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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2006, Vol, 6 No. 1 .


Vulnerable Bodies: Gender, the UN and the Global Refugee Crisis
Erin K. Baines

Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004, 49.95, HB, ISBN 0-7546-3734-4

This book weaves theoretical enquiry with practical experience from global through to local perspectives to analyse initiatives towards gender equality within United Nations High Commission for Refugees? (UNHCR) policies. In the first part of the book, Erin Baines charts the troubled instigation and development of gender-orientated policies and actors within UNHCR in parallel with the equally turbulent history and development of UNHCR itself, as it has been buffeted by geo-political forces and has assumed an expanding and increasingly political mandate in complex contemporary crises. The second part reflects on how these global challenges have been enacted in UNHCR practice by presenting gendered analyses of the conflict and displacement in Guatemala, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda. Baines? melding of theoretical concepts and approaches with many perspectives and experiences, including her own, is deft, accessible and refreshing.

Baines illustrates the bold attempts of diverse actors to raise the profile of women in conflict and displacement and to ease the burdens they carry. Her central and concluding argument, however, is that the implementation of UNHCR gender programming has largely tended to homogenise and stereotype women as vulnerable and apolitical beings and has appended their needs onto or after existing priorities in programming. This has conflated ?women? with ?gender? and often entirely missed the transformative potential of mainstreaming. Baines does not argue that global policies and local endeavours have not created benefits for refugee women, communities and international actors including UNHCR, in fact there are positives in each case study she presents, but these policies have failed to challenge the existing UN humanitarian system. In so doing, they have at times enabled harmful gender roles and relationships to be reinforced and perpetuated within refugee communities and UNHRC practice.

One of the most interesting contributions of Baines? analysis is her exploration of the horizontal and hierarchical relationships within UNHCR and the external relationships with donor communities and theoretical movements above and refugees and conflict zones below. Relationships among UNHCR peers appear strong and nurturing, yet vertical relationships, both internal and external can be fraught and frayed, limiting the transfer of global policies to each of the conflict case studies. Whilst establishing her professional respect for UNHCR staff, Baines? insights into their attitudes are nonetheless enlightening and at times acerbic. She acknowledges the genuine quagmires they face without granting concessions to those expecting gender to play second fiddle to more pressing concerns.

Perhaps not unwittingly, Baines? analysis reflects recurring themes from the feminist agenda. There is a need to raise awareness of and challenge the pervasive of gendered inequalities (within institutional and societal dynamics of power and culture) that manifest themselves in intense and gendered forms of violence and vulnerability faced by women. But how is this to be achieved without focusing on women?s particular needs in their roles as the innocent, the oppressed, the mothers and the victims, thereby essentialising women, stripping them of their agency, and stripping gender of politics? Baines illustrates that well intentioned initiatives to help ?vulnerable women? are not merely insufficient, they can be dangerously counterproductive. She studies this dilemma in the context of violent conflict and displacement but there are clear parallels with debates on other ?women?s issues?, such as trafficking, rape and domestic violence. For example, media attention to the trafficking of women and girls into sexual slavery catapulted the issue into public consciousness, but contributed to the idealisation of victims of trafficking. Much as Baines illustrates the ?authentic? (read vulnerable) and ?bogus? (read political) female refugee, good or ?authentic? victims of trafficking ? young, innocent, stolen from their poverty-stricken homes with violence ? are distinguished from bad or ?inauthentic? ones, who take a calculated risk, who have been involved in sex work in the past or who are trafficked into less shocking and titillating industries. Her contestation that gender concerns are ?added on? is familiar also; how do feminists move from establishing a place for gender within the system to transforming the system?

In approaching these issues, familiarly gendered dichotomies spill out of Baines? work: victims and aggressors, political and apolitical, local and global, public and private. Baines urges us to reject these polarities, but does not attempt to delineate or reduce the resultant complexity. Rather, she suggests we start to look not at the poles but at the intersections; to join up the different spheres and better understand the links between everyday experiences, politics, conflict and violence to better understand the gender puzzle.

The broad geographical scope and theoretical and practical application of this book makes it of relevance to scholars and students of many fields including conflict and peace studies, feminist theory and humanitarian law. Its easy style and concise analysis will appeal to the interested layperson and it may also provide a bitter-sweet looking glass for UNHCR staff and others involved in the protection of ?vulnerable women?.


Rebecca Shah, Research Associate, Centre for the Study of Global Ethics, University of Birmingham



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