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Unpacking war & conflict: two books about human security in international relations.

Laura Sjoberg, GENDER, WAR, & CONFLICT. Polity, 2014. (Gender & Global Politics series.) 240p. bibl. index, pap., $22.95, ISBN 978-074566028.

Aili Mari Tripp, Myra Marx Ferree, & Christina Ewig, eds., GENDER, VIOLENCE, & HUMAN SECURITY: CRITICAL FEMINIST PERSPECTIVES. New York University Press, 2013. 336p. notes, index, pap., $27.00, ISBN 978-081476345.

In the field of international relations (IR), the relatively new concept of human security, which is discussed in both books reviewed here, is used as a framework to unpack and examine the roles that violence, conflict, and war play in the daily lives of people around the world. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) first defined the term in 1994, (1) and it has been important for understanding the impact of wars and conflicts on ordinary citizens.

Unlike the traditional policy development or IR approaches to war --both of which focus primarily on the state's agency or actions in making war and rebuilding from it--the human security approach focuses on individuals. The UNDP stated that the goal of human security was to ensure freedom from fear and freedom from want, focusing on seven threats to human security not usually recognized in the frameworks of human rights, human development, or state security: economic, food, health, environment, personal, community, and political threats. (2)

Laura Sjoberg begins Gender, War, & Conflict with a critique of traditional definitions of war, noting that the concept is fuzzy around the edges. Because those who live at the margins of political society (a category that often includes women) are affected by the social, material, and political destabilization of violence long before and after any "official" war begins and ends (pp. 9-10), Sjoberg introduces the extended term "war and conflict" to call attention to the violence that leads up to, surrounds, and continues after the central theatre of action. Studying conflict, she argues, allows us to look at all the other things that are left out of traditional war analyses--including domestic violence, poverty, and infrastructure damage (pp. 11-12).

While the book is not explicitly labeled a classroom text, that use is clearly one of its intended roles, as each chapter ends with suggestions for further reading (the bibliographic entries include helpful annotations), discussion questions, and key web resources. (3) Chapter 1 very carefully organizes and defines terms, serving as a primer on gender, intersectionality, and feminism. This chapter doesn't offer groundbreaking material to seasoned scholars and activists, but it makes the book ideal for courses in history, political science, and women's and gender studies, because it introduces the terms and their scholarly meanings for those who are unfamiliar with them.

The first chapter also focuses on the limits of academic talk. In the discussion of sex versus gender, for example, Sjoberg notes that there is longstanding disagreement about whether women should try to advance by acting more like men (which may help women be accepted in traditional masculine spaces, but reifies the trope of masculine = good while feminine = bad) or by highlighting the ways they are different from men (an approach that essentializes so-called gender differences even while it resists identifying traditionally feminine qualities as inferior). Even more important is Sjoberg's point that although gender is socially constructed, people live these expectations, these incentive structures, and this violence in their everyday lives; the concepts are not merely words (pp. 6-8).

The inclusion of men in the analysis is another strength of Gender, War, & Conflict. Often, as noted in the introduction, "gender issues" tends to be code for "women's issues," as if men are either genderless or don't have gender-related issues and expectations to worry about (pp. 3-4). Sjoberg also points out in a later chapter that while men are visible in traditional war narratives, masculinity is not usually discussed or unpacked (pp. 56-57).

Chapters 2 and 3, which use the award-winning film Saving Private Ryan (1998, dir. Steven Spielberg) for illustration, look at how the categories of "women" and "men" are constructed during wars.4 This drama set in World War II excellently illustrates Sjoberg's point that most war stories, whether true or fictionalized, are "told about the women who raise and love soldiers and the men who fight to protect them and everything that they symbolize" (p. 24).

Both men and women have their roles to play in heroic narratives, but these two chapters demonstrate the incompleteness of such narratives. Sjoberg identifies the following women's roles in World War II alone: Rosies (working women), mothers/ wives of soldiers, staff at military bases, USO entertainers and service I personnel, prostitutes, nurses, drivers of tanks and trucks, prison guards, and prisoners (pp. 24-25). Yet only two roles--mother and secretary--are depicted in Saving Private Ryan. Likewise, even though men appear in war narratives as brave soldiers, the reality is that most men experience war as civilians, not as combatants (p. 58). Men are also brutally victimized, particularly in genocidal situations in which combatants seek to destroy a population entirely. For example, the 1995 Srebrenica massacre during the Bosnian War specifically targeted men as men (p. 59).

