Sexism, reproductive health, gender-based violence—these are a few topics that often come up under the subject of “women’s issues.” Although a buzzword, the term “women’s issues” is regularly used without precise definition, and often has slighting, divisive undertones. When referring to women’s equal rights and participation, gender-based violence, or reproductive health, the use of “women’s issues” is well-intentioned. At the same time, it presents a paradox as it can create barriers to men’s involvement, when in fact each of these issues require men’s full participation to resolve.
The lack of clarity around “women’s issues” is prevalent in political discussions on human rights, peace, and security, including at the United Nations. When the term was used at a side event to the UN Security Council Open Debate on Women, Peace, and Security in October, the resounding response was bewilderment. “It’s not clear to me what that refers to,” said one senior UN gender expert. “I would argue that every issue in a peace process is a societal issue.”
At another event, when confronted with a question on women’s active participation in peace processes, Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström paralleled this remark, saying that women’s participation “is not just a women’s issue, [it’s] a peace and security issue.”
What, then, are we talking about when we say “women’s issues?” When is this language helpful, and when is it not?
The Positives and Negatives
Women face unique barriers in pursuit of social and political equality. Employing the term “women’s issues” to address these obstacles or the uneven playing field can give visibility to the particular difficulties that women face, as opposed to other groups. So while women’s rights are human rights, using specificity to define them brings visibility to a population whose voice has been silenced.
Categorizing challenges as “women’s” also acknowledges the historical basis of inequality and oppression that have contributed to the sexism that women face. Its connotation is also that specific forums are needed to discuss how these barriers can be overcome. This terminology can especially be useful when it relates to women’s equal participation, underlining the fact that women are often seen as subordinate in society, and their humanity requires pointed recognition.
The descriptor, “women,” can note with specificity that gender-sensitive solutions and expertise are required to address matters that relate to women’s lived experience, an expertise that men may not always have, as they experience, consciously or not, the benefits of a patriarchal society.
At the same time, the term “women’s issues” has also taken on an amorphous and sweeping definition. It redefines issues faced by women or related to gender equality to be subjects that all women (and only women) should be interested in. It also frames them as challenges that women are responsible for confronting, passing to women both the burden and the blame of sexist behavior.
Using the word “women’s” can sometimes act as a qualifier, labeling a topic as lesser, softer, unnecessary, or to indicate that something is not applicable—nor of concern—to men. In these contexts, referring to sexual abuse or maternal health as “women’s issues” undermines the necessity that men be accountable in preventing violence or engaging in solutions. It also detracts from the reality that women represent half of the world’s population and, moreover, that if an issue affects a woman, it also affects her children, her parents, and all those around her.
In addition, this term implicitly excludes women from “other” issues that aren’t “women’s” issues; it further separates women from men. Author Emma Bjertén-Günther writes that the label creates a division which reinforces a “false male–female binary where issues seen to be important to women are not also seen as important to other gender groups, including men.” The term can reinforce traditional gender roles in which women are seen as victims. This is dangerous in a context where women traditionally have been excluded, subordinated, and barred from participating in society
Another word of caution is that women are not one homogenous group. Not every woman, or person, experiences the world in the same way. The study of intersectionality addresses the many forms of oppression that can be experienced by one person based on different facets of their identity. For example, women are treated differently based on their race, class, and sexuality in addition to their gender.
It is also worth noting that gender is different from sex. Sex refers to anatomical and chemical differences between male and female bodies. Meanwhile, gender refers to the socially constructed roles of masculinity and femininity—expressions that are performed and fluid.
What Term Should We Use?
According to Sarah Taylor at the International Peace Institute (IPI), terminology to address gender inequality is a complex problem. There can be significant value in using “gender” as a lens rather than “women,” as it mitigates the broader issues outlined above, but there is also a strong basis for wanting to draw attention to a particular issue that affects women in order to address and counter gender-based discrimination.
Nonetheless, using “gender” rather than “women” can reference the power relations that exist when gender identities are constrained to a binary. “Gender” can also encapsulate diverse expressions of identity and sexual orientation, including people who identify their gender outside the male-female binary. Masculine is often the “neutral” form in the English language, but it is not a universal standard. Men, too, have a gender, are part of the conversation, and must play a role in dismantling systems of inequality.
The implications of terminology are extensive. Women exist in the context of a community, and if language and understanding of these issues is not clear, the issues cannot be addressed, and we all suffer.
Language and Inequality: Potential Ways Forward
Women cannot fix gender inequality alone, and neither are women submissive victims in need of saving or empowerment. One popular solution to women’s inequality has been educational training, which operates on the assumption that providing women with knowledge and expertise will give them value in society, will combat gender inequality, or give women financial autonomy. It falls short, however, since it does not take into account the fact that most women are already active contributors to society.
Programs that support women’s “empowerment” by teaching them skills to become financially autonomous, like sewing, can also further concretize traditional family roles and reinforce the binary in which women are subordinate.
What is needed is a shift in how we view women. As Youssef Mahmoud of IPI has noted, women are not blank pages, they have capacities, not just needs. Instead of focusing on fixing women, each of us needs to ask what role we play in perpetuating inequality and how we can contribute to its removal.
The work of policymakers, academics, and activists will benefit from using a critical eye in evaluating where gender inequality and women’s rights can be addressed more effectively by being called out in specificity, and where separating these issues from men is counterproductive. Identity is not one-dimensional, and change-makers must also consult with a diverse range of groups to fully understand the symptoms of conflict or prejudice and their solutions.
Women’s marginalization, and the patriarchal system where ingrained gender roles further perpetuate inequality, do not exist in a bubble. The use of the term “women’s issues” can be an oversimplification that removes from men the onus of participating in solutions. Any hope of resolving these issues requires a shift in focus to include everyone in the conversation.
We need a better understanding of the root causes of issues labeled as “women’s,” and perhaps a new word that hasn’t yet tired from overuse and become jargon. Men: label it gender inequality, label it a challenge for society, but don’t ignore an issue labeled as “women’s.”
Annie Rubin is a Web Specialist at the International Peace Institute. Follow @EssentialAnnie