Making Women and Men Vulnerable: International and State Actors’ Gendered Responses in Wartime

By Renata O’Donnell

The concept of evacuating ‘women and children first’ is not new. The practice was first recorded in 1852 during the sinking of the HMS Birkenhead. The idea of prioritizing women’s health and safety persisted throughout the twentieth century with Western legislation intended to protect women, particularly mothers. International and state actors also prioritize the safety of women during times of war. This paper will explore the concept of prioritizing the protection of women during wartime through the lens of the Srebrenica genocide and the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis. This paper argues that the safety of women is prioritized over that of men because international and state actors construe women as more vulnerable than men. In designating women as more vulnerable than men, international and state actors construct more dangerous environments for men who are not afforded the same protections as women.



In an attempt to escape from the Bosnian massacres, Hurem Suljic limped toward a bus destined to arrive at the United Nations air base located 50 miles away. Hurem’s wife, daughter, daughter-in-law, and seven-year old granddaughter accompanied him in seeking refuge from the slaughter. Suddenly, a soldier pulled Hurem out of line. He was not allowed to get on the bus, as this was an evacuation for women and children only. Hurem Suljic watched as his female family members loaded onto the bus. Hurem stayed behind, watching the bus pull away, as he stood on his withered right leg.[1]

Why was Hurem Suljic, a handicapped man, not evacuated, but his able-bodied female relatives were permitted to flee? This paper will argue that during wartime crises, international and state actors have identified and continue to identify women as particularly vulnerable and provide them with protections that are not given to men, including priority in evacuation, priority admittance to host countries, and targeted aid to improve quality of life in host countries. In prioritizing the safety of women, these actors create an environment that makes men more vulnerable to physical harm. This paper will specifically argue that women were afforded greater protections by state and international actors during the 1995 Srebrenica genocide and the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis.


Prioritizing the safety of women is not a new practice. The practice of prioritizing women’s safety is often linked to the prioritization of children’s safety. The policy of evacuating women and children before men was initially practiced in the 1852 evacuation of the HMS Birkenhead, a ship that ultimately sank off the coast of Africa. The ship was carrying 480 British soldiers and 26 women and children when it struck a rock.[2] Gould Arthur Lucas, a male survivor of the shipwreck, recounted that when passengers realized the Birkenhead was doomed, some ran towards the lifeboats, mauling one another. Seeing this, the captain of the ship, Captain Robert Salmond, commanded that women and children be moved into the cutter of the ship to prepare for evacuation, while the soldiers and remaining men waited on the poop deck. After Captain Salmond gave these orders, women and children loaded onto the lifeboats and the men stayed behind.[3]

The practice of prioritizing the safety of women and children was celebrated and commended as an act of bravery after the ship’s sinking. Rudyard Kipling popularized the term “Birkenhead Drill” by using the phrase in his piece Soldier an’ Sailor Too, writing:

To take your chance in the thick of a rush, with all firing about,
Is nothing so bad when you’ve cover to ‘and, an’ leave an’ likin’ to shout;
But to stand an’ be still to the Birken’ead drill is a damn tough bullet to chew
‘An they done it, the Jollies- ‘Er Majesty’s Jollies- soldier an’ sailor too!
Their work was done when it ‘and’t begun; they was younger nor me an’ you;
Their choice it was plain between drownin’ in ‘eaps an’ bein’ mopped by the screw,
So they stood an’ was still to the Birken’ead drill, soldier an’ sailor too![4]

The concept was further popularized by William Douglas O’Connor’s book Harrington: A Story of True Love, published in 1862.  In the story, the ship strikes an iceberg. Seeing the need to evacuate, Captain Harrington prioritizes the safety of the women and children over that of the men. Captain Harrington orders his men to demonstrate the same bravery as that which was demonstrated on the Birkenhead, commanding, “the first man that touches a boat I’ll brain. Women and children first, men.”[5]

The protection of women and children extended beyond the maritime context and into government regulation in the twentieth century. The creation of the Children’s Bureau in 1912 brought into existence the first national American government office to focus solely on the well being of children and their mothers.[6] The Bureau’s mission was established as “the public protection of maternity and infancy.”[7]

Government intervention for the protection of women and children continued in the form of the Sheppard-Towner Act of 1921. Also known as the Promotion of the Welfare and Hygiene of Maternity and Infancy Act, the Sheppard-Towner Act allotted a $1,480,000 budget to the Children’s Bureau, which enabled the Bureau to provide public health nurses, visiting nurses, consultation centers, and literature for women and children’s health.[8] President Warren Harding endorsed the Sheppard-Towner Act and urged its passage, claiming that the bill ought to have strong support to be enacted promptly in order to “add to our manifestation of human interest.”[9] The Act did target a specific group of vulnerable women, as childbirth was a very risky endeavor with a relatively high mortality rate. In 1920, 13 in every 1,000 mothers died in childbirth.[10]

As the twentieth century progressed, the mortality rate due to childbirth decreased sharply. As this rate decreased, however, women of the United State were still afforded increased protections for their health and wellbeing. In 1990, the maternal mortality rate had dropped significantly to 13 in every 100,000 live births.[11] Pregnant women were far less vulnerable to death than they had been decades prior. Nonetheless, the government still identified women, specifically mothers, as a class in need of increased protection. In 1989 and 1993, the United States expanded Title V of the Social Security Act to promote and improve maternal health.[12] Legislation was also passed to protect women and children beyond pregnancy and childbirth. Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), began providing nutritious food, nutrition education and counseling, and health screenings to pregnant women, mothers, and children in 1974.[13] Benefits for men and fathers were not included.