Later in the book, Sjoberg notes that examining the categories of "men" and "women" does not provide a complete enough understanding of "the relationships between gender, war, and conflict" (p. 86). Chapter 4 discusses queer and transgender bodies and the degree to which gender "disorders" are taken to be signs of larger political and social disorder. Meanwhile, "[traditional] gender hierarchy reinforces war, which reinforces [traditional] gender hierarchy" (pp. 87-88). In light of recent right-wing and media hysteria over trans bodies in public restrooms, Sjoberg's assertion that "trans- and genderqueer bodies are [seen as] signifiers of danger" (p. 88) has even wider applicability.

In concluding Chapters 5 and 6, Sjoberg introduces the human security framework as a way of broadening war narratives and IR research to include a fuller picture of the mass upheaval that war and conflict cause. She does caution that the seven security threats identified by the UNDP are not gender-neutral, even though they are often treated as if they are. Personal security is the most visibly gendered category --since women are far more likely than men to be the victims of domestic violence--but there are other gender inequities masked by the human security framework as well. For example, women are disproportionately tasked with obtaining and preparing food --something that is often difficult in conflict zones due to crop destruction, rationing, and supply-chain breakdown (pp. 131-132).

Sjoberg concludes by asking how we can take the next step. If we can apply gender analysis to war, how might that analysis be used to change how war and conflict are practiced by policymakers going forward (p. 171)?

If Gender, War, & Conflict has a weakness, it might be its lack of detail about specific wars or conflicts. Because it is largely theoretical, mostly addressing how to do a gender analysis of a war or conflict, it offers only brief examples of the concepts being applied to actual scenarios. Students with a limited grasp of world history and current events may need additional material to understand some references --the ones to Srebrenica and Rwanda, for example.

Using both books in the classroom may be useful, since the contributors to Gender, Violence, & Human Security: Critical Feminist Perspectives (edited by Tripp, Ferree, & Ewig) do provide more detailed and specific examples. Like Sjoberg, these authors use the human security framework as a lens to examine gender in war and conflict. What's different here is that the human security framework is introduced right away, in the opening chapter by Aili Tripp, who carefully problematizes it, noting that the framework has been critiqued by some feminist scholars for being too easily co-opted by states (p. 14). Tripp notes that because of the many problems with the framing and practice of human security, readers might have expected the authors to reject the framework altogether. But that would not be easy--the concept is a significant part of modern international discourse and cannot simply be ignored. Despite its flaws, moreover, the human security framework has much to recommend it, including agency, a grassroots bottom-up view, and people-centeredness (pp. 36-37).

Ultimately, no one framework can address all problems related to gender violence (p. 15). Human rights, human development, and human security approaches are all necessary (p. 8). The authors of Gender, Violence, & Human Security argue for a human security approach that examines the links between all forms of insecurity, rather than isolating each one in a vacuum (p. 27).

This is perhaps best illustrated in Edith Kinney's essay about human trafficking in Thailand (Chapter 4, pp. 79-108) and Kristin Bumiller's essay about state responses to domestic violence in the U.S. (Chapter 8, pp. 191-213). Kinney looks at what happened in Thailand as sex trafficking moved into mainstream international political discussions in the late 1990s, and examines the results, both intended and not, of changes in Thai government policies. Laws designed to reduce trafficking (and to increase personal and community security) have not only been unevenly successful, but have also reduced security in a number of important ways. Rules and regulations designed to prevent trafficking have resulted in extreme restrictions on women's freedom of movement (p. 90). Police treat the presence of condoms in trash bins, for instance, as evidence that prostitution is occurring, an approach that may actually decrease women's health security and personal security, since brothel owners may, in turn, discourage their workers from even using condoms so that this "evidence" can't be found--undoing years of work by activists trying to increase safe sex practices for sex workers (p. 93). Raid and rescue techniques, while they may remove women from the immediate consequences of sex work, often lead to years of detention for those women --especially those from resource-poor areas outside Thailand--without hearings, deportation, or even the freedom to leave shelter; such restrictions reduce economic, health, and personal security (pp. 99-100).

