Invisible vulnerable: The gendered nature of humanitarian assistance
HANIEH ANSARI | 26 MARCH 2023
In humanitarian and migration discourse, the vulnerability of men is underrepresented. The lack of adequate recognition of men’s issues in the migration discussion is striking and this viewpoint has resulted in some groups of people (women and girls compared to men and boys) being considered more vulnerable by humanitarian organizations. These groups then have greater access to humanitarian assistance and benefit from a broader range of aid. As a result, the distribution of humanitarian aid is unjust, inhuman, and exclusive. The aim of this paper is not to disregard women’s vulnerability but rather to highlight the existing gap of the current approach that is distributing humanitarian assistance in a discriminatory way.
The massive consequences of displacement and its devastating journey affect migrants unequally. Migrants “have differentiated needs, suffer from different vulnerabilities, face particular risks, and do not necessarily have access to the same resources and services”. In this sense, everyone can be vulnerable when placed into a certain context - regardless of their gender, but rather dependent on their personal circumstances and how they cope with displacement and its consequences. However, in the current migratory dialogue, the effect of displacement on men has not been given much attention compared to other groups of vulnerable people. Men’s vulnerability and the suffering they experience in these traumatic events is largely invisible.
In defining the vulnerable, some factors are predominant, for instance, gender (mainly female), age, disability, race, or ethnicity. Thus, from the perspective of humanitarian practitioners, “women, children, older persons, people with disability, minorities, and indigenous groups” are considered among the most vulnerable groups. However, it is indeed irrational to expect that we can instantly understand another person’s vulnerability. The emergency nature of the humanitarian context sometimes does not tolerate a detailed and comprehensive screening to see the persons who are really vulnerable. Therefore, vulnerability is usually detected at first ‘sight’. Thus, those whose vulnerability is ‘invisible’ – for instance, those with psychological troubles or who suffered sexual or mental abuses that are not often disclosed immediately – will remain inconspicuous. This is how vulnerable people are sometimes overlooked.
The current discourse on vulnerability in the humanitarian sector prioritizes assistance to women and girls with less recognition for men and boys. Men are not generally considered as vulnerable and are disproportionately experiencing deprivation of humanitarian assistance compared to women and children. As Vidal points out, this is because of “a predominant gender stereotype in the humanitarian sector. This stereotypical view sees men as more capable of coping with [the adverse] situation[s], while the vulnerability of women and children is rarely questioned”. From a stereotypical perspective, men and boys migrants are often seen as the least vulnerable group and as needing less protection; therefore, they can be exposed to structural violence and systemic exclusion. The roots of this common perception can also be detected in the humanitarian workers’, governments’, and donors’ actions. Refugee men are perceived to be more capable of self-sustaining than other refugees. After conducting field research in Jordan, Turner states that, in the words of the International Director of the NGO Questscope, ‘most humanitarian workers did not have a “place in their minds” for Syrian men as refugees for whom care should be provided’.
Men’s vulnerability should not be considered a complicated issue. Men migrants can be traumatized and suffer from severe traumatic and distressing events during their journey, mainly if they get pushed back and attempt the journey repeatedly. Men can also be emotionally abused and endure migration-related suffering. Failing to recognize their burdens means they can be the ones who are left behind from humanitarian assistance, whether in their home country, during their journey or upon arrival in a host country. Appreciation of these diverse situations and listening to men migrants' experiences will help us acknowledge why and how a man can be vulnerable and ensure humanitarian assistance can meet everyone’s needs.
Hanieh Ansari holds a Ba. in Law and an LLM. in International Law and joined the United Nations in Iran in 2016. Being a humanitarian practitioner, she experienced different aspects of forced migration and displacement in Turkey and Sudan. She is currently a regional program manager focusing on Africa projects at World Vision Germany. She has also been awarded an Erasmus Mundus in the European Master Program in Migration and Intercultural Relations (EMMIR). In her thesis, she focused on conceptualizing the unjust notion of the vulnerability framework concerning the illegal pushbacks of men migrants. Find her on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram.