatest post-conflict challenges. Without addressing the legacies of these violations and upholding some form of justice for victims, societies cannot move forward with the reconciliation process necessary to build a sustainable peace.

Canada, along with the rest of the international community, prides itself on its role in protecting and promoting gender equality throughout the post-conflict peacebuilding process. While stories of traumatized and terrorized women, men, girls, and boys find their way out of the morass and into our daily lives, most of us trust our governments to undertake this messy task. As Canadians, however, few of us have a clear sense of what is meant by “gender equality”. Equality, sure. Gender, probably not. What is this “gender equality” of which we are so proud?

Getting back to basics: Gender and gender equality

Gender equality is enshrined in the international human rights framework as a fundamental right of all individuals. It is essential to achieving justice, sustainable development, and peace globally. For most of us, we believe what we hear: gender equality is about equality for women and girls with men and boys. Contrary to this commonly-held misperception, however, gender is not synonymous with sex. Gender is a social construction that impacts every aspect of our lives: society’s definition of masculinity, femininity, and every other “sexual-inity” in between. Dyan Mazurana explains that

“[g]ender is about the social roles of men, women, boys, and girls and relationships between and among them. The experiences and concerns of men, women, boys, and girls before, during, and after wars and armed conflicts are shaped by their gendered social roles. These roles are in turn formed by cultural, social, economic, and political conditions, expectations, and obligations within the family, community, and nation.(1)”

Promoting women’s equality with men is unquestionably an integral part of achieving gender equality. Women’s equality, however, is not gender equality. It is women’s equality. A comprehensive approach to gender equality must include equality for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) population.

Gender equality in practice: Canada

The Government of Canada has countless guidelines and policy documents demonstrating its commitment to gender equality internationally through its foreign policy work and international development assistance(2). Canada’s current programming and policies suggest that the Government understands gender to be synonymous with women and men. Gender equality, then, becomes promoting the equality of women and men.

Canada has succumbed to the classic “add-women-and-stir” approach. In talking about gender and gender equality, we are really speaking about women and girls: women at the decision-making table; women in the legal sector; women’s participation in development activities; women’s education. The assumption is that attention to women and women’s issues will result in gender equality. It does not examine the systematic structural barriers that prevent their full participation or the achievement of gender equality.

In doing so, we are wholly ignoring the other, equally important, side of the gender equality coin: the equality of LGBT populations. We are not alone in this. In the first time that conflicts’ impacts on women was formally acknowledged and made into a legally binding document by the international community, the United Nations used terms like gender violence, gender equality, gender mainstreaming and gender perspective to talk about females and females alone(3). This raises important questions about whose rights to gender equality we are upholding and which genders we, as Canadians, prioritize in our international work. It raises questions about the implications of a “gender-equality-equals-equality-for-females” approach to post-conflict justice and human rights.

Gender equality: The Colombian case

In Colombia, a new discussion is emerging virtually unnoticed by the international community. Colombia, stereotypically associated with drug-barons, wars, and the heroin mules of Maria Full of Grace, is talking about gender in the fullest sense of the word. In 2005, the government of Colombia created the National Commission for Reparation and Reconciliation (NCRR) to address human rights abuses and promote peace(4). The NCRR is an independent mixed-body comprising government officials, civil society representatives, and victims of the conflict.

This spring, I was fortunate to attend a gender workshop by the CNRR that discussed the experiences of Colombia’s LGBT population in the Colombian conflict. The information on the experiences of the LGBT population during the conflict is limited. In other conflicts, LGBT populations have been targeted systematically by governments and armed groups as “scapegoats for social problems(5)” in order to bolster their own power.

Presenters and NCRR workshop participants alike recognized the importance of bringing this marginalized community into the national process of truth, justice, and reconciliation. The workshop participants stressed the importance of working with the LGBT community to document their experiences in the conflict (where they are particularly targeted by armed groups on all sides) and of using the NCRR’s influence to promote LGBT rights and prevent LGBT populations from being targeted for abuses of human rights. The conversation about gender and reconciliation turned into one of gender equality and gender justice in the past, present, and future. The NCRR has yet to begin any projects with LGBT populations, though it is currently developing project proposals with LGBT groups. Writing about the lack of research on abuses against sexual minorities and women by truth commissions, Kelli Muddell articulates the significance of such steps:

“By not engaging [women’s groups] or adequately consulting the existing documentation of abuses against this specific constituency, commissions have had a lack of understanding about the types of abuses that have taken place during conflict resulting in such abuses not being recorded and those victims not being represented.(6)”

This certainly applies to LGBT populations as well.


