Gendercide - the Role of Gender in Genocide

Amila Husić

Genocide - the crime above all crimes - is the act of deliberately and systematically destroying a group of people because of their ethnicity, nationality, religion or race. However, other identities of members of the victimised group, in addition to those already stated, also play a role in the targeted victimisation, as well as the perpetration of genocide. One of those key identities is gender as one of the primary social constructs with which all people identify, in various forms. This article explores the role of the gender of victims of genocide, considering it an important element, especially in the indirect identification of genocidal intent. The paper also explores the phenomenon of 'gendercide' and specific forms of genocide against women, such as rape as a form of genocidal act, forced pregnancy and other manifestations of systematic and comprehensive sexual violence committed with the genocidal intent.

Gender and ethnicity as fundamental identities

Every human being is complex, we have different worldviews, interests, issues, social backgrounds and identities. It is because of these differences that every human being is unique, but our identities unite us, make us part of a group. Gender, as one of the fundamental identities, refers to the socially constructed roles and identities of men and women in a particular community. These roles and identities may vary from one community to another and may change over time, and are influenced by other factors such as culture, ethnicity, age and sexual orientation. So when we speak of a female or male, gender identity, we can hardly separate it from other identities. Ethnicity, on the other hand, remains somewhat undefined, as definitions vary among authors. However, most authors find (a myth of) common ancestry, descent, history or region of origin, along with culture, language, religion, customs, as well as certain physical characteristics as elements of affiliation to a ethic group.

In feminist academic discourse, this phenomenon is called intersectionality and is defined as the way in which different types of discrimination are connected and affect each other. Science debates whether intersectionality acts as a general theory of identity or is it just a way of describing multiple marginalized experiences. Analogous to the feminist understanding of intersectionality, we can analyse the intersections of gender and ethnicity, as well as other identities of victims of genocide. Precisely because of the gender factor, men are more likely to be killed or unlawfully imprisoned during the conflict, while women are more likely to be displaced. Analysing the practice of international courts and tribunals, we can see that the form of genocide varies by group or victims. Even in cases where the same criminal act is committed against both a man and a woman, for example, rape, it is assessed and interpreted differently. A possible perception of sexual violence, especially rape, is that it implies gender-specific constructs of femininity and female dignity, which is often associated with the notion of 'sexual chastity.' A possible perception of sexual violence directed against men is that it implies a gender-specific understanding of masculinity and masculinity based on characteristics such as heterosexuality, strength and masculinity. Rape as an act of genocide was established in the Akayesu case, but only against women. However, when the victim of rape and/or other forms of sexual violence in armed conflict is a man, then the same act is prosecuted as a form of torture.

Gender and the genocidal intent

The term ‘genocide’ was coined in 1944 by Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, to describe the Nazi systematic killing of European Jews and other groups. According to Lemkin, genocide is a coordinated plan of action aimed at destroying the essential foundations of the lives of national groups, with the aim of destroying the groups themselves. Genocide is defined as behavior aimed at destroying a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.

Genocide, as a criminal offense, has two separate mental elements, general intent (dolus) and an additional intent to destroy, popularly referred to as the genocidal intent. Genocidal intent is an additional subjective requirement that complements the general intent and goes beyond the objective elements of the definition of the act. Therefore, it is necessary to speak more precisely about the overlaid intention, that is, the excess of intention, which is characterized by an extended, with regard to actus reus, mental element or transcendent inner tendency. Consequently, genocidal intent is the intent to completely or partially destroy a group that the perpetrator, as a rule, is not able to fully fulfill, and its fulfillment is not taken into account when qualifying the act of genocide as such.

The traditional understanding of genocide and genocidal intent is that it is directed toward a particular ethnic, religious, or similar group as such. However, this does not mean that other identities of this group are excluded and that their gender does not play a role in committing genocide. When communities are attacked with genocidal intent, individual members are usually targeted based on their (perceived) symbolic status in the social and biological reproduction of groups. These perceived statuses unequivocally refer to genders and their roles: men are attacked as protectors, fathers, husbands, heads of families, political leaders, religious icons, leading intellectuals, past, present and future patriarchs. Women are attacked as mothers, wives, daughters, bearers of future life, protectors of children, food suppliers, etc.

Gender constructs make up the very fabric of any community, harming or destroying such a community usually means targeting the gender construct on which the community rests. Therefore, for example, in order to understand what it means to destroy the foundations of the target community with the intention of genocide, it is crucial to understand gender factors. Our understanding of the gender roles of women and men necessarily determines the way we treat them. Women are seen as the mothers of present and future generations of a particular ethnic, religious, racial and similar group, and their reproductive abilities are targeted in order to prevent further reproduction of the target group. On the other hand, men represent members of a certain ethnic, religious, racial and similar group in full capacity, which is why they are most often victims of mass shootings, murders and the like, because the goal of genocide is the extermination of a certain nation. In many cases, such as Bangladesh in 1971, Anfala in 1987-88, Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992-1995 and Kosovo in 1999, the gender component was sufficient and marked the boundaries of the genocidal campaign, at least in terms of mass killings. Other gender groups, such as children and women, were, of course, exposed to a multitude of different and less deadly, but no less 'gender-based' measures, especially rape and mass expulsions.


