Security as a Patriarchal Structure

By Amber Malone

“Without a feminist perspective, policymakers will be limited in their capability to address the needs of insecure populations, and women – especially asylum-seeking women – will continue to be disproportionately impacted by violence.”

In the piece that follows, student blogger, Amber Malone, charts the exegesis of how traditional approaches to security obscure the contribution of women, accentuate male bias, and inadvertently reinforce male dominance in issues that address security challenges especially for groups that are often at risk, and on the fringes of society.

Amidst the seemingly insurmountable challenge of displacement, how governments “speak security” frames the discourse surrounding the protection of refugee5s and internally displaced persons. Underlining the conferral of refugee status and protections, the duality of security – state security and human security – raises a few critical concerns. Which of the two should be prioritized? Is a balance conceivable? How should States respond to humanitarian matters while respecting national interests and the wellbeing of vulnerable groups?

More importantly, while states struggle with effective migration governance, insecurities are increasing amongst one of the most vulnerable subsets of the refugee and migrant population: asylum-seeking women. Some States – grappling to control the flow of refugees for the benefit of national security – have enacted policies and continue to pursue practices that increase the vulnerability of refugee women. While there tends to be much focus on incorporating human security as a complementary tool to state security in migration management, some scholars call for a greater emphasis on a feminist perspective in  human security. Reexamining human security through the lens of feminism not only allows States to challenge power dynamics, but also address the growing insecurity of vulnerable populations, more specifically migrant and asylum-seeking women.[1]

The issues surrounding the governance and management of migration run deeper than legal limitations. The policies that governments enact are rooted in social, political, and economic structures that intertwine gender and security. Many contemporary security scholars and practitioners claim that addressing security concerns from a feminist approach offers deeper insight into a gender hierarchy in international affairs, the behavior of States, and the insecurity of groups on the periphery of interstate politics.[2]

A feminist critique of human security serves to render more visible the experiences of women and challenge the patriarchal assumptions and male privilege in security. This feminist critique of migration policy poses one question: how and whose security is emphasized in the management of migration?

As a conceopt, security is usually defined by the status quo or discourse set by diplomatic and inter-state relations. State interest in limiting the conferral of specific rights based on citizenship does not always coincide with the concept of human rights.[3] Under the scope of state security, differences translate into threats to national interests, and the rights and needs of refugees and migrants often take a backseat to ideological issues.[4] Traditionally, States regard security from a realist, militarized perspective. This particular approach delineates security as simply protection from invasion or attacks by other powers.[5] This realist approach presents a narrow conception of security given that it positions the State as the sole focus of security and does not consider the human costs.[6] Furthermore, the merging of feminist studies with international relations reveals a “gender dimension” in the practice of security. More specifically, it unpacks the entrenched roles and characteristics given to men and women in the practice of security.

The United Nations University defines human security as “being concerned with the protection of people from critical and life-threatening dangers, regardless of whether the threats are rooted in anthropogenic activities or natural events, whether they lie within or outside states, and whether they are direct or structural.”[7] Through the traditional lens of security, humanitarianism is viewed as entirely separate or unrelated. In other words, state security tends to put issues such as human displacement, resettlement, and protection on the periphery of politics. However, security, in a general sense, is the condition of feeling safe and protected, a concept often encompassed in human rights discussions. Therefore, the protection of human rights is intricately linked to human security. As such, contemporary security or state security alone is insufficient for addressing human welfare.

Many contemporary scholars and schools have challenged this unidimensional understanding of security. However, their criticisms, for the most part, have not acknowledged how interstate politics and migration management are driven by notions and values intrinsically linked to masculinity.[8] Without a feminist perspective, policymakers will be limited in their capability to address the needs of insecure populations and women – especially asylum-seeking women – will continue to be disproportionately impacted by violence

Structural violence has a disproportionate, gendered impact upon human bodies.[9] Numerous studies demonstrate a strong link between the structural and sexual violence against women in militarized societies in times of peace and during times of conflict. [10] Therefore, how governments approach issues of security is gendered and gendering. According to Sheperd (2010), there are two ways in which violence is gendered in masculinist societies that uphold militarism as a security ideology. First, there is physical violence or the threat of physical violence, such as rape, against vulnerable populations to strip them of their political or economic assets. Second, there is gender violence that occurs due to socially constructed ideas about masculinity and femininity.[11] This violence is also gendering because it reproduces binary oppositions surrounding masculinity, femininity, and the militarized conception of security.[12]

