Peace talks between the Syrian government and its opponents are ensuing in Geneva, with the UN mediating between the two parties. After days of negotiations, the first compromise between the two sides is a simple one: women and children will be allowed to leave the city of Homs, Syria. This historic city has been unable to receive food or medicine from the international community, causing a very real famine and human rights emergency. Eight people have died from hunger. Civilian men, however, are not allowed to escape with their families until after a list of names has been submitted to and scrutinized by the Syrian government. This is problematic, since men are more at risk in this armed conflict, as in most. The international aid norm of evacuating women and children first is one that is antiquated, unscientific, and probably won’t save more civilian lives.
1. Historically, men are more vulnerable in political conflicts.
The conflicts of the late 20th century should have taught us that noncombatant men are much more likely to be killed in political struggles than women and children.
In the 1990s, the Balkans saw an incredible amount of violence in the military conflicts leading up to the dissolution of Yugoslavia. In writing about the wars, Charli Carpenter gave a compelling analysis for the disastrous effect of the Women and Children First policy there, arguing that international agencies using gender as a strategy for civilian protection is just a constructivist approach to aid. She points out (in a more sophisticated way) that the whole idea is kinda just a meaningless social construction, since all the evidence, in that conflict especially, showed that noncombatant men of military age were the group most likely to massacred.
In the same decade, Colombia was seeing insane amounts of guerilla warfare at the height of the drug war. In that case, too, men were much more likely to be killed. In 1994, at the height of Colombian violence, 88 percent of the victims of violent political crimes were men according to Colombia news sources. Some estimates put male deaths at 95 percent of all casualties. Those men who were spared experienced impressment to join a fighting group, something that was not a threat to women and children in that same situation.
Human Rights Watch and Gendercide.org have many documented cases of armed conflicts where men are the primary victims, supporting the idea that the women and children first norm comes at a high cost of human life.
2. Women are better built for famine than men.
Some evolutionary research seems to support the notion that, biologically, women can handle tough environmental situations better than men. In “Sex and the Survival of the Fittest: Calamities Are a Disaster for Men,” Jane E. Brody discuses cases were women tend to out-survive men when placed in a life threatening situation. Women are smaller than men, with 17 percent less body mass on average. They, therefore, need less food to survive, especially since they have almost twice the percentage of body fat as men (women have about 27 percent body fat on average whereas men have only about 15 percent). In a few anecdotal cases of migration groups facing difficult natural circumstances, men tended to perform more energy-depleting tasks, like hunting, compared to women, further depleting their energy stores during famines. Women as the child-bearers are also biologically favored to endure deprivation, which is, like, the whole problem with famines.
3. The conflict in Syria is not about women and children.
It’s true that there are some things about women’s bodies that make them vulnerable in a different way. It’s true that the systematic rape of civilian women has been a horrific and relentless part of the Syrian conflict. Women Under Siege has documented 216 cases of rape, and guess that for every one woman that speaks up, 10 more cases go undocumented. Pregnant women are also at a higher vulnerability risk for physical harm. Still, out of an estimated 85,905 deaths to date in the conflict, only 6,349 have been women. It’s unfair and awful to discuss human life as a statistical comparison, since every life is of infinite value, but there is a very real cost of not negotiating more aggressively and fairly for the evacuation of civilian men, since the evidence suggests they are actually more at risk.
The peace talks should focus more on releasing prisoners, ending the on-going fighting, allowing additional pathways for international aid convoys, and, of course, creating a real plan for a transitional government. This is what needs to happen to save lives. While the current deal allowing the evacuation of women and children is a sign of progress and an easy win, it’s another instance of international norms failing the most vulnerable.