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The notion of gendercide was developed as a way to understand the role that gender plays in genocide and mass killing. However, the notion of gendercide is often muddled and so can confuse rather than clarify the complex ways that gender plays into genocides and mass killings.

One of the key problems with the notion of gendercide is that it has often been equated with genocide.

If genocide is defined as the deliberate extermination of a race or a people, then one might argue that any racially targeted killing amounts to an act of genocide. Likewise, sex selective killings—where the killing actually targets either men or women disproportionately—amounts to gendercide.

The fact that this understanding of genocide misunderstands the notion of genocide in the UN Genocide Convention (where mass extermination of a racial, ethnic, national or religious group is a matter of policy) is missed in the analogy of gendercide to genocide. The fact that more men than women may die in a particular instance may be taken to mean that one sex versus the other has been targeted because they are members of their sex. In this case, any time more men or women are killed more than the other may be defined as gendercide.

However, as scholar R. Charli Carpenter points out, thinking this way is a mistake and only muddies the waters if we want to understand the complex ways that gender plays into mass killings and genocide.

How does the analogy between genocide and gendercide confuse things?

What Group Is Really Being Targeted?

In genocides, it is not men or women as such, but men or women of a particular group who are targeted. Bosnian women were not targeted only because they were women. They were targeted because they were Bosnian women. If it was truly the sex of the victim that was the key characteristic, then Serbian women should have been killed just as readily. Carpenter says that there is no historical precedent for gendercide.

The witch hunts in Europe are often touted as an example of a gendercide. However, this example does not fit the bill of a gendercide. It was not women who were targeted (though women were disproportionately killed), but witches. Notice also that men and women were on both sides of the accuser/accused divide. Not only were men killed as witches, but women stood as accusers (rather than merely the victims). This points up the fact that just because an instance of mass killing targets one sex more than the other does not make it gendercide.

Question of What Counts as Mass Killing

Another problem with the notion of gendercide is that it has confused the issue of what counts as mass killing.

Mass Killing

For instance, some have argued that cumulative cases of murder, such as witch hunts, lynchings, sex-selective abortions or even domestic abuse, amount to gendercide and amount to the same thing as killing several thousands of men or women in a single context (like the mass murder of Bosnian men at Srebrenica). But, does an historical pattern of killing really amount to the same thing as a large scale massacre in a given situation or episode? It may or may not, but Carpenter says that the argument needs to be clearly made rather than assumed.

Mass Killing

If, as some have argued, sex selective abortion or screening for homosexuality of fetuses amounts to gendercide, then the question of what counts as “killing” arises. Is the termination of fetuses the same thing as killing? If so, Carpenter argues, it is difficult not to take seriously claims that all abortion is genocide against the unborn.

All Mass Killing Is not Gendercide or Genocide

Not all mass killings are genocides. Massacres (like race or religious riots) may claim hundreds or even thousands of lives, but this does not mean that there was any policy or intent behind the killing to destroy the entire group. Nor is a mass killing necessarily a gendercide even if more men or women are killed in the particular instance. It may be that men more than women (or vice versa) were in the location. Sex specific patterns of killing, even mass killing, does not automatically mean that one sex was intentionally targeted over the other.

Gender Beyond Gendercide

However, just because the notion of gendercide is conceptually fuzzy does not mean that the term should be eliminated. Carpenter says that even if a true gendercide has never occurred does not mean that it cannot.

Still, she suggests that there are better ways to approach understanding the role of gender in genocide beyond the limited “gendercide” framework.

Gendered Outcomes Are Not All Sex-Selective

Gender may make a difference in how genocides are carried out even when murders are not sex selective—that is, even when one sex or the other is not consciously singled out for killing. For instance:

  • Killings may be sex specific without being sex selective because of gender structures. Men may be disproportionately killed in genocidal conflicts because they are members of the military. In this case, the killing does not focus on the men being men, but the members of the military. Because of the way that societies channel more men into the military than women, more men are killed.
  • Gender can make the effects of genocide sex distinctive. Even if men and women are equally represented in the number of dead, gender beliefs can affect the ways that men and women are killed. While women may be more likely to be raped and murdered, men may be more likely to be murdered outright or mutilated before murder.
  • Gendered outcomes may be sex inclusive. Gender can still be a factor even if the effects are the same for males and females. For instance, boy and girl children who are the product of rape in genocidal campaigns are often neglected, stigmatized or killed. The reason for this comes, in part, from gender ideologies that define the race or ethnicity of the child in terms of the father. So, gendered assumptions about how a child’s race is determined affects the child’s treatment, but it does so in the same way for boy and girl babies.

Sex-Selective Outcomes Are Not All Gendered

Genocides may have sex-selective outcomes, but these may not be the result of gender (beliefs about maleness or femaleness). For instance, forced pregnancy is a common practice in recent genocides. The reason for this has nothing to do with what kind of female the person is (that is to say, her gender), but everything to do with the fact that she is biologically female. Forced pregnancy is simply not a tactic that “works” the same way with males. So, it is not gender ideology that lies behind forced pregnancy, but the brute fact that women can get pregnant and men cannot.

Gendered Aspects of Genocide Are Not All Mass Killing

Mass killing is only one strategy for genocide. Because genocide involves the destruction of a group, it is broader than simple extermination of individuals.

What makes rape effective as a tool for genocide is, in part, the gendered assumptions of the community. Rape functions to destroy communities because individuals may believe that the raped woman is damaged goods and cannot be reintegrated back into the community. Also, because women are often understood to be, in some sense, the property of men, a sexual attack against a woman is also an attack against the target community. If men (and women) held different beliefs about women, then rape (while still being a viscous and brutal attack on an individual) would be less effective as a tool for genocide.

Bottom Line

The notion of gendercide was developed as a way to understand the role that gender plays in genocide and mass killing. However, the notion of gendercide is often muddled and so can confuse rather than clarify the complex ways that gender plays into genocides and mass killings. This does not mean that the idea of gendercide should be abandoned altogether. Rather, it needs to be clarified so that it can be understood within the larger, more complex array of processes that link gender to genocide.

Data and Methods:

Data Sources:

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