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Gendercide, or sex selective mass murder, affects both men and women and is often used as a tool for genocide.

A number of terms have been coined in the 20th century to talk about mass killing: genocide, politicide and democide are a few examples. In each case, the point is to identify the group that is targeted for murder or destruction.

A relatively recent term, coined to indicate mass killing that targets a specific sex, is gendercide. The term denotes sex selective mass murder—that is, killing women because they are women or men because they are men.

The term has gained caché, in part, because of the patterns of violence in recent genocides and armed conflicts. Conflicts such as those in the Balkans and the genocide in Rwanda demonstrate that a group can be systematically targeted for extermination by using sex specific strategies for killing. Not every member of a group need be killed in order to destroy the basis for the group’s existence.

Female Gendercide

Violations of the human rights of women have been recognized for some time in international law (the Convention on the Political Rights of Women (1954) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1981) being two of the most prominent pieces of international law in this regard). However, the widespread and systematic use of rape and sexual assault in Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda brought to public consciousness the fact that these atrocities could be used systematically to destroy an entire group.

Female focused gendercide can destroy a group by (among other things):

  • Humiliating and demoralizing the entire community by humiliating, torturing and degrading the women,
  • Preventing future births through sexual mutilation,
  • Systematically spreading disease, like HIV/AIDS that will kill or render the women infertile in the future,
  • Destroying a woman’s marriageability (especially in cases where a raped woman is unlikely to find a future spouse because of community norms) and alienating her from her community.

That targeting females for murder and destruction can be genocide was first recognized by the ICTR in 1998 in the trial of Jean-Paul Akayesu. The tribunal ruled that sexual violence was an integral part of the process of destruction of the Tutsi ethnic group.

Destroying members of an ethnic group simply because they are members of an ethnic group is genocide. But, destroying the women of an ethnic group because they are women who happen to be in that group can also be a form of genocide. In a sense, it is genocide via gendercide.

Male Gendercide

The sex selective mass murder of men is not meant to refer to males killed as soldiers. Rather, the focus on male gendercide highlights the selective killing of male non-combatants.

Evidence on recent conflicts documents that men and boys may be selectively targeted for death. For instance, in a detailed report of the war in Kosovo, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) concluded that:

young men were the group that was by far the most targeted in the conflict in Kosovo…every young Kosovo Albanian man was suspected of being a terrorist….the young men were at risk more than any other group of Kosovo society of grave human rights violations.”

In cases like this, the killing is not indiscriminate. Rather, male gendercide occurs when males—frequently males of military age—are killed because they are male.

Often, gender selective human rights violations are preceded by the ritual separation of men from women and children. Once separated, men can be killed en masse as was done in Srebrenica in the Bosnian war.

During Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II, Jewish males were targeted first for murder. The idea was that by targeting males first, Nazi soldiers would become desensitized to mass execution. After that, killing the women and the children was less likely to be a shock.

This is not to say that male gendercide need precede female gendercide or that male gendercide by itself cannot count as genocide. Like female gendercide, male gendercide can have genocidal effects even if women and children are (relatively) spared. Again, genocide does not require that all members of a group must be killed for genocide to occur. Killing the males of a group has devastating effects on the women and children who are left behind. This is especially the case in male-dominated societies where women are almost wholly dependent on men for their livelihoods.

Evidence indicates that in many conflicts, being born male amounts to a death sentence.

Female Gendercide Garners More Attention

A curious fact is that female gendercide has garnered more attention within international human rights dialogue. For instance, the UN Declaration on the Protection of Women and Children in Emergency and Armed Conflict (1974) states that “women and children…are the most vulnerable members of the population.” However, there is no supporting evidence for the statement.

The reason for this disproportionate focus on female gendercide is not entirely clear. It may be the result of an effort to correct for the long omission of the plight of women from international law governing conflict. But, even so, there is no logical reason that male gendercide should be ignored.

In any event, human rights reporting and protection is not a zero sum game. Reporting on the male specific murder of non-combatants does not mean that female specific murder is somehow less important or tragic. Both female and male gendercide occur with different patterns in different situations. A comprehensive human rights perspective addresses both.

Data and Methods:

Data Sources:

Discussion of research on gendercide.

Funding Sources:

Not reported.

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Full text not currently available for free online.

Buchanan, David. 2002. "Gendercide and Human Rights." Journal of Genocide Research 4:95-108.

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