Throughout the twentieth century, women in the United States saw reform in ways that men- specifically working class men, who were subjected to high death rates due to working conditions- did not.[14] In Protecting Soldiers and Mothers, Theda Skocpol argues that in the late nineteenth century, Progressives sought to construct paternalist reforms that focused on regulation and protection of the male body and male laborer. The judiciary repeatedly struck down these measures, however. This led to a rise in the maternalist welfare state. Reforms that benefited women and children did not face the resistance that paternalist reforms faced. Rather, maternalist reforms were accepted by the government, as demonstrated by the litany of regulations that passed during the twentieth century that are mentioned above. Reforms that prioritized the protection of women and children were more successful than reforms that prioritized the protection of men because the judiciary determined that “women’s physical structure and the performance of her maternal functions place her at a disadvantage in the struggle for subsistence.”[15] Further, the Court, under Justice David Josiah Brewer, articulated that “healthy mothers are essential to vigorous off-spring; the physical well-being of woman becomes an object of public interest and care in order to preserve the strength and vigor of the race.”[16] Women were deemed more vulnerable because, in reality, they were perceived as deserving of protection due to their necessity in propagating human life. In creating a safer environment for women, the Court neglected men and created an environment that made them more vulnerable because these men continued to work in primarily industrial jobs without adequate regulations to protect the male ‘army of labor.’[17]

The rise and passage of maternalist reforms in the United States throughout the twentieth century demonstrates that the identification of women as more vulnerable than men is an international issue with deep historical roots. The actors in Srebrenica and Syria were and are providing aid in a primarily Western context as the agencies and governments supplying protections were and are Western powers. These twentieth century reforms illustrate that the concept of women as more vulnerable is not simply an idea that Western actors apply in policies implemented abroad. This is a concept that is borne out in Western legislation as well. Further, these reforms show that these conceptions of women are not limited to a specific time or place. Wartime is not the only time in which gender plays a role in dictating who does and does not receive increased protections. Rather, this is a far-reaching concept with deep historical roots. Finally, the power to create a more vulnerable environment for men through the identification of women as the more vulnerable population is not limited in time or place.

In the twenty-first century, international and state actors have placed a premium on women’s safety in wartime chaos. In 1996, the 26th International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (ICRC) put forth the resolution Protection of the Civilian Population in Periods of Armed Conflict, which demanded that “strong measures be taken to provide women with the protection and assistance to which they are entitled” by developing and assessing programs to ensure that “women victims of conflict receive medical, psychological, and social assistance, provided by qualified personnel.”[18] At the 27th International Conference in 1999, the ICRC formed a Plan of Action, pledging to protect women and girls affected by armed conflicts, as it is the duty of the ICRC to “alleviate the plight of the most vulnerable.”[19] In directly connecting the “most vulnerable” to the need to “protect women and girls,” ICRC demonstrated that it identifies women as one of the most vulnerable populations. ICRC failed to identify men as a vulnerable population in wartime.

Men are, however, vulnerable in times of war. In some conflicts, as many as 96 percent of wartime detainees and 90 percent of those who are identified as missing are men.[20] Men are more likely to be targeted and killed by members of armed groups, who still largely recruit men and identify males as potential rival militants.[21] Despite these facts it seems that “the ‘women and children first’ rule is as operative among besieged populations today as it once was for ocean liner passengers abandoning ship.”[22] Although the conflicts, regulations, and populations have changed over the course of history, the prioritization of women’s safety has remained and continues to be practiced to this day. This prioritized protection of women is due to state and international actors’ designation of women as more vulnerable than men. The designation of women as more vulnerable than men creates an environment that makes men more vulnerable to physical violence and exacerbates the very conditions that lead to more male deaths in wartime conflicts.


This paper will employ the definition of vulnerable in two different ways. The first definition will use the term vulnerable to reference individuals who are more likely to be subjected to bodily harm or death. For instance, in discussing the genocide in Srebrenica, men will be identified as the most vulnerable population because militant Serbs specifically targeted males, and 92 percent of the victims in Srebrenica were male.[23] The second definition of vulnerable is derived from the way in which state and international actors use the term. These actors use the term vulnerable to denote the population that is more deserving of protection.