It is too early to state the implications of a more inclusive approach to gender equality for long-term transitional justice and reconciliation. Information on the impact of the inclusion of LGBT issues during transitional justice on gender equality during conflict resolution and peacebuilding is new and slowly emerging. In most countries, violations of the rights of LGBT populations rarely enter the public dialogue in any substantive way. Attention to LGBT populations by transitional justice institutions is limited and largely thanks to the dedicated efforts of a few key individuals rather than a systematic effort of the institutions themselves. The attention that these individuals can pay to promote LGBT populations’ rights is limited, however, by the many other tasks they must complete.

Colombia, with its culture of machismo, has a long way to go to achieve gender equality for LGBT populations, let alone equality between women and men. LGBT populations continue to face incredible levels of discrimination, and even abuse, in Colombia. Still, in Colombia, the NCRR is talking about gender equality, and is moving beyond equality between women and men. For this, it must be applauded. Perhaps Canada, as it ticks of the next “Yes-project/policy/agreement-has-a-gender-perspective/promotes-gender-equality” box, can learn something here.

To truly promote gender equality Canadians need to talk about gender in all senses of the word, lest we be accused of being gender relativists. This means supporting and promoting equality for women, men, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender populations in our international policies and programming to promote human rights in a holistic way in post-conflict countries. This is not an easy task, nor will it be a straightforward one either. Recognition of the rights of LGBT populations and their experiences in conflicts is necessary to establish post-conflict social orders grounded in justice and human rights. We must treat it as so.


(1)“Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter2” http://ghostrecon.uk.ubi.com/graw2/info/index.php
(2)Rubio-Goldsmith, Raquel et al., “The “Funnel Effect” & Recovered Bodies of Unauthorized Migrants Processed by the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, 1990-2005.” The Binational Migration Institute (BMI), 2006 Pg, 6
(3)See discussion in Doty Lynn Roxanne. “Crossroads of Death” in The Logics of Biopower and the War on Terror. Eds., Dauphinee, Elizabeth & Masters, Christina. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007 & for further exploration on the subject matter see Doty Lynn Roxanne. “Fronteras Compasivas and the Ethics of Unconditional Hospitality.”Millennium: Journal of International Studies, Vol.35 No. 1 (2006): 53-74
(4)Ibid., Pg 16
(6)Foucault, Michel. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1995 Pg 199
(7)Foucault, Michel “The Political Investment of the Body” in The Body: A Reader. Fraser, Mariam & Greco Monica eds. London: Routledge, 2005Pg, 100
(8)Ibid., Pg, 84
(10) Foucault, Michel. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1995 Pg, 199
(11)Agamben, Georgio. “No to Bio-Political Tattooing.”Makeworlds. 2004 at http://www.makeworlds.org/node/68
(13)Ibid., 100-2
(14)Doty Lynn Roxanne. “Crossroads of Death” in The Logics of Biopower and the War on Terror. Eds., Dauphinee, Elizabeth & Masters, Christina. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Much of the analysis in this piece is based on the findings in: Rubio-Goldsmith, Raquel et al., “The “Funnel Effect” & Recovered Bodies of Unauthorized Migrants Processed by the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, 1990-2005.” The Binational Migration Institute (BMI), 2006
(15)Foucault, Michel. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books. See Chapter 3 on “Panopticism”
(17)Doty Lynn Roxann. “Fronteras Compasivas and the Ethics of Unconditional Hospitality.” Millennium: Journal of International Studies, Vol.35 No.1 (2006): Pg, 59
(18)Foucault, Michel “The Political Investment of the Body” The Body: A Reader. London: Routledge Pg, 104
(19)Foucault, Michel. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1995 Pg 204
(20)Kearney, Michael. “Borders and Boundaries of State and Self at the End of Empire.” Journal of Historical Sociology Vol. 4 No. 1 (1991): Pgs 60-1
(21)Sassen, Saskia. Globalization and its Discontents. New York: The New York Press, 2005 Pg, 43

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