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Managing Difference: gender and culture in humanitarian emergencies

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The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has a mandate to respond to crises of human displacement on a global scale. The ways in which the organization conceives of gender and culture in this humanitarian context are problematic because they tend either to essentialize 'woman' and 'culture' in the planning process or to minimize the meaning and implications of these differences vis-a-vis gender policies which focus on integration. In this article, the discourse of 'UN humanism' is analyzed, noting a long-standing tension between culture as shared humanity and culture as a pivotal basis of difference. Drawing on current research relating to UNHCR's gender policies and on initiatives against violence towards refugee women in camps, the implications of overarching frameworks which attend to gender and cultural differences are discussed. Strategies to avoid authenticating or fixing categories of difference, on the one hand, and to avoid treating gender and culture as simply variables, on the other, are proposed in the context of emerging transnational feminist practices. Transnational approaches point to important interventions which may serve to unravel the dominant discourses of UN humanism and vulnerable groups that continue to organize UN refugee and humanitarian operations today.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: November 1, 1998

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