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Leaving Gender Out of Genocide Obscures Its Horror

As the 1948 Genocide Convention makes clear, killing isn’t the only crime.

By , a senior analyst for Special Initiatives at the Newlines Institute, and , an attorney specializing in international criminal law and reparations.
Yazidi survivor Layleh Shemmo displays a tattoo.
Yazidi survivor Layleh Shemmo displays a tattoo bearing the date fighters from the Islamic State entered Sinjar, Iraq, on June 24, 2019. Safin Hamed/AFP via Getty Images

More than 75 years after the Holocaust’s horrors, the solemn promise of “never again” remains unfulfilled. Our understanding of genocide, however, has grown, which has improved efforts to prevent and respond to this crime. Understanding how gender interacts with and informs the crime of genocide is a critical and needed perspective in this effort.

Contrary to common misperception, a gendered analysis is not synonymous with crimes against women nor is it only concerned with acts of sexual violence. Rather, the term “gender” refers to a social construct regarding the roles men and women perceivably occupy in society and, for purposes of genocide, within a protected group. A gendered analysis seeks to understand how these gender roles inform which people are targeted for certain acts of genocide and why. This means, for example, that a gendered analysis looks at why it is that men and boys are often targeted for immediate mass killings early on in a genocidal campaign while women and girls are targeted for other types of genocidal acts, including (but not limited to) sexual violence. It also means understanding that nonlethal acts, which disproportionately target women and girls, are a part of genocidal campaigns, instead of placing them into the sphere of crimes against humanity.

Our new report, based on a two-day conference held in September on gender and genocide in the 21st century, delves deeper into this gendered understanding of what exactly constitutes genocide and why it is so important for governments, policymakers, and legal practitioners to frame their policy and humanitarian prevention and response measures in a gender-sensitive manner.

More than 75 years after the Holocaust’s horrors, the solemn promise of “never again” remains unfulfilled. Our understanding of genocide, however, has grown, which has improved efforts to prevent and respond to this crime. Understanding how gender interacts with and informs the crime of genocide is a critical and needed perspective in this effort.

Contrary to common misperception, a gendered analysis is not synonymous with crimes against women nor is it only concerned with acts of sexual violence. Rather, the term “gender” refers to a social construct regarding the roles men and women perceivably occupy in society and, for purposes of genocide, within a protected group. A gendered analysis seeks to understand how these gender roles inform which people are targeted for certain acts of genocide and why. This means, for example, that a gendered analysis looks at why it is that men and boys are often targeted for immediate mass killings early on in a genocidal campaign while women and girls are targeted for other types of genocidal acts, including (but not limited to) sexual violence. It also means understanding that nonlethal acts, which disproportionately target women and girls, are a part of genocidal campaigns, instead of placing them into the sphere of crimes against humanity.

Our new report, based on a two-day conference held in September on gender and genocide in the 21st century, delves deeper into this gendered understanding of what exactly constitutes genocide and why it is so important for governments, policymakers, and legal practitioners to frame their policy and humanitarian prevention and response measures in a gender-sensitive manner.

The report looks at four recent or ongoing situations of asserted genocide that have gendered aspects—namely, the situations in China, Myanmar, Iraq, and Ethiopia. Each of these situations also demonstrates how a lack of gendered analysis or policy approach negatively impacts efforts to prevent and respond to these atrocities.

The 1948 Genocide Convention prohibits the commission of genocide and establishes states’ obligation to prevent and punish genocide. The Genocide Convention lists five underlying acts, namely: (a) killing members of the group, (b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, (c) deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about the group’s physical destruction, (d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, and (e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. These acts are genocidal when committed with the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

There is no hierarchy among the five genocidal acts nor do multiple acts need to be committed. Despite this, mainly (but not exclusively) male academics, pundits, and policymakers continue to argue genocide must include the first constituent act: killings of members of the group.

This argument has been used to suggest that the Chinese Communist Party’s policy of preventing Uyghur births through enforced sterilization and other coercive birth control measures is somehow not sufficient on its own to constitute a genocidal act. In the case of the Yazidis, while the United States recognized the Sinjar massacre, where the Islamic State executed thousands of trapped Yazidis, as genocide, it did not fully acknowledge the extent of the genocidal acts that took place. Acts of sexual and gender-based violence against Yazidi women and girls, as well as the kidnapping and forced conscription of boys, have been excluded from the genocide’s description and placed within the frame of “crimes against humanity.”

Focusing on killing as a genocidal act results not only in the erasure of acts committed against women and girls but also tends to overlook nonlethal acts of violence against men and boys, such as torture and rape—all of which may fall within the genocidal act of causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group. Finally, despite the strategic use of brutal mass rapes of Rohingya women as a part of the Myanmar military’s attack on the group as a whole, some continue to argue only the number of Rohingya killed is relevant for determining whether genocide occurred.

Minimizing other genocidal acts, such as preventing births within members of a protected group or inflicting serious bodily or mental harm on members of a group, reflects a broader gender bias within the legal and policy communities. This bias results in a distorted understanding of how perpetrators target women members of a group to destroy the group itself and affects how governments and the international community understand the nature of the crimes.

“Gender blindness” affects how genocidal acts are understood as well as efforts to prevent genocide from occurring. According to International Court of Justice jurisprudence, the obligation to prevent genocide is triggered when a “State learns of, or should normally have learned of, the existence of a serious risk that genocide will be committed.” To identify whether a “serious risk” exists, the United Nations and various states have created risk assessment frameworks. A review of these frameworks shows most do not include gender-based crimes or contain few to no risk indicators that are related to gender.

The situation in Tigray, Ethiopia, highlights the dangers of ignoring gender-based crimes in atrocity risk assessments. In Tigray, reports of widespread and systematic rape were accompanied by survivor testimonies saying these acts were carried out to accomplish ethnic cleansing and “cleanse their Tigrayan blood” from Ethiopia. Yet, the international community failed to identify the indicators of genocidal intent associated with these acts.

Even months later, once government statements triggered concerns that the conflict could worsen into genocide, the majority of U.N. and government statements did not include sexual violence as either a potential constituent act of the feared genocide or as an indicator of the risk of genocide. Instead, as has happened with the Yazidis and Rohingya, acts of rape and sexual violence continue to be excluded from the discussion of genocide and are instead denounced in the context of human rights abuses, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

Lastly, a crucial part of using a gendered lens to examine genocide is ensuring trauma-responsive justice for victims of sexual and gender-based violence in genocide. These victims, largely women, are often asked to recount their trauma again and again to the international community, legislators, courts, nongovernmental organizations, and individuals documenting atrocities—but gain next to nothing in return. What have activists like Nadia Murad or Tursunay Ziyawudun received in exchange for repeatedly retelling their trauma? Instead of seeking the accountability and justice these women advocate for, those with the power to change things often fetishize these types of stories of sexual violence in a cycle of retraumatization.

If the United States wishes to continue playing a leading role in the prevention and punishment of genocide, it must ensure there is gender representation and competence throughout government positions and across international institutions. The United States should encourage allies and institutions, including relevant U.N. bodies and offices, to review and update their atrocity risk and genocide prevention frameworks and toolkits to ensure gender-based crimes and risk indicators are included. Finally, the United States should engage in and promote gender-responsive justice for survivors of genocides, which centers agency on victims and survivors as well as grants them full and meaningful participation in the justice process—pushing back against the extractive process of soliciting survivor testimonies, which can often retraumatize individuals.

Genocide does not end when the killing (if there is killing) ends. Gendered nonlethal acts continue to harm victims for years and even generations later and can lead to the long-term destruction of the protected group as a whole. Many women genocide survivors describe their experiences living in the aftermath of mass atrocities as a “slow death.” The harm genocide causes is unimaginable, irreparable, and absolutely devastating to individuals, families, and communities.

Recognizing the gendered aspects of genocide is crucial to sharpening and strengthening state prevention tools, ensuring policy responses are effective in halting ongoing genocides, and delivering meaningful justice to survivors—a justice that acknowledges the full scope of the methods and means used to carry out the genocide as well as recognizes every victim.

Emily Prey is a senior analyst for Special Initiatives at the Newlines Institute.

Erin Rosenberg is an adjunct professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Law and an attorney specializing in international criminal law (ICL) and reparations. She worked for a decade in ICL, beginning at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia on the Ratko Mladic case, before moving to the International Criminal Court, where she worked in the Appeals Chamber and at the Trust Fund for Victims. She is the former senior advisor for the Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, where she was the lead author for the report series, Practical Prevention: How the Genocide Convention’s Obligation to Prevent Applies to Burma. She is a member of the editorial committee of the Journal of International Criminal Justice and the American Bar Association’s working group on crimes against humanity.

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