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Experience file Dossier : Gender and Conflict Transformation

, January 2008

Gender identity as an intercultural issue in international cooperation

Keywords: Social sciences and peace | Internet and peace | | To analyse conflicts from a social point of view | | | | | | | | | Palestine | | Sri Lanka

As a result of the activities of women’s movements worldwide, development agencies (mainly Western) have increasingly focused their programs on women and on mainstreaming gender issues. Although these movements have strong advocates for women’s rights and members in developing countries, gender equality has nevertheless become associated with Western values. An example comes from a project set up by a local Jordanese women’s organisation introducing women’s education in a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan. The project has met important resistance from men in the camp claiming that its employees are “agents of western countries who want to destroy the culture and traditions of the (Palestinian) society”.

An aid worker tells about her experience:

“I was working at a women’s organization to combat illiteracy in Jordan for the past 7 years. During this period we started implementing a project for women in Palestinian refugees camps. It aimed at enhancing women’s awareness of their rights in the local law and international conventions. We started planning to implement this project in Baq’a Camp which is the biggest refugees camps in Jordan. Our organization has a branch there and had been training women on vocational training for ten years. I was the project manager and started visiting the branch there to organize for the launch of the project. When I started going there I faced some hostile attitudes from people in the street, kids start throwing stones at my cars and myself and people start to call me names.

I tried to get over this and set some meetings with women from the camp briefing them about the project and requesting their participation in the workshops. Most of the women were welcoming to the idea and promised to attend; we agreed on a date to start. On that date the trainers and organizers came for the launching of the project and starting the new session but we were surprised that none of the women appeared. We waited for an hour hopping that women will start to come but it did not happen. So, me and my colleague decided to go and check on the women at their houses. We went to almost all the houses but we did not find anybody, not even the children. Later that day we learned that the husbands forbid the women from going to attend our lectures. The next day I decided to go back and try to speak with the women, when I arrived to our Center, I found a mountain of stones in front of the centre door in addition to a lot of signs distributed all over the camp claiming that we are the agents of western countries who wants to destroy the culture and traditions of the society. We tried to negotiate with the husbands but they refused to speak with us; we tried to talk with the women but they totally turned against us.

The only solution we saw in front of us after a month of failed attempts was to talk with the (mokhtar) the chief of the camp as the man who influences others. We went there and we talked with him and explained to him the morale of our project and how the women will benefit from it. The chief was very understanding and he assured us that he would find a solution for this. We learned from his wife that he gathered the men and discussed the issue with them and encouraged them to send their wives but they refused. They were afraid that their wives would become stronger and would not listen to them. They wanted their situation to stay the same as they were comfortable with it the way it was. The mokhtar assured them that even if their wives became stronger and more empowered there is no need for them to be scared of troubles unless they are treating their wives badly, but the husbands declined. So, the mokhtar sent his wife and three daughters to our sessions and sent us a message to start the project with them and to give the others more time. After a month we had 25 women participating in this project, the hostility stopped and the project continued for 3 years.”

This example demonstrates that being aware about other’s values is very important in how to design projects. It also demonstrates the dangers of cultural relativity. In this example, if the organization would have accepted the claim put forward by men that women education would destroy the culture and traditions of Palestinian society, the women in the camp would have been deprived of acquiring skills and opportunities for improving their livelihood. It is a good example of the dangers of cultural relativity. In blindly accepting cultural values put forward by men, development organisations are reinforcing strategies by men aimed at maintaining power and safeguarding their identity. The experience above also demonstrates that denying men their claims on cultural identity and bypassing them in the project design is creating conflict and may block the project. Recognising men’s concerns as legitimate and trying to work through the structures of a culture can lead to very positive results. Typically women are kept in a subordinate condition when men themselves feel threatened in their identity as men. Therefore it is typically marginalized men, like the internally displaced, that vehemently oppose women’s empowerment. Is it a coincidence that the mokhtar, a man with power, in above example was much more open to the education than other men without a specific power position in the camps?