In 2013, the United Nations’ Minister of Foreign Affairs, San Marino, announced that heightened attention needs to be paid to “the most vulnerable groups, who ought to be properly protected” and that this would be the focus of the new development agenda. San Marino defined these vulnerable groups as “women, children, and persons with disabilities.”[24] Men were not mentioned in the entirety of the statement. In specifically naming women, children, and persons with disabilities in conjunction with the “most vulnerable,” San Marino demonstrates that these groups are identified as more vulnerable than men by international actors.

Underlying the conception of women as more vulnerable, and thus, more deserving of protection, is the idea that women are innocent civilians, deserving of protection. In 2000, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1325, which called for increased international measures for the protection of girls and women. The Security Council outlined the motivation for this resolution as a “concern that civilians, particularly women and children, account for the vast majority of those adversely affected by armed conflict, and increasingly are targeted by combatants and armed elements.”[25] The Council specifically identified women and children as “civilians”- meaning unarmed citizens who do not perpetuate the conflict, but rather, are innocent victims affected by the conflict.

In the 1999 United Nations Security Council Debates on the Protection of Civilians, which led to the creation and adoption of Resolution 1325, there were 20 references to vulnerable or innocent women and children. There were only two references to civilian men. Men were not described as vulnerable or innocent in these references. Rather, these two references to men were only in regards to their relation to the protection of women and children. There are no specific references to the unique vulnerabilities of men in war-affected regions.[26] Further, at these debates the Council stated that it “condemns attacks or acts of violence in situations of armed conflict directed against civilians, especially women, children, and other vulnerable groups.”[27] The specific condemnation of any attacks against women and children indicates that there is something particular about this group that the Council perceives as constructing them as more vulnerable than the amorphous “other vulnerable groups.” Women are certainly identified as more vulnerable than men, who go unmentioned and are not categorized as “civilians” in this denunciation of violence.

There is a case to be made that women are inevitably more vulnerable than men; that women are not simply identified as more deserving of protection by state and international actors, but that they are truly more susceptible to injury or death during wartime. Of course, pregnant or lactating women bear specific physical vulnerabilities due to a condition that is unique to women. However, the term vulnerable- as it is used by state and international actors- extends beyond the scope of pregnant women. As seen in the United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1325, 1261, 1265, and 1296, in order to be identified as a vulnerable woman in need of protection, one does not need to be a mother or need to be pregnant. Although there is no specific mention of them, able-bodied women without dependents are implicitly protected and accounted for in the measures laid out in these Resolutions.[28]

Some may argue that physical condition is irrelevant to women’s vulnerability, claiming, instead, that women are vulnerable to physical threats and death due to lesser social status.[29] These claims center on women’s lack of autonomy in many war-torn sites and the potential for sexual assault in these communities due to lesser social status.[30] These claims are undoubtedly valid. Women around the world face discrimination and armed conflict can lead to increased incidence of sexual assault against these women who lack the authority to report or rebuke the men who abuse them. Additionally, some displaced women may struggle to assume the role of the head of a household if they have lived a domestic life dominated by patriarchy and, thus, have not served as a breadwinner throughout their lifetimes.[31] This inability to provide can ultimately lead to physical deterioration or death.

Although there is merit in the argument that women are more vulnerable than men during wartime due to social status, identifying all women as more vulnerable than men and giving women increased protections based on that identification is problematic. Identifying all women as more vulnerable does not account for the fact that “while able-bodied men, as adults, are among the least vulnerable group in terms of status, they become far more vulnerable to attack than women, children, and the elderly in certain situations,” particularly wartime situations, in which many men are viewed as potential militants.[32] By giving women more protections, international and state actors actually create an environment in which men are more vulnerable because they are the targets of the violence and they do not receive necessary protections needed to escape from that violence. Instead, state and international actors give priority to the safety of the vulnerable, innocent civilians- women and children.



Over the course of two days in 1995, members of the Bosnian Serb Army of Republika Srpska attacked and killed Muslim Bosniaks in the town of Srebrenica. The final death toll reached 8,373 casualties.[33]  Conflict between the Serbs and Muslim Bosniaks began prior to the genocidal attacks. In May of 1992, Serb military forces of eastern Bosnia and Serbia gained control of Srebrenica, a Bosnian town. Bosnian government forces recaptured the town a few days later, but the Serb military’s presence did not disappear. Forced out of Srebrenica itself, the Bosnian Serb Army captured villages surrounding Srebrenica. This chaos forced more Bosniak residents into Srebrenica. Srebrenica became “a vulnerable island amid Serb-controlled territory.”[34] In March 1995, Radovan Karadžić, President of the Republika Srpska, issued Directive 7, which stated the objective of physically separating the Serbs from the Bosniaks in Srebrenica “preventing even communication between individuals in the two enclaves.”[35] In reality, Radovan Karadžić’s goal was to remove the Bosniak presence altogether through a mass genocide.

