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The term “gendercide” is important because it focuses our attention on the role of gender in genocides and mass killings. However, because the gendercide perspective often confuses gender and sex it can miss important differences in the way that gender factors into these atrocities.

How does gender fit into genocide?

Genocides in the Balkans and Rwanda brought to public attention the startling fact that gender plays an important role in not only our understanding of genocides, but in the ways that genocides are carried out.

For instance, men and women are often treated differently in genocides. In some cases, men may be disproportionately selected for killing. Women may be more likely to be raped before being killed. Rape and sexual assault may be used as a tool to attack women and girls as well as destroy the fabric of the target community. Forced pregnancy can also be a strategy for genocide in some cases, but not others.

In all these examples, the beliefs about what it means to be male and female affect the ways that mass killing and genocide play out.

The term “gendercide” was coined to focus the attention of scholars and policy makers on the complex ways that gender influences genocide and mass killing. However, the concern is not merely academic. The goal is not simply to understand how beliefs about being male and female factor in, but to use this knowledge to develop prevention strategies.

However, according to scholar R. Charli Carpenter, while the term “gendercide” has done much to focus international attention on the role of gender in genocide, it has limited our understanding. The intersection of gender and genocide and mass killing is more complex than the term “gendercide” might indicate.

One of the main problems, argues Carpenter, is that much gendercide research confuses gender and sex and so muddies the water.

Sex and Gender Are Not the Same Thing

Gendercide has been defined as sex-selective or gender-selective mass killing. The idea is that when genocides and mass killings occur one sex usually fares worse than the other when it comes to the number of dead. The gendercide framework seeks to bring the reasons for these sex differences to light.

The problem is that while gendercide highlights sex disparities in mass killings it actually confuses some other important issues. One of the reasons for this is that the notion of gendercide confuses biological sex with gender.

When researchers talk about the biological sex of a person they mean the brute fact of being male or female. Gender, on the other hand, is not a biological fact, but a social and psychological fact. Gender indicates the ways that individuals and societies make sense of what it means to be male or female. Gender involves beliefs about masculinity or femininity—ways of being male and female. Gender also involves the ways that individuals of different sexes are diverted to some roles and not others.

Why does this distinction matter?

  • Beliefs about masculinity and femininity can factor into genocides without producing disparities in the killing of one sex or the other (that is, gender can play a role while sex does not—for instance, even if the same number of males and females are killed, the ways in which they are killed may differ),
  • Sex selective killing may have no direct relationship to beliefs about maleness or femaleness (that is, gender).

So, in order to better understand the role that gender plays in mass killings and genocides, it makes sense to peel these two terms apart. Carpenter argues that to get a better understanding of how gender plays into genocides and how this relates to differences in killing one sex or the other, we need a sense of the ways that gender operates in society.

Several core ideas about gender are important to begin to unravel the relationship between gender and genocide:

  • Gender identities are ideas or beliefs that individuals hold that regulate the person’s sense of what kind of male or female they are and how they are supposed to act (as male or female) in a given situation,
  • Gender discourses are general, socially defined ways of talking and thinking about the attributes of men and women (for instance, men are aggressive while women are passive). Gender discourses give rise to gender ideologies and gender norms.
  • Gender ideologies are beliefs/values and ways of thinking about how men and women should behave or what kind of roles they should hold (for instance, men should be soldiers while women should be mothers),
  • Gender norms are also contained within gender discourses and define prescriptions (and proscriptions) for how men and women should be treated (for instance, women and children should be spared),
  • Gender structures are the stable social relationships that channel men and women into different social institutions (like the military, the nursing profession, etc.). Without anyone consciously making sex-specific decisions, gender structures can operate so that locations, organizations and institutions are predominately sex specific.

How Gender and Sex Operate Differently in Genocides and Mass Killings

Genocides and mass killing may be sex specific (that is, more of one sex is killed than another) but not sex selective (one sex is chosen for murder more often than the other) and vice versa. Gender structures and gender ideologies can play different roles in specific instances of mass killing or genocide.

Gender Structure

Gender structure can bring about sex-specific outcomes without anyone consciously intending to kill one gender or the other. For instance, if a gender structure channels more males into the military than females and the target of the killing is everyone in the military, then men will be killed more often than females. Alternatively, if villages are attacked women and children may be killed in higher numbers than men (perhaps because men are off at war or have fled the village). In either case, it is not specific beliefs about men and women that have brought about the differences in the frequencies of killing males or females, but simply that men or women happen to be in the locations that are most at risk. Killing can be sex specific without being sex selective.

Gender Ideology

Gender ideology can operate even if the gender structure does not. Small boys may be targeted for killing more often than small girls because perpetrators believe that boys are a greater future threat (they grow up to be soldiers). Even if women in a particular conflict are equally well armed and likely to serve in rebel forces, they may be more likely to be spared because of the going assumption (gender ideology) that women and children are innocent and vulnerable. In both these cases the killing is sex selective because of gender ideologies without any real reference to the actual threat that the persons pose.

Why It Matters for Policy

Making the distinction between sex selective and sex specific killings is important for policy makers who want to prosecute perpetrators or prevent future atrocities. In order to protect civilians, policy makers might take different tacks depending on whether men or women are disproportionately killed because of gender structures or gender ideologies. When prosecuting war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide the perpetrator’s rationale may be key. For instance, the perpetrator’s decision making would be different if a particular sex was selected because of gender beliefs rather than sex specific because one sex rather than another happened to be more often in the line of fire.

Bottom Line

The term “gendercide” is important because it focuses our attention on the role of gender in genocides and mass killings. However, because the gendercide perspective often confuses gender and sex it can miss important differences in the way that gender factors into these atrocities.

Data and Methods:

Data Sources:

Research and theory on gendercide and genocide.
Funding Sources:
Not reported.
Full Text Availability:
Full text not currently available online.

Carpenter, R. Charli. 2002. "Beyond 'Gendercide': Incorporating Gender into Comparative Genocide Studies." International Journal of Human Rights 6:77-101.

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