We are constantly bombarded with news about women and children caught in the middle of bloody conflicts, from the Central African Republic to Syria. What is more, even when the talk is about accidents or natural disasters, and not purposefully inflicted violence, women and children are always high on the media agenda.
We watch their victimised faces on TV, post pictures of them crying on the front covers of magazines and online, and learn that they have to be protected, rescued and always evacuated first out of sinking ships and besieged cities alike, before the other, stronger representatives of the human race can follow suit. But what does this expression “women and children” really mean?
“Well, women and children are the more vulnerable members of our society,” a well-intentioned person would retort. “It is only natural that they are protected and rescued first.” But is this link between women and children all that natural? If we meant to identify those who are more helpless in the face of calamities, wouldn’t it make more sense to allude, apart from children, to the infirm and the elderly?
This is not to deny the terrible toll that armed conflicts levy on girls and women, especially in the form of sexual violence, as a weapon of war. Regrettably, in many countries, women are still the preferred targets of aggression, a situation that tends to be exacerbated once organised society starts to disintegrate. But the same could be said about gay men, as the recent wave of homophobia in sub-Saharan countries such as Uganda has demonstrated.
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“Perhaps,” our spokesperson for common sense would add, “the reason for associating women and children is that infants cannot take care of themselves. Children are unable to escape dangerous areas alone and therefore need to be accompanied by their mothers.”
There are a number of flaws in this line of argumentation. First, why don’t we say “mothers and children” if they are really the ones intended? Second, could infants not leave with their fathers, grandparents or other family members? Why do we assume that the task of caretaking automatically falls on mothers? What if women wanted to stay on in a disaster zone and help with the rescue efforts or fight alongside men in a war, as many have actually done?
The persistent connection between women and children harks back to traditional views on social roles, according to which women are perceived as belonging in the private sphere and, therefore, as being less able to fend for themselves in the public domain than men. This cultural conception lies at the root of the large pay gap between men and women performing the same jobs, even in the so-called developed world.
Women are associated with children because they are, in fact, regarded as children. They are presented as infantilised creatures in need of constant protection. Deemed too immature to make their own decisions, they are automatically removed from dangerous areas. Their evacuation from the theatres of devastation and war goes hand in hand with the evisceration of their political agency.
But the emphasis on safeguarding women and children has yet another disturbing implication. If children represent the promise of renewal in the face of a catastrophe, women stand for the possibility of begetting more children. While their minds are considered unfit to make rational choices and to participate alongside men in rescue and war operations, their bodies are saved as potential bearers of the new generation.
This way of thinking is responsible for the reluctance of many to allow women to join the armed forces and, especially, to participate in combat situations. In a context where technological skill has become at least as important as raw physical strength, there is no reason why women should be banned from the front line. Yet, the idea of women’s bodies being mutilated in war still appears to be much more shocking than the more common scenario of injured male veterans.
It is unclear why many media outlets still use the expression women and children when reporting on disasters and war zones and why politicians from all sides of the political spectrum continue to talk about the need to defend women and children from violence. Are we just thoughtlessly reproducing cultural stereotypes inherited from the past? Or does our language simply reflect the sad, everyday reality of gender discrimination?
Be this as it may, with a steady stream of conflicts and other disasters, which unfortunately does not show signs of abating, it is high time we adopted a more gender-neutral approach. Why should only women and children be shielded from harm and not everyone else? What about protecting, first of all, vulnerable adults and children instead?
Language is not only a mirror reflecting social values and beliefs but also a shaping force for our thoughts and behaviour. If we want to strive towards gender equality, why not start right here? Let’s abolish the facile portrayal of women as victims, and scrape the pervasive expression women and children once and for all from our vocabulary.
Patricia Vieira is Associate Professor of Spanish and Portuguese, Comparative Literature and Film and Media at Georgetown University. In 2013-14, she is Ikerbasque Visiting Professor in the Institute for Democratic Governance in San Sebastian.