As Cynthia Enloe so poignantly remarks, language matters, and it matters because it’s how we tell stories and make reports which then define how we respond, and how we respond becomes our history. So the question is; how does the language we use impact gender analysis itself? In other words, how can we use language as an entry point to analyse gendered power dynamics, how does it affect actions, and how can we strategically use it to advocate for our goals? A case which compelled our attention was the work of the Independent Commission of Inquiry (COI) for Syria, not least because of the impressions it was creating as to the role of women.
WILPF has been bringing attention to the gendered impact of the Syrian conflict for two years now, liaising with local partners and Sections, bringing women’s rights activists in the region together to strategise, and more. We knew what amazing work is being done by women and the role they are playing in a multiplicity of different contexts. Not passive victims. Not at all.
So to understand the extent of the deceit, we commissioned two brilliant students from the Graduate Institute in Geneva to conduct a study of the reports from a gender perspective and then the responses by States through the Resolution on Syria in the Human Rights Council (HRC).
The study, titled “A gendered analysis: examining how women and gender in the Syrian conflict are addressed by the UN Human Rights Council”, uses discourse analysis, or analysis of language “beyond the sentence”, looking at language, gender, and crisis, and its effects on women’s inclusion in peacebuilding processes. The results were quite shocking. The COI almost exclusively refers to women as victims of sexual violence, the HRC and COI documents construct women as agentless participants. Conversely, men are rarely mentioned as a separate entity, and have multiple and important identities ascribed to them, variously mentioned as; civilians (as if women are NOT civilians!), combatants, medical personnel, or journalists. So if that’s what your story tells you, why would you talk to women to devise your peace process and the future of the country?
Changing the way we use language will have an impact beyond the words themselves. We must acknowledge the different ways that the conflict affects both men and women, and move from women’s portrayal as agentless victims of sexual violence to more complex understandings of them as agents of change.
We encourage you to read the report and think about the power of your words to make change.