Innocent Women and Children: Gender Norms and the Protection of Civilians

Book review

Skjelsbæk, Inger (2007) Review of Innocent Women and Children: Gender Norms and the Protection of Civilians, in Gender and Development 345–347.

In 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians Charli R. Carpenter sets out to examine the ways in which the norms for the protection of civilians are deeply gendered. Carpenter does this by demonstrating that the notion of the innocent civilian is based on deep-rooted gender essentialisms, which impact on our understanding of, as well as reactions to, civilian protection needs. The distinction between fighter and civilian, which ought to be based on what fighters and civilians are doing, is frequently based on who they are, leading to a bias towards women and children at the expense of non-fighting men.

These gendered social constructions of the civilian protection regime have three distinct consequences, argues Carpenter (pp. 2-4). First, it is a conceptualisation that leads to protection of some civilians at the expense of others. For example, when third parties condemn atrocities, the condemnation is related to the sex and age of the civilians (i. e. condemning abuse of women and young children only). Secondly, the gendered social constructions are reproduced when advocacy networks frame atrocities within the context of portraying women as weak and vulnerable in order to bring attention to war-affected civilians. Finally, the actual way in which the protection of civilians is carried out is largely based on these gendered norms, thereby leaving adult male civilians at grave risk of humanitarian law violations.

Carpenter bases her rich analysis on several sources: the internet, historical, legal, and International Relations (IR) literature, debates in the UN Security Council on the Protection of Civilians in 1999 and 2000, participant observation in the seminars on the Protection of Special Categories of Civilian at the International Committee of the Red Cross, and personal interviews with humanitarian practitioners. This wealth of sources and methodologies makes Carpenter's work valuable not only because of its content, but also because of the multi-methodological approaches she uses. Carpenter takes the time to go through her methodological framework, an effort that makes her work particularly interesting for students and researchers working in interdisciplinary areas of research.

Thematically, the book is divided into three theoretical chapters. It begins by exploring the concept of the 'civilian' in international society, and then undertakes a discussion on the 'gender sub-norm' effects when implementing the civilian immunity norm. This is followed by a chapter on gender discourse within transnational human rights networks. Carpenter then provides a case analysis of the evacuation of the city of Srebrenica, Bosnia, in 1993. Here she elegantly reveals the form that gendered essentialisms within the civilian protection regime can take.

While it is clear that Carpenter has a political motivation in her book, directing political actors and humanitarian workers to the practical consequences of gendered norms, her primary audience is an academic one. She clearly states that one of her major aims is to bring gender as a relevant analytical category to mainstream social constructivist scholars within the IR field. Her language and presentation of core themes, and the way she lays out her methodological approach, show that her primary goal is to place her findings within an academic discourse.

Carpenter has a lot to bring to the mainstream feminist IR literature and to contemporary feminist literature in general. One of the ingenious aspects of her work is that she takes gender analyses seriously by focusing on both women and men. This is something that many feminist scholars claim as an aim yet frequently fail to accomplish (this reviewer included). By critically examining the inherent gendered norms within the humanitarian protection regime, Carpenter brings male vulnerability to the forefront in a way this reviewer has not seen previously from literature in the IR field. This particular aspect makes Carpenter's work very valuable. Men as gendered subjects have not been sufficiently analysed, or rather, they have been analysed as significant only as representatives of power and prestige. Male vulnerability, and/or discrimination against men, is a key theme previously absent from the discussion. Carpenter's work therefore represents a new wave within the field of gender and IR theory.

After the important groundbreaking work of Enloe, Tickner, Steihem, Elshtain, and others, this volume shows that it is time to conceptualise men more systematically as gendered subjects in our theoretical work, and as a relevant category for IR analysts. This is important not only for political reasons, but also because it focuses on the gendered nature of conflict issues. This will contribute to making humanitarian response mechanisms more efficient and will ultimately benefit both men and women.

Inger Skjelsbaek, Senior Researcher, International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO), Norway,

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