There’s so much we still have to do to address gender injustices once and for all

Today we celebrate International Women’s Day, but as always, there are some positive developments we can commend and others that we should be horrified about. The COVID-19 pandemic has strongly exacerbated gender injustices and created new gender inequalities. At the same time we can fortunately witness the strengthening of discussions on gender relations and things we’re still doing wrong (and those things we’re setting right). We’ve reached the tip of the iceberg and the rest – the assumptions and silences that perpetuate gender injustices – lurk beneath the surface, a silent colossus standing between us and real progress. In this post, we celebrate attempts to chip away at those parts of gender relations that are less visible, but just as crucial to address.

It’s International Women’s Day again! Who could’ve thought that we’d have gone through so much in just one year’s time? Last year on 8 March, they were still considering whether borders and public spaces should be closed and measures imposed. And here we are. All of us suffered the COVID-19 pandemic. No-one remained unaffected. And I think especially women had a hard time as schools closed, remained closed, and they had to balance jobs with childrearing and other tasks traditionally assigned to them. I take my hat off to each and every woman who has faced adverse circumstances over the past year and who has somehow managed to conquer them.

Bliss has received many contributions over the past year about the pandemic from our academics, who have diverse research interests. We’ve seen discussions about things we hadn’t considered. The vast array of articles on different dimensions of the pandemic helped us make sense of what’s happening and take stock of the bigger picture beyond our unhappiness with lockdown measures and the inconvenience they were causing. Inequalities were and still are worsening, and new injustices emerging as the pandemic rages on globally.

One of the articles that grabbed my attention was an article by ISS alumna María Gabriela Palacio, who flagged the rising inequality in academia due to the pandemic as gendered and racialised. In her article she described how women were struggling to fulfill their academic obligations due to the burden of unpaid work they had to shoulder in addition to their work as academics, which is known to be precarious and demanding. She quoted “a sizeable social gradient in the extent to which families feel able to support their children and provide home schooling”.

This growing inequality in academia, which is already highly unequal, needs to remain a topic of discussion. It shouldn’t be normalised or dismissed. Women who manage to do so much and remain standing are superheroes in my eyes, but that doesn’t mean that we should assume that they want to be superheroes.

Another regular author on Bliss, Professor Thea Hilhorst, is also talking about gender relations. But she has a somewhat different focus: the plight of men. At least in the article published today in Dutch newspaper Trouw, where she turned the notion of toxic masculinity ever so slightly on its head by arguing that men have feelings, too, and that we also need them to be involved in reconstructing societies ravaged by conflicts.

Hilhorst, Professor in Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at ISS, argues that men need to be included in post-conflict reconstruction efforts because conflict gives rise to new or perhaps worse forms of toxic masculinity that remain long after conflicts are over. New perceptions of masculinity may emerge as women’s role is strengthened during conflicts or wars when they assume duties typically considered those of men. And during wars, men also resort to sexual violence and the torturing of civilians – something that remains in their conscience and perceptions of masculinity once the war or conflict has passed.

Men need to find themselves in the post-war reconstruction, as they’ve lost their identity twice – when the conflict started, and when it ended. Neglecting them can lead to greater toxic masculinity as they feel worthless and invisibilised. Thus, not losing sight of men is necessary to strengthen the position of women in society – it’s a dual process in which toxic masculinity is addressed and men given the room to explore alternative identities while women are supported. “A bird needs both its wings to fly,” goes a saying from the DRC that Hilhorst quotes.

Linking to this discussion, in 2018 on Bliss, Hilhorst, Holly Porter and Rachel Gordon in an article titled ‘Challenging humanitarianism beyond gender as women and women as victims’ called on aid organisations to tread carefully in programming gender relations. Echoing Hilhorst’ argument above, they argued that forgetting about men could lead to problems “ranging from mental health problems […] to the (violent) re-assertion of men and masculinities”. And, they argued, by seeing women as primary victims and primarily as victims, “other realities in which men and women assume different and more complex roles” are obscured.

Just over a year ago Christo Gorpudolo also argued on Bliss for the need to move beyond the notion of women as victims of war. She focused on a transitional justice mechanism in Liberia following the country’s long period of civil war and how framing women as victims was not helping the process. Importantly, she highlighted the need to equalize men and women in the peacebuilding process. “A way of approaching peacebuilding in Liberia in order to achieve a gender-just peacebuilding process would be to incorporate both men and women in the peacebuilding process based on their lived experiences—as equals and not necessarily according to a victim-perpetrator dichotomy,” she commented.

And besides reconsidering those who remain women throughout their lives are framed in gender programs and other interventions, we also need to consider the particular problems that queer women face. Back in November 2017, Heather Tucker on Bliss discussed the need to focus on the needs of queer women in Ghana in their own right. Tucker’s ethnographic study in Accra revealed that broader approaches to tackling issues affecting LBGTI+ communities fail to adequately recognise the particularity of problems affecting queer women.

Labeling is just one problematic aspect of the experiences of queer women. For example, the term ‘lesbian’ as it has come to be understood does not adequately reflect the dynamics of same-sex relationships in Ghana, where the term supi is used (she writes how it describes a relationship, not an identity, and how this relationship is defined as one between two women that is intimate and might or might not be sexual in nature). “It is therefore critically important,” Tucker argued, “that donors who are involved in funding queer projects pay attention to the specific nuances, needs, and desires of those they are trying to support.”

This small selection of articles on Bliss (there are many others that are just as interesting – see here and here and here, for example), shows just how much we still need to discuss about gender, and how much we still have to do to change it.

But we are starting to make the change ourselves – and this is crucial. The sentence above (‘how much we still have to do to change it’) is an invitation not to sit back and think of ‘what needs to be changed’, but for each and every one of us to get involved in redressing gender injustices.

Lastly, I want to particularly thank the female academics who have written for Bliss on gender-related, but also on other issues. It’s inspiring to know that the conversation on gender is continuing, but also that women are driving conversations in academia. Chapeau! And happy International Womens’ Day to all women!

About the author:

Lize Swartz

Lize Swartz is the editor-in-chief of ISS Blog Bliss and a PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam, where she researches political dynamics of socio-hydrological systems. She is part of the newly formed Transformative Methodologies Working Group situated in the Civic Innovation Research Group

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1 Comment
  • Eliza Ngutuku
    March 8, 2021

    This is very informative Lize. I agree that the issue of change in gender relations during the time of war, conflict and/or pandemics needs attention. I have however been reflexive of the many ways and the potential ‘multi-directionalities’ of this change and especially so during Covid-19 pandemic. Such that we cannot pinpoint the directions in advance and for example we cannot just say women are more empowered, men are emasculated, or we need to equalise. I think this is a moment that we can use to be open as we study such nuances including even the small interferences in gender relations. This also includes a rethinking of the way we intervene on gender relations during the time of ‘peace’. For example, in our work in Uganda around Gender Based Violence and Sexual and Reproductive Health, the women were unhappy that men were at home during the lockdown because they could not get ‘hide’ their family planning hospital card because the men were at home. On the other hand, during the lockdown, we were following up on cases of gender-based violence and the leaders at one point told us they were happy they were not receiving many cases. Women said men were walking to and from work during the lockdown and therefore were ‘too tired in the evening to quarrel women’. I have been thinking about what such ‘tired masculinities’ and others that we might discover mean for women, and in terms of our interventions.