Gendercide was coined by Mary Anne Warren in her work Gendercide: The Implications of Sex Selection in 1985, and defines this concept as follows: “I define gendercide by analogy with genocide, as any unlawful act or practice resulting in the death of persons of predominantly one sex and/or a reduction in the relative number of persons of that sex. Both are crimes against groups of people as well as individuals, and each may or may not involve murder.” Thus, Warren used the term in analogy to genocide, but not exclusively in the context of genocide, but expanded and intended its application to all forms of gender-based violence. The choice of the gender element is crucial, instead of the exclusively female element, so it is possible to use this term for both sexes, i.e. gender, depending on the form of violence. The use of the term gendercide in the context of genocide and in armed conflict has been popularized by Adam Jones in his numerous studies on the role of gender in genocide.

The use of the term 'gendercide' allows the analyst and activists to use Warren's appropriate terminology, which, like Raphael Lemkin's original expression 'genocide', has the advantage of describing a particular phenomenon or set of phenomena 'as briefly and touchingly as possible.' The brevity of the term itself allows us to specify our focus not only on the ethnicity or religion of the target group, but also their gender. If we are based on the Genocide Convention, we cannot talk about genocide against gender groups at all. The Convention limits itself to "national, ethnic, racial or religious" groups, leaving no room for such gender framing. This extends the scope of the analysis to gender groups, ie definitions of genocide, without diminishing the importance of the ethnic element.

The significance of this term lies in its gender neutrality, effectively breaking the illusion of female-only victims of gender-based violence, regardless whether it is conflict-related or not. It is very rare for women to be seen not only as participants in the war, but also as those who are active participants in the post-war building of society and, especially, the affirmation of the concept of security. We cannot view women exclusively in the role of victim. In the case of Rwanda and the genocide of the Tutsi population, women also took part in genocidal acts. Most of the killer women were Hutus, although the girls and women also fought in the Tutsi resistance. Some Tutsi women, who were married to Hutu men, were also complicit in the genocide. This clearly shows the intersection of ethnic identity with gender, but also breaks down prejudices about women as pacifists. If they did not actively participate as perpetrators, they often helped soldiers and other fighters in committing genocidal acts. For example, Tutsi mothers believed that Hutu mothers would help them protect their children. One survivor said many Tutsi women, when the conflict broke out, left their child under the protection of Hutu mothers from the area. However, they handed the children over to Interahamwe to kill.

Despite this fact, of course we must not forget that women were victims, but most often of other genocidal acts, which was established in the case of Akaseyu. Thus, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda came to the following conclusion: “Measures to prevent intra-group births should be interpreted as sexual mutilation, sterilization practices, forced birth control, gender segregation and the prohibition of marriage. In patriarchal societies, where group membership is determined by the identity of the father, an example of a measure aimed at preventing childbirth within a group is when a woman from that group is deliberately fertilized by a man of another group during rape, with the intention of having a child who will not belong to the group. his mother. Furthermore, measures to prevent intra-group births can be physical, but they can also be mental.” This case is significant not only for establishing the genocide of Tutsis, but also for establishing rape and other forms of sexual violence as genocidal acts.

On the other hand, the fact that men most often make up the largest percentage of war victims in history and that they make up the majority of active fighters in armed conflicts is ignored. Therefore, we can say with certainty that men are almost as much victims of patriarchy as women, but in a different form. In the case genderice against men and boys, it seems true, but of secondary importance, to state that the male sex is targeted because in most cultures, able-bodied men of a certain age will first join guerrilla organizations, more likely to passively or actively resist occupation forces and are considered to potentially pose a greater economic or political threat to those occupying positions of power than women, mainly because of the socially attributed role each of them plays in patriarchal social systems.

In addition to gender roles related to family and private life, gender also determines social status in public life, where men occupy the most important public functions. This is evident in the modus operandi of the Army of the Republika Srpska, in addition to the ethnic and gender element, the elements of eliticide were clearly highlighted:

  1. Concentration - encirclement of the area that needs to be cleaned even after warning Serb residents, they are often asked to leave or at least mark their houses with white flags, intimidate the target population with artillery fire and arbitrary executions, and then take them out into the streets.

  2. Decapitation - the execution of political leaders and those capable of taking their places: lawyers, judges, civil servants, writers, professors.

  3. Separation - the separation of women, children and the elderly from men of fighting age, i.e. from sixteen to sixty years.

  4. Evacuation - transport of women, children and the elderly to the border by expelling them to a neighboring territory or state. Women were often sexually abused during this phase.

  5. Liquidation - the execution of men of "combat age" and the rescue of the body.


The gender of a person is one of the fundamental identities of every human being, which is practically impossible to change. In this regard, precisely because of the specific character of genocide as a criminal offense directed against a certain category of people, most often targeted due to ethnic or religious characteristics, as one of the key identities of that group. In addition, it is difficult to omit a gender perspective when analyzing social phenomena, in this case genocide. In this blogpost, we used the terms ‘gender’ and ‘gender’ as synonyms for the reason that the social perception of gender is viewed in accordance with a person’s gender, especially when it comes to armed conflict. The roles of women and men are treated differently in peacetime, and these social differences are particularly pronounced in armed conflicts.

Summa summarum, the gender of a person determines the position in society in accordance with the gender roles common to the group to which he or she belongs. It is of the utmost importance to point out the inaccuracy of the perception of victims as exclusively female, i.e. perpetrators exclusively male. Furthermore, we have seen how cultural, ethnic, and traditional male and female roles influence the modus operandi of genocide. Ultimately, we can conclude that the gender element is very much present, together with the ethnic or religious element in genocide cases.

Written by: Amila Husić

Published by: Elizabeth Cheetham

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