When the genocide began, the Bosnian Serb Army targeted boys and men.  On July 11, 1995, 25,0000 Bosniaks fled from Srebrenica because they felt threatened by increasing attacks launched by the Bosnian Serb Army near Srebrenica. The Srebrenica residents gathered in Potočari, a town near Srebrenica, which housed the United Nations Protections Force (UNPROFOR) headquarters. Only 900 of the 25,0000 refugees at the UNPROFOR headquarters were men because men were prohibited by the Bosnian Serb Army from leaving Srebrenica in the days preceding the attacks.[36] The United Nations’ International Tribunal for the Prosecution of Persons Responsible for Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law Committed in the Territory of Former Yugoslavia revealed that an estimated 8,000 of the roughly 8,500 casualties were Bosniak Muslim men and of the 18,000 missing, 92 percent were male.[37]



In Gender, Norms, and Humanitarian Evacuation in the Balkans, Charli Carpetner argues that gender was the basis of the strategies international agencies used to protect civilians in Srebrenica.[38] Indeed, actors were sex-selective in prioritizing the safety and evacuation of women. Additionally, however, this sex-selective strategy of evacuating only women and children created an environment in which men were more vulnerable. Ultimately, this strategy greatly contributed to the much greater number of deaths and disappearances of men in comparison to those of women.

There were three types of evacuation from Srebrenica. The first type of evacuation was executed by the belligerents- the Bosnian Serb Army. On the days just before the massacre, the conquering forces evacuated women, children, and the elderly out of Srebrenica because men were the Bosnian Serb Army’s targets. Military-age men were identified as potential combatants and, therefore, treated by armed forces as targets. Men were also targeted because, in the Islamic faith, when a child is born, he or she inherits the faith of the father.[39] Thus, the Bosnian Serb Army targeted men because they wanted to do away with all Muslim Bosniaks. Killing men was the way to accomplish this goal. For these reasons, the Bosnian Serb Army identified military-age males as its primary targets, thus the armed forces compelled other populations to leave the city so that the regime could systematically attack and kill Muslim Bosniak men. State, the Bosnian Serb Army, controlled these evacuations, so international actors did not have much authority in how the evacuations were run. However, state and international actors did help with these evacuations and helped the Bosnian Serb Army to carry out their plan and evacuate as many women and children as possible in the days prior to the genocidal attacks in Srebrenica.[40]

In Gender, Norms, and Humanitarian Evacuation in the Balkans, Charli Carpenter discusses international actors’ roles in the Bosnian Serb Army’s evacuations. In interviews with aid workers, Carpenter found that aid workers of international agencies would have “preferred to evacuate all civilians irrespective of sex… their inability to do so was not the result of it being seen as inappropriate, but of their freedom of action being materially constrained by others involved.”[41] These ‘others’ who were involved were the Serbs, who insisted that women and children be evacuated and that military-age men be excluded from that evacuation. To this end, the militant Serbs actually set up buses to transport women and children out of the city. The Serbs compelled Muslim Bosniak men to stay behind, as the Serbs deemed these men “war criminals” and intended to execute or detain them en masse for slaughter.[42] The Bosnian Serb Army relied on gender to distinguish between the civilian and the militant. The Bosnian Serbs considered all military-age men were considered militants.

Why did aid workers also comply with this idea and carry out evacuations, which protected the women and children rather than all civilians equally? If the stated goal of the aid workers was to protect all civilians equally, why did they comply with the restrictions placed upon them by the Bosnian Serbs? In her interviews, Carpenter found that the UNHCR aid workers prioritized evacuation of the sick and wounded, but consistently ranked the prioritization of women as second. When she searched for the motivation behind this ranking she found “women’s entitlement to escape seemed to be taken as a given on the basis of a generic notion of ‘vulnerability’.” Aid workers never assigned men priority over another group in their retrospective rankings. [43] The protection workers who were interviewed believed that the denial of adult civilian men’s and boy’s evacuation was an unfortunate but understandable episode because “most men were at least potentially fighters.”[44] Actors in Srebrenica perceived women as civilians in need of protection, but saw men as invulnerable militants.

There were two other forms of evacuation in which international and state actors could exercise more authority than they could in the evacuations carried out by the Bosnian Serb Army. These types of evacuations were preemptive evacuations and evacuations en masse. Preemptive evacuations took place as the conflict was percolating but had not yet risen to the point of genocide. These were the years when the Bosnian Serb Army had been removed from Srebrenica, but was attacking the surrounding towns and villages. In April 1993, Srebrenica came under shelling bombardment by Serbs. UNHCR evacuated thousands of women and children from the town. Men were only evacuated if they had been wounded.[45]  This shelling was indiscriminate, arbitrarily striking civilians with no particular target, as the Bosnian Serb Army was trying to get any foothold possible in the city. Despite the fact that every civilian was equally exposed to the threat of injury or death due to the arbitrary firing, the UNCHR prioritized the safety of women and children.