In Chapter 8, Bumiller notes that feminist alliances with the state in the U.S. are largely unavoidable--for instance, the state must be involved in incarcerating those who perpetrate great harm (p. 192). Rules and regulations about recognizing and treating intimate partner violence, for example --laws feminists have been instrumental in getting passed--have made people more aware of services available from police forces (some of which have designated sex-crime units), hospitals and health care workers, mental health providers, community service organizations, and churches and religious organizations (p. 196). As in the Thai situation, however, there have been unintended consequences. Bumiller contrasts the early battered women's shelters of the 1960s--which were often distinctly feminist organizations, run by women, with democratic decision-making instead of hierarchy --with todays shelters. The need for consistent funding (often from the government, which imposes its own rules and regulations) and changes in the welfare safety net have turned many of these shelters into top-down, bureaucratically organized institutions (p. 23).

Finally, Bumiller says, what began as a focus on gender and intimate partner violence has merged over time into larger moral panics about sex criminals in general (rolling domestic violence into a larger ball of concerns that includes HIV/AIDS, STDs, drug use, the divorce rate, and shifting gender norms). Moral panics, in turn, have led to selective prosecution--for example, African-American males are incarcerated at rates that far outstrip other groups--as well as to other "witch hunts." She also points out that these media-controlled narratives often focus on "stranger danger" and on stereotypes, rather _ than on actually improving women's physical safety; after all, most domestic violence is perpetrated by assailants known to their victims, not by strangers (p. 198). Lisa D. Bush, in "Work and Love in the Gendered U.S. Insecurity State" (Chapter 5), also weighs in on domestic violence, noting that lack of economic security often makes women vulnerable to entering and/or staying in abusive relationships. Other aspects of life, such as health and personal security, are then endangered in turn (pp. 112-113).

Two chapters in the book's third section (which is titled "Policy Considerations for Reducing Violence and Increasing Human Security") posit various real scenarios to illustrate the potential of the human security framework when it is applied by state and international policymakers. Although none of these scenarios produced "perfect" or "ideal" results, they illustrate that the human security concept, when considered from strong gender and human rights perspectives, can increase the actual lived experience of security. Ruth Rubio-Marin and Dorothy Estrada-Tanck, in Chapter 10, examine two cases resolved by regional human rights courts: Opuz v. Turkey (European Court of Human Rights) and Cotton Field v. Mexico (Inter-American Court of Human Rights). In Chapter 11, Narda Henriquez and Christina Ewig look at the example of Peru's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, "highlighting its attention to gender, race, and human security in Peru's conflict [of the 1980s and 1990s] and its practice of giving voice to the marginalized" (p. 262).

Co-editor Myra Marx Ferree recounts the many meanings of human security in her concluding chapter, "The Discursive Politics of Gendering Human Security: Beyond the Binaries" (pp. 285-308). She reiterates the usefulness of the framework, particularly in its ability to illuminate conditions not always immediately associated with violence, such as hunger (p. 292), but she also cautions that movements are often co-opted or have their goals changed, with unintended consequences.

None of the essays in Gender, Violence, & Human Security are weak. Overall, this is a well-balanced volume, with three opening theoretical chapters, four case studies, four chapters on policy considerations (which are case studies as well), and a conclusion.

Both Gender, Violence, & Human Security and Gender, War, & Conflict would be excellent additions to library collections that serve user bases in political science and history in addition to gender studies. They would also make an excellent pair of texts for a course in international relations or global gender issues. The human security framework has become a major focus on the international policy stage, and both volumes offer a gender-driven exploration of both the strengths and weaknesses of the framework.


(1.) Tripp et al., p. 6.

(2.) Tripp et al., p. 6.

(3.) As of this writing, most of the web links appear to be working, but given the fleeting nature of the internet, their use for future readers may be limited.

(4.) Since one should not assume that today's college-aged readers are familiar with the film, which was in theaters when they were toddlers, I recommend screening key portions of it in class.

[Rachel Bicicchi is associate professor, educational technology coordinator, and research/instruction librarian at Millikin University in Decatur, IL. She is also the collection manager for communication, English/literature, gender studies, history and political science, leisure reading, mathematics, and physics and astronomy.]
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Author:Bicicchi, Rachel
Publication:Feminist Collections: A Quarterly of Women's Studies Resources
Date:Jun 22, 2016
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