Many headlines about the Syrian conflict have emphasized the impact of violence on women and children: “Bombs in Syria Kill Children the Most, Researchers Say,” declared NBC News, while the LA Times found “Conflict in Syria Particularly Deadly for Women and Children.” However, in terms of raw numbers, men are far more likely to be victims of violence than women or children. Between June 2013 and April 2014, 51,589 civilians were killed in the Syrian conflict; 86.7% of these civilians were men, and 13.1% women. Despite the reality of this gender divide in civilian casualties, the news media tends to focus squarely on female victims. However, there is significant regional variation in the levels of female civilian casualties. In some regions of Syria, less than 2% of casualties are women; in other regions, more than 18% are. What accounts for this variation?
This week’s WAPPP Seminar featured Anita Gohdes, WAPPP Fellow and Postdoctoral Fellow in the International Security Program at Harvard Kennedy School. Her research investigates these questions, focusing in particular on the gendered process of reporting civilian deaths at the hands of state forces.
To begin: why kill civilians in conflict? Prior research has focused on the use of force against civilians as punishment or coercion for supporting a particular group, or as a way of “draining the sea” to destroy local networks that would support opposition forces. Neither of these explanations is particularly gendered. By contrast, violence against civilians may be used to kill potential opposition recruits. In order to be effective, state forces must foresee who is likely to join a rebellion and eliminate them. In these cases, we often see a gender divide: when looking to eliminate a potential future threat, state forces are much more likely to target military-aged men.
In theory, civilian status is based on individual activities: is a given person acting as a combatant or not? However, in practice, determining civilian status often falls back on gender essentialist norms of women as nurturers and men as fighters. These stereotypes translate the civilian/combatant distinction into a female/male binary. Even though the actual civilian population comprises a significant number of men who have not taken up arms, public perception upholds the understanding of men as “presumptive combatants” and women as “presumptive victims.”
This gendered understanding of combatants and civilians may change as more women enter combat roles, particularly female Kurdish forces in Syria. Dr. Gohdes’s research pairs the “eliminating future recruits” hypothesis with this increase in female combatants. Do governments continue to follow the gendered notion of civilians/combatants and refuse to kill women even if they are serving in combat roles, or do they adjust their logic and begin to target women as legitimate threats?
Under the first explanation, that gender stereotypes persist, women would not be seen as an oppositional threat regardless of their actual participation in combat. It could be that states intentionally refrain from killing civilian women, even with women combatants, because they fear backlash from the international community. If this explanation holds true, the proportion of civilian women killed by state forces would not vary with the presence of women in combat.
Under the second explanation, states would adjust their threat perception of the local civilian population based on the gender composition of the forces they’re fighting. That is, when women serve in combat roles, state forces will come to perceive women civilians as a threat and will be more likely to target them. If this is true, in the presence of women combatants, the proportion of civilian women killed by state forces will be higher.
Within the Syrian conflict, there are a number of different combatant groups that vary in their gender composition—some heavily recruit women fighters, while others do not. Based on data from the regions where these groups operate, we are able to empirically observe which of these explanations holds. Using territorial control maps displaying the number and percentage of women killed in each region, Dr. Gohdes explained that the variation in female combatants doesn’t seem to be directly related to the variation in female casualties. While there is still a great deal of work to be done, we do not see any descriptive evidence that state forces are adapting to female combatants by targeting more female civilians. This may provide an incentive to recruit more female combatants, as your recruitment pool will not be targeted!
As for the media focus on female casualties, Dr. Gohdes argues that gendered differences in reporting civilian deaths creates a bias. Specifically, if Syrian men are the “norm” for civilian victims killed in the conflict, deviations from that norm, including women, will be noted with greater detail. To support this argument, she draws on civilian casualty data from four different sources. These sources are record-linked and include the victim’s name, date of death, approximate location, and some information about how they were killed. Using a sample of data from June 2013 to April 2014, Dr. Gohdes shows that female deaths were more likely to be reported by multiple sources than male deaths. Even though there were far more men being killed, more attention appears to be paid to female victims.
This effect is clear not just in the number of reports, but in the amount of detail used in each report. On average, entries on female victims used 21.7 words, compared to 17.1 words for male victims. This is true even in the case of untargeted violence, like bombings or shellings, which make collecting information more difficult. For untargeted violence, the average entry on female victims uses 30.5 words, compared to 23.6 words for male victims. The gender bias of paying more attention to female victims exists even when information on civilian deaths is difficult to collect, despite the much greater number of male victims.
Dr. Gohdes laid out a series of next steps in her research, including estimating the number of unreported killings by gender, further distinguishing weapon types beyond targeted and untargeted killings, differentiating women’s involvement in combat roles, and looking at further intersections with civilian status, including age, ethnicity, and economic power. We look forward to hearing more of her findings!