As the situation progressed over the years, UNHCR began to evacuate civilians en masse. In a statement before these evacuations began, senior officers at UNHCR indicated that “only persons facing an acute, life-threatening situation” should be evacuated because the responsibility of UNHCR “is to alleviate suffering of vulnerable groups.”[46] As is illustrated in this statement, international aid agencies, such as UNHCR, claim to subscribe to impartiality in evacuation. However, in Srebrenica in 1995, when time and resources were extremely limited, the agency fell back on the reverse triage principle of identifying and prioritizing the most vulnerable, “the most urgent cases.”[47] Despite the fact that by 1995 men were the clear targets of the Bosnian Serb Army’s violence, the number of civilians from Srebrenica who were evacuated by state and international actors were almost entirely women, children, and the elderly.[48] In the Srebrenica Massacre, men were the most vulnerable to injury, death, and abduction, and yet, UNHCR and ICRC, two major international civilian protection agencies, evacuated women, whether they were mothers or not, and whether they were disabled or not. International agencies prioritized the safety of able-bodied women without dependents over the men whom the Bosnian Serb Army sought to kill.

In leaving men behind, international and state actors created a more vulnerable environment for men. Of course, men who were prohibited from leaving Srebrenica were more vulnerable because they were left behind in a city under siege. Moreover, though, in not allowing men to evacuate, these actors legitimized the attacks waged by the Bosnian Serb Army against military-age males. These actors constructed male civilians as militants who could fend for themselves and could be left behind in a city under attack. The United Nations Report on Srebrenica highlights this fact. In correspondence between the United Nations and the Dutch government, the Dutch consistently interchange the terms “military-age men” and “fighters.”[49] Many of the military-age men who were left behind in Srebrenica were civilians, like the women who were evacuated, not fighters as the actions of the state and international actors make them out to be.

Despite the systematic killing of men and boys, women and children were identified as vulnerable civilians deserving of prioritized protection. International aid workers ranked women as the more vulnerable population of the two genders, even though the Bosnian Serb Army’s targets were military-age men. The Bosnian Serb Army constructed the male body as militant irrespective of whether a man was a civilian or a soldier. The actions of state and local actors reinforced this conception of the male body as militant. Men that were left behind in Srebrenica were considered fighters, while the women who loaded onto the buses were vulnerable civilians. This distinction made men in Srebrenica very vulnerable because men were left behind to be slaughtered by militants who had identified these Bosniak Muslim males as their primary targets. State and international actors’ designation of women as vulnerable and men as fighters led to the slaughter of 8,000 men.     


The ongoing Syrian refugee crisis erupted after an intense drought, which began in 2006. The drought caused the shriveling of the largely agrarian economy. Nearly one million Syrians lost farms in the drought.[50] In search of work, these jobless farmers and their crowded into cities. With burgeoning populations, jobs and resources in the cities began to diminish. President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, accustomed to authoritarian rule, began to face strong opposition from Syrians who could not survive on the resources available to them. Protests spread throughout Syria. The Assad regime began to push back against these protesters. Tensions escalated and ultimately resulted in war between the regime and the rebels who opposed Assad and his government. Since the first public uprising against Assad, which occurred in March 2011, more than 240,000 people have been killed, 4 million Syrians have fled the county, and over 7 million Syrians have been displaced, fleeing to other countries for safety and access to resources.[51]


The Syrian refugee crisis demonstrates state and local actors’ continued prioritization of the safety and protection of women and children. Similarly to the incidents in Srebrenica, Syrian belligerents, in certain instances, chose to evacuate women, children, and the elderly before commencing attacks. These evacuations were on a much smaller scale than the many evacuations implemented by the Bosnian Serb Army, however. In January of 2014, belligerents allowed 600 women, children, and elderly people to evacuate from the besieged Syrian city of Homs. The evacuations occurred as the result of a “three-day truce between the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad and armed rebels to allow hundreds of women, children, and elderly to leave. The United Nations mediated the truce.”[52] As in Srebrenica, men were the more vulnerable of the populations because the belligerents targeted military-age men. However, these women were still afforded greater protections than men as UNHCR helped usher the women out of the besieged city. In doing so, UNHCR left behind the men, the population targeted by the belligerents.

In more recent months, the question has not been a matter of who can and cannot be evacuated. Rather, the question has been what to do with the flood of Syrian refugees who have elected to seek safety from the current turmoil by fleeing to surrounding countries. This matter has caused great tension amongst international actors. Stress has been placed on the European Union, in particular, to accept Syrian refugees. Different countries have responded to this pressure in different ways. David Cameron announced in September of 2015 that the United Kingdom plans to take in 20,000 refugees over the next five years with “priority given to vulnerable children and women.”[53] When he announced the plan in the House of Commons, Cameron gave no reason for prioritizing women and children beyond the fact that “these recent events have been particularly difficult on children.”[54] This plan highlights international actors’ perception that women are inherently vulnerable, despite the fact that the chaos in Syria affects both genders, potentially affecting men even more than women. In not including men in his plan, Cameron creates a more vulnerable environment for Syrian males, who will either need to flee to a different country or remain in Syria and be subjected to potential bodily injury or death.

