By Amber Holland
Since the start of the refugee crisis, multiple media outlets have consistently portrayed male refugees as deceitful economic migrants, whilst only women and children are deemed to be fleeing violence. Although an attractive narrative due to the simplicity it involves, our collective failure to recognise men as victims of violent conflict potentially endangers the lives of many, whilst characterising women as eternal victims simultaneously robs them of their agency. Luckily, Feminist International Relations (IR) Theory offers both an explanation and a route to solving this, namely through deconstructing the Myth of Protection.
The Myth of Protection is one of the core philosophies of Feminist IR Theory. Intrinsically linking conflict and gender, it rests on the repeated lie that wars are fought to primarily protect women, children and the extremely vulnerable. This directly contradicts the shocking statistic that 90% of all casualties are civilian, the majority of whom are women and children. From this Myth, comes other fallacies, such as women playing little to no active role in conflict and the idea that inside a state’s borders, women are automatically considered ‘safe’. Both these concepts have been proven false, from the 40% female personnel rate in the Kurdish YPG, to the use of rape as a weapon of war in the DRC earning the grim title of the “rape capital of the world”.
Beyond robbing women of their agency, the Myth of Protection has also resulted in a worrying trend of discounting male victims of violent conflict. This is due to them not falling into the socially acceptable category of ‘vulnerable’, tied to traditional masculine and feminine gender roles. Perhaps the most visceral example of this is seen in the reaction of news outlets to the ongoing refugee crisis. Britain’s newly crowned best-selling newspaper, The Daily Mail, has regularly covered its front page with pictures and news relating to boats crossing The English Channel, although its reaction to stories involving men and children has been quite different. Whereas as harrowing pictures of three year old Aylan Kurdi dead on a beach in Turkey should make readers “shudder in collective horror”, males crossing in the same manner are described as an “influx”, which should make Britain “worried”. As unaccompanied men are portrayed as making the treacherous journey for economic reasons, they are judged as undeserving of our empathy and assistance just by virtue of their gender. Contrastingly, media outlets consistently highlight in their article titles instances that involve the deaths of women and children refugees, implying they are more deserving of our sympathy. When it comes to the continuing exemption of men as victims of violent conflict, the zeitgeist has remained quiet.
Unfortunately, this characterisation of male refugees as economic migrants is observable in influencing both national government and multinational organisation’s policies. Canada, a nation traditionally known for its welcoming attitude towards refugees, decided to exclude unaccompanied men from its fast track programme for 25,000 refugees in 2015. Although later confirming that men could still apply through other routes, it has been suggested that the discounting of lone males from this flagship policy, resulted in many being forced to pick up arms in the Syrian war and exacerbating the conflict. The demonisation of the ‘Other’ male refugee, built in part off the isolated (but nonetheless horrific) case of the Cologne New Year’s assaults on women, has resulted in the assumption that male victims of conflict are something to be feared, even in the upper echelons of power. In the UN’s 2008 Handbook for the Protection of Women and Girls, this dichotomised and gendered view of victims is present, with men characterised as the perpetrators of violence regardless of their refugee status.
Of course, some nuance is needed here. It is important to remember that 35% of women globally have experienced physical and/or sexual violence, and that 38% of all murders of women are committed by their partners. Across the globe, being a woman is still incredibly dangerous. Moreover, it could be argued that the prioritising of female victims of violent conflict is indeed necessary, especially when coming from nations where they lack the political, social and economic agency to protect themselves. However, this gender-differentiated policy can result in paternalistic and infantizing programmes, conceptualising women through virtue of their womb, as opposed to their humanity.
Fortunately, possible solutions to the Myth of Protection can be found by returning to Feminist IR theory, and feminism in general. At the core of the Myth of Protection, are the gendered values that are rife in a patriarchal society. Far from helping, the prizing of men as brave fighters, who hold the traits of aggression and force, has resulted in an inability to view them as victims of violent conflict. Instead, there is an expectation that men do not flee from violence, rather staying to fight and protect their values (I refer you to the Pub Brawl Analogy for an excellent deconstruction of this reductionist view). However, anyone can feel terror, and no one is invincible against the barrel of a gun. More importantly, more violence is not the answer to these conflicts.
Feminism, through deconstructing gender and unburdening individuals from the stereotypes they feel they must conform to, offers a route to accepting men as victims of violent conflict worthy of our support. Beyond liberating women and girls, destroying patriarchal norms is also beneficial to men and boys, with a direct correlation observable between the state of gender equality in a nation and lower rates of male mental health issues and suicide.
Under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol, it is established in customary international law, that refugees should not face discrimination by virtue of their sex. By consigning the Myth of Protection to IR history books, this can finally become a reality. With the rate of male refugees steadily increasing, due to their ability to survive the treacherous journey to safety, this cannot come soon enough.
Amber is an MA Conflict, Security and Development student at King’s College London. Her research interests include the relationship between environmental scarcity and international development, and feminist solutions to conflict.