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Genocide involves the destruction of a people, but this does not mean that all members of a group are killed indiscriminately. Sometimes gender plays a role.

Genocide is the destruction of a group of people. But, this doesn't mean that every member of a group must be killed or even targeted. In some genocides, men are targeted for death while women and children are allowed to live. Why?

Genocides occur for different reasons and in different situations. These differences can make all the difference when it comes to determining whether or not women are more likely than men to survive a genocide.

Gender-Specific Genocides

Most genocides are retributive. That is, one group seeks to destroy another group as revenge for a past injury or to avert a future threat. Since adult males pose the most threat, they are most likely to be targeted for execution. Women and children are not safe (there is no such thing as being safe during a genocidal campaign), but they are not necessarily the main targets for execution.

Contrast this with the kind of gender neutral genocide we see with the Holocaust. For the Nazis, it wasn't the military power of the Jews or gypsies that posed the threat. Rather, it was the non-Aryan bloodlines—bloodlines passed along by women as well as men—that presented the imagined danger. Interracial couplings and not interracial violence was the menace. Because of this, women were a particular threat. In fact, women and children were often killed first.

However, even in gender specific genocides where women are not primarily marked for execution, they are generally still marked for death—whether physical or social. In cases like the Turkish genocide against the Armenians, women and children were driven into the desert by soldiers after their husbands and fathers were slain. There they would die more slowly from starvation, disease or suicide. Women and young girls may not die at all but be assimilated through slavery or forced “marriage” into the aggressor group. Though the women physically survive, they nonetheless experience a “social death.” Their history, culture, relationships and way of life are gone.

Can Women Be Assimilated?

Whether or not a woman is allowed to live may also depend on whether the attackers believe that women can be assimilated into the aggressor group or culture.

In the case of the Armenian genocide, some women and girls were spared when they were taken as wives and forced to convert to Islam. Similarly, in Rwanda, Tutsi women were sometimes forced into a “marriage” (a euphemism for domestic sexual slavery) with a Hutu attacker. Submitting to this kind of humiliation and abuse was often the only way to survive the attack. In both these cases, it was possible for a woman to survive because the attackers did not believe that there was any irremediable separation between the women of the victim group and the aggressors. An Armenian woman could become Muslim; Tutsi women were sexually desirable and this sometimes trumped any racial taint (indeed, Hutu men often believed that Tutsi women thought of themselves as “too good” for Hutu men—making them all the more desirable).

In some genocides, the obsessive drive for purity—racial or political—works against assimilating women into the aggressor group. In the case of the Nazi's, there were strict taboos against sex between Aryans and Jews and so assimilating Jewish women was simply not an option. In the case of the genocide in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge sought to create a politically pure, monolithic, classless society. Women from minority groups or who were from classes tainted by foreign influence could not be assimilated into the Khmer Rouge's utopia.

Slavery and Survival

Genocide has marred every epoch of human history, but women (if not the group they belong to) were more likely to survive when slavery was an accepted practice. Because men, more than women, were more likely to rebel or foment a rebellion, they were killed. Women (especially virgins) and children were a valuable source of labor and means of expanding the population. This was the case in ancient genocides (attested to, in part, in the Jewish scriptures but present in other ancient cultures as well).

As slavery has declined so have the chances of women surviving a genocide. In places like Sudan, where slavery is still practiced, Dinka women and children (African Christian southerners who have been the target of a genocidal war by the militant Arab northern government) are still enslaved as part of the campaign of genocide.

Bottom Line

Gender may play a role in genocide. While a few genocides are completely gender blind (killing men and women indiscriminately), others are gender specific. Men are marked out for execution while women may be more likely to survive the initial violence and suffer physical or social death later.

The role that gender plays in genocides varies depending on the situation. When women can be assimilated into the aggressor community (whether as slaves, in forced marriages or through religious conversion) they are less likely to be targeted for execution in the initial violence.

Data and Methods:

Data Source:

Analysis of historical research.

Funding Source:

Not provided.

Full Text Availability:
Not currently available for free online.

Fein, Helen. 1999. "Genocide and Gender: The Uses of Women and Group Destiny." Journal of Genocide Research 1:43-63.

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