The increased protective measures for the vulnerable civilian women and children extend beyond the United Kingdom. French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced that Syrian women and children refugees at a camp outside of Calais would receive heated tents.[55] After migrants experienced heavy rains in late September, Cazeneuve vowed, “no woman, no child will remain without shelter in this city.” These rains and the approaching cold, however, affected and will affect every one of the 6,000 people in the camp in the same way, making every refugee vulnerable to potential illness or death.[56] Cazeneuve articulated that his goal in providing these tents was to “protect the thousands of people at the camp from cold temperatures as winter approaches,”[57] but in excluding men from accessing the heated tents, Cazeneuve is not protecting all of the camp’s inhabitants. Rather, in exclusively allowing women and children to move into heated tents, Cazeneuve has constructed an environment in which men are more vulnerable because it will be more difficult for men to access these resources at all. If Cazeneuve made these tents a shared commodity, men would have the opportunity to seek refuge from the elements. After Cazeneuve’s announcement, however, it appears as though these resources are reserved for those deemed more vulnerable- women and children.

Within the camps themselves, customs have begun to develop that construct girls and women as more vulnerable and deserving of protection than men. At UNHCR’s refugee camp in Zaatari, parents have adopted a policy of keeping their daughters inside at all times for fear of any kind of harassment. Hiba, a refugee who abides by this practice, explained, “A girl’s reputation is like a cup. Once it’s broken, there’s no putting it back together.”[58] Hiba’s daughters are allowed to leave the home only to attend school. If an errand needs to be done, Hiba sends one of her sons.[59] Boys are placed in a vulnerable situation in which they must go out and face the dangers from which mothers and fathers in the Syrian refugee camps choose to protect their daughters.

The gendered response to the crisis in Syria also extends to international aid agencies. The International Rescue Committee “responds to world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster.”[60] Through their website, people can make a donation and provide a variety of services and items for refugees. On the website’s homepage, the menu reads, “Give Gifts by Cause,” and lists several different categories of causes, as seen in Figure A.

Figure A: 

These causes are “Health, Education, Emergency Relief, Rebuilding, Women and Girls.”[61] There is no specific section for men, boys, or even children generally. The fact that the website highlights women and girls as a group worthy of receiving a gift demonstrates the international perception that women are a vulnerable population in need of and worthy of aid.

The first item available for sale in the Women and Girls section is the Women’s Safety and Wellness Kit, which contains “a flashlight and basic toiletries to protect women’s health and dignity” because women “often enter refugee camps vulnerable and alone.” This gift does not exist for men or young boys, despite the fact that over 1.1 million Syrian refugees are children, both boys and girls. More than 3,700 of these children enter refugee camps completely alone.[62]  Another gift option offered by the International Rescue Committee is one year of education for a girl because “girls are more vulnerable to being kept at home and denied a chance at a better life.”[63] Refugee boys are also vulnerable to losing their education, however. Sixty-six percent of all Syrian refugee children of both genders indicate that they are not currently attending school.[64] This crisis threatens to produce Syria’s least educated generation. Further, Syrian boys are actually less likely to attend school than girls because of competing priorities, such as the need to work. Mustafa is a 15 year-old Syrian refugee who fled to Zarqa, Jordan with his sister. Mustafa is the primary breadwinner for he and his sister, working each day in a shoe store for seven dollars a day. His sister is actually able to attend school while he works.[65] Mustafa is not alone. In Jordan, 47 percent of Syrian refugee families rely partly or entirely on the income generated by a child. Ninety seven percent of Syrian refugee children who engage in child labor are male.[66]

The jobs these children perform involve “working long hours in hazardous and demeaning environments.”[67] Many of these jobs are in construction and agriculture, which exposes the children to heavy machinery, intense heat, and pesticides. Some of these jobs are on the street. Jobs amidst the native population can be dangerous because the host country may not have any sort of positive view of refugees. A poll conducted in Lebanon in May 2013 found that 54 percent of Lebanese adults agreed with the statement, “Lebanon should not receive Syrian refugees.”[68] Another poll conducted in Jordan in July 2013 found that 73 percent of Jordanians were opposed to taking in more Syrian refugees.[69]

Nat Ayman is one of these boys, working on the street of a country where he is not welcome. He is a 12 year-old Syrian refugee in Lebanon whose father cannot find a job. Ayman sells gum on the street and makes four dollars per day. He is the only member of his family who works. Ayman reports that his “job is very difficult and [he is] often harassed for being Syrian. A man kicked [him] for selling gum during Ramadan. [He] would much rather be in school, but [he] needs to support his family.”[70] The International Rescue Committee’s decision to prioritize the protection of vulnerable girls by providing them with an education creates a more vulnerable environment for boys who must give up their education to work in physically demanding jobs in order to provide for their families.