In order to better understand the gender dynamics in above mentioned project, we should have a further look into the impact of displacement on men’s identities in refugee camps. Catherine Brun did research into the challenges of gender identity among young male refugees in a camp for Internally displaced Persons (IDP’s) in Puttalam in the North West region of Sri Lanka.

The region has seen the influx of so many people since 1990 that it has changed many aspects of the lives of both locals and IDP’s, including changes in gender relations. On the one hand, women are expected to uphold the culture of the community, by being mothers and wives. Living in a poor environment with small houses and little private space, they are supposed to maintain in one way or another the seclusion for Muslim women as well as to protect traditional family values. On the other hand, women are also at the forefront of change. Much of the employment available in the area is casual wage labour for women in agriculture: a new situation for women from the north. In the north, they cultivated their own land with their husbands. Today, they face a different situation, sometimes having to travel long distances to work as labourers for others. Consequently, women do not greatly appreciate having to go out to work, despite their increased mobility, as it in effect symbolises the degradation of their culture. These changes directly affect the visibility of women as well and are used as a symbol of how displaced people have ‘ruined’ the local culture, by making local women also want to move around more freely.

Men’s gender identities do not automatically change when women’s identities and practices change. The dominating gender ideology and men’s attitudes stay and, in many cases, even get reinforced.

Most of the men Brun interviewed were between 18 and 30 years old and have finished or dropped out of school and are still unmarried. Those who are married are still not necessarily heads of their own households as many live with their parents or parents-in-law for many years after getting married. Many others are still working to get their sisters married, to find a suitable partner and raise a dowry, before their own marriages can be arranged. Brun’s research gives a good insight in the challenges that men are facing in refugee camps. It explains their frustration as a result of the lack of opportunities for building a livelihood and an income necessary to build up lives independent of their parents, granting them a positive identity. With their identities being challenged, they are weary to keep women’s roles as before in order not to increase the gap between them. Brun accounts of her findings:

“Unlike the findings of Turner in Lukole Refugee Camp for Burundian refugees in Tanzania (1) few young displaced men in Puttalam have taken leadership positions and they are still ‘subordinate’ to their fathers and older men. Since most of the northern Muslims fled together and arrived together in Puttalam, the social structures from the north have in many cases been re-established in the camps and settlements. As many older men were not able to get employment in Puttalam, many young men have taken over their father’s role as breadwinner earlier than they would have done in the north. (…) The most important way for men to become ‘respectable’ is to follow Islam and fulfil their responsibilities in the family, as breadwinners. In many young men’s view, their father’s responsibility will be their responsibility in the future. They worry only about the difficulty of getting permanent employment in Puttalam: lack of employment makes it harder to meet family expectations.

Though employment would probably have been a problem in the north as well, there are other challenges in being displaced. When they fled, they had to leave all their belongings and property losing the basis for providing dowry for their sisters. In addition, the dowry has increased after displacement, partly as a household’s means to restore lost assets and property.

The difficulty of getting employment and the accompanying frustration are also related to gender identity. The young men’s understanding of their main responsibility as maintainer of their family and as the main breadwinner does not change despite the number of women who are today contributing on equal terms with their husbands to provide for their families. In their view, women are forced to work because men cannot fulfil their obligations. If the young men could afford it, they would not automatically approve of their wives going out to work. Changes in women’s culture and practices have became symbols of men’s inadequacies.”

The reality of refugee camps is that men have lost an important part of their status.

Development projects should therefore not too easily accept the cultural claims put forward by men that women’s education is undermining their culture but should be careful not too focus only on women’s empowerment. It should focus at the same time on men’s.


One of the most important values that western students identify as the foundations of French and European society is equality (Egalité). Students disagree whether gender equality has been acquired in France or not. Some consider patriarchy still a foundation of current French society (and in contradiction with the equality value), while others point out the progress the feminist movement has made regarding greater equality and liberty for women. This debate is indicative for the changing of values worldwide about what are appropriate roles for men and women, and typically is a sensitive issue in development work since many projects aim at influencing gender roles.


  • (1) : Simon Turner Angry young men in camps: gender, age and class relations among Burundian refugees in Tanzania New issues in refugee research, UNHCR Working paper no 9, 1999. (