Although some state actors and agencies are responding to the Syrian refugee crisis in a gendered manner, not all citizens of these countries subscribe to the same ideology. With the Internet as a forum, bloggers and readers have begun to voice opposition to the prioritization of protecting women and children. One commenter on Reddit wrote “the use of ‘women and children’ to highlight noncombatants operates under the false assumption that women are not combatants and the equally false assumption that all men are combatants…’women and children’ as a concept is patronizing as hell. It infantilizes women and denies them their strength and agency.”[71] A British commenter recognized that the media perpetuates the concept of women as innocent civilians in their reporting; he explains, “If one has the purpose of saying that civilians are being harmed, why not say, ‘civilians are being harmed’? It is their purpose to convey that hurting female civilians is worse than hurting male civilians.”[72]

Entire articles in New Statesman, the Guardian, the Independent, and the Los Angeles Times have been devoted to questioning and critiquing the concept of women and children first. In her article “We Need to Stop Telling Ourselves that Women and Children are the Only Refugees who Matter,” British journalist Emily Cousens points out that images of the Syrian refugee crisis are often accompanied by captions that report on the number of women and children affected by the situation “to stress the innocence and vulnerability of the victims. It raises the question: are Syrian men not innocent and vulnerable too?”[73] Cousens argues that excluding men from the ongoing narrative of the Syrian refugee crisis dehumanizes male victims, makes their deaths seem inevitable, and constructs them as militants who are involved in the conflict, rather than victims who are displaced and distressed in the same way as women.[74]


International and state actors do not prioritize the safety and protection of women in wartime because these actors identify women as innocent civilians. Actors’ designation of women as more vulnerable than men creates more dangerous environments for men who are not given the same protections as women. This trend is evidenced by maritime evacuations of the late nineteenth century, United States policy developments in the twentieth century, and, most recently, the crises in Srebrenica and Syria, but this concept is now receiving some critique. In new forums, such as online magazines, blogs, and Reddit, twenty-first century actors have begun to question why society distinguishes between able-bodied women and men in emergency situations. Perhaps this points to a potential change that will arise in this practice.

The crisis of Syrian refugees is ongoing and continuing to change. Currently, it seems that nations of the European Union are overwhelmed by the massive influx of refugees and unsure about how to allocate resources. Rather than analyze who is truly the most vulnerable, some actors, such as David Cameron and Bernard Cazeneuve have relied on the concept of prioritizing the innocent civilians- the women and children.

The rebels and Assad regime have also prioritized the safety of the women and children, as evidenced by their choice to evacuate them from Homs. However, some of these women have begun to claim their own agency. Zaina Erhaim, a woman based in Aleppo, is a paramedic on the front lines of the war in Syria. She refuses to leave her country and has formed a group with other women who continue to fight, rather than flee. As a paramedic, Erhaim explains, “men went on the front lines, and [she] did too; men carried weapons, and [she] carried weapons, too; men worked in field hospitals; [she] did that too.”[75] Zaina Erhaim and other Syrian women are not innocent civilians. They cannot be lumped into the same category as children. They are armed fighters, prepared to defend their country. Zaina and others like her may push actors to prioritize the safety of all civilians and make an accurate distinction between the vulnerable civilian and the militant.


Renata O'Donnell is a student at the University of Pennsylvania. 




[1] Stephen Engelberg and Tim Weiner, “Massacre in Bosnia; Srebrenica: The Days of Slaughter,” New York Times, October 29, 1995. Accessed November 1, 2015.

[2] "The Wreck of HM Steamer "Birkenhead" – 26 Feb 1852". Capeinfo. Retrieved 12 May 2013.

[3] Alan Bevan, “Drums of Birkenhead,” The Hiltonian 108 (1973): 13.

[4] Rudyard Kipling, Collected Verse of Rudyard Kipling, Kessinger: 305–6. 

[5] William Douglas O’Connor, Harrington: A Story of True Love, (London: Kessinger Publishing, 2007), 188.

[6] Kriste Lindenmeyer. A Right to Childhood: The U.S. Children’s Bureau and Child Welfare, 1912-1946, (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997).

[7] U.S. Congress, House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, 1920, Public protection of maternity and infancy congressional hearing.

[8] Stanley Lemons, "The Sheppard-Towner Act: Progressivism in the 1920s,” The Journal of American History 55 (1969): 776.

[9] Ibid, 783.

[10] Narcissa Cox Vanderlip, “Sheppard-Towner Law: ‘Human Side’ of Maternity and Infancy Law is Considered,” New York Times, February 5, 1922.

[11] John Thomas, “Exceptionally Deadly,” The Economist, June 18, 2015, accessed November 1, 2015,

[12] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Understanding Title V of the Social Security Act,” 2000.

[13] “WIC at a Glance,”

[14] See Jose Tapia Granados and Ana Diez Roux, “Life and Death During the Great Depression,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106 (2009): 41, accessed November 30, 2014,

[15] Theda Skocpol, Protecting Soldiers and Mothers, (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992), 23.

[16] Ibid, 370.

[17] Ibid, 157.

[18] International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), 1995, Annual Report. Geneva: ICRC.

[19]Charlotte Lindsey, “Women Facing War,” Geneva: International Committee of the Red Cross (2001): 129.

[20] Ibid, 130.


[22] Adam Jones, “Gender and Ethnic Conflict in Ex-Yugoslavia,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 17 (1994): 115.

[23] Charli Carpenter, “’Women and Children First’: Gender, Norms, and Humanitarian Evacuation in the Balkans 1991-95,” International Organization 57 (2003): 675, accessed November 1, 2015,

[24] United Nations, “Rights of vulnerable groups must be focus of new development agenda, San Marino tells UN,” United Nations News Centre, September 27, 2013, accessed November 30, 2015,

[25] United Nations Security Council, “Resolution 1325,” United Nations News Centre, October 31, 2000, accessed November 17, 2015,

[26] United Nations Security Council, “Security Council Verbatim Minutes: Meetings on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict,” August 29, 1999, accessed November 1, 2015,

[27] Ibid.

[28] See United Nations Security Council, “Resolution 1325,”; United Nations Security Council, “Resolution 1261,” August 30, 1999, accessed November 30, 2015,; United Nations Security Council, “Resolution 1265,” September 17, 1999, accessed November 30, 2015,; United Nations Security Council, “Resolution 1296,” April 19, 2000, accessed November 30, 2015,

[29] Lindsey, “Women Facing War,” 129.

[30] Charli Carpenter, “’Women and Children First’: Gender, Norms, and Humanitarian Evacuation in the Balkans 1991-95,” International Organization 57 (2003): 675.

[31] Lindsey, “Women Facing War,” 132.

[32] Ibid, 678.

[33] United Nations, International Tribunal for the Prosecution of Persons Responsible for Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law Committed in the Territory of the Former Yugoslavia Since 1991, IT-98-33-A, (United Nations Appeals Chamber, 2004), accessed November 17, 2015,

[34] Carpenter, “Gender, Norms, and Humanitarian Evacuation in the Balkans,” 663.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid, 672.

[37] Ibid, 662.

[38] Ibid, 661.

[39] PBS, “Global Connections: The Middle East,” January, 2002, accessed November 30, 2015,

[40] Carpenter, “Gender, Norms, and Humanitarian Evacuation in the Balkans,” 684.

[41] Ibid, 679.

[42] Ibid, 680.

[43] Ibid, 684.

[44] Ibid, 686.

[45] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, State of the World's Refugees 1995: In Search of Solutions, (London: Oxford University Press, 2000), 276.

[46] Stephen Wolfson and Neill Wright, A UNHCR Handbook for the Military on Humanitarian Operations, (Geneva: United Nations, 1994), accessed November 30, 2015,

[47] Ibid.

[48] Carpenter, “Gender, Norms, and Humanitarians Evacuation in the Balkans,” 662.

[49] United Nations General Assembly, “Report of the Secretary-General Pursuant to General Assembly Resolution 53/35: The Fall of Srebrenica,” November 15, 1999, accessed November 30, 2015,

[50] Alisha Huber, “Trying to Follow Syria,” Upworthy, September 3, 2015, accessed November 1, 2015,

[51] Ibid.

[52] Scott Neuman, “Syrian Official Says 600 Evacuated from Rebel-Held Homs,” National Public Radio, February 9, 2014, accessed November 1, 2015,

[53] Joe Murphy, “Britain Will Take up to 20,000 Refugees from Syrian Camps, David Cameron Announced Today,” Evening Standard, September 7, 2015, accessed November 1, 2015,

[54] Nicholas Watt, “David Cameron says UK will take thousands more Syrian refugees,” The Guardian, September 4, 2015, accessed November 1, 2015,

[55] Elsa Buchanan, “Refugee crisis: France to build heated tents for women and children in Calais,” International Business Times, October 22, 2015, accessed November 1, 2015,

[56] Ibid.

[57] Ibid.

[58] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “The Future of Syria: Refugee Children in Crisis,” 2013, 31, accessed November 30, 2015,

[59] Ibid.

[60] “Who We Are,” International Rescue Committee, accessed November 30, 2015,

[61] “How We Help,” International Rescue Committee, accessed November 30, 2015,

[62] United Nations, High Commissioner for Refugees, “The Future of Syria: Refugee Children in Crisis,” 9.

[63] “How We Help,” International Rescue Committee.

[64] United Nations, High Commissioner for Refugees, “The Future of Syria: Refugee Children in Crisis,” 10.

[65] Ibid, 35.

[66] Ibid, 36.

[67] Ibid.

[68] Ibid, 27.

[69] Ibid.

[70] Ibid, 40.

[71]Pris_RiotsBane, November 17, 2012. comment on catsandtea93, “Women and Children First?,” Reddit Feminism, November 1, 2015,

[72]Cjt09, November 17, 2012, comment on catsandtea93, “Women and Children First?,” Reddit Feminism, November 1, 2015,

[73] Emily Cousens, “We Need to Stop Telling Ourselves that Women and Children are the Only Refugees who Matter,” The Independent, September 16, 2015, accessed November 1, 2015,

[74] Ibid.

[75] Tracy McVeigh, “The Syrian Women Fighting to Save Their City,” The Guardian, November 14, 2015, accessed November 15, 2015,