Escaping persecution and conflict poses gendered risks and burdens. In their countries of origin, transit countries, and host countries, refugee and asylum-seeking women face numerous challenges.[13] In refugee camps, women are often tasked with the responsibility of logistical and administrative duties in addition to being the primary caretakers of their families. Furthermore, the gendered challenges that refugee women face are further exacerbated by camps in which the social and geographical structures are continually changing. Refugee women are forced to compensate for inadequate facilities and a lack of resources such as healthcare, food, water, and firewood.[14] These challenges create precarious and unsafe situations for women. Instead of providing solutions to the subjugation of women, refugee camps become a hotspot for violence and exploitation, reinforcing their subordination.[15]

A feminist critique of human security serves to render more visible the experiences of women and challenge the patriarchal assumptions and male privilege in security. This feminist critique of migration policy poses one question: how and whose security is emphasized in migration policy?

Redefining security and insecurity through postmodernist feminist theory amplifies the range of women voices.[16] In addition, a feminist approach legitimizes the “provision of care” as an essential component of security. Tickner argues that constructing a concept of security based on a feminist perspective requires a postmodernist approach as prevalent approaches to security are militarized and focus on great powers.[17] Furthermore, a postmodern feminist perspective reveals the gender hierarchies and gender roles that are enmeshed in the challenges that refugee men and women face. The first area of concern is data collection to identify high-risk areas. This initiative would involve the participation of field offices, organizations, and volunteers to identify current risks for sexual and gender-based violence and the accessibility of available protection services in refugee complexes. Second, improving the accessibility of resources and educating in-field organizations about gendered insecurity would aid in developing preventive strategies and responses to SGBV and other gendered security challenges. In addition to more a comprehensive response, extending critical information concerning social and economic affairs as well as bureaucratic regulations to individuals will help refugee and asylum-seeking women make informed decisions and mitigate recourse to desperate measures.


[1] “The Ethics of Care and Global Politics.” The Ethics of Care: A Feminist Approach to Human Security, by Fiona Robinson, Temple University Press, 2011, pp. 41. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt14bt8bq.5.

[2] Tickner, J. Ann. “Feminism and Security.” Security Studies: a Reader, edited by Hughes, Christopher. Routledge, 2011, pp. 47.

[3] “The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration: What Is Its Contribution to International Migration Law?” QIL QDI, 2 May 2019, http://www.qil-qdi.org/the-global-compact-for-safe-orderly-and-regular-migration-what-is-its-contribution-to-international-migration-law/.

[4] Newman, Edward. “Critical Human Security Studies.” Review of International Studies, vol. 36, no. 1, 2010, pp. 77–94. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40588105.

[5] Hama, Hawre Hasan. “State Security, Societal Security, and Human Security.” Jadavpur Journal of International Relations, vol. 21, no. 1, June 2017, pp. 2, doi:10.1177/0973598417706591.

[6] Kerr, P. 2010. ‘Human Security’, in A. Collins, ed., Contemporary Security Studies (pp. 121–135). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

[7] Newman, Edward 83.

[8] Tickner, J. Ann. “Feminism and Security.” Security Studies: a Reader, edited by Hughes, Christopher. Routledge, 2011, pp. 49

[9] A. Gasztold, A Feminist Approach to Security Studies, „Przegląd Politologiczny” 2017, nr 3, pp. 184

[10] Shepherd, Laura J. “Gendering Security;” The Routledge Handbook of New Security Studies, edited by J. Peter Burgess. Routledge, 2010, pp. 73

[11] Shepherd, Laura J. “Gendering Security;” The Routledge Handbook of New Security Studies, edited by J. Peter Burgess. Routledge, 2010, pp. 75

[12] Shepherd, Laura J. “Gendering Security;” The Routledge Handbook of New Security Studies, edited by J. Peter Burgess. Routledge, 2010, pp. 77

[13] Skou, Viktoria. “Women in Dadaab:On the Gendered Insecurities in Forced Displacement.” Lunds universitet- Statsvetenskapliga institutionen, pp. 6.

[14] Skou, Viktoria. “Women in Dadaab: On the Gendered Insecurities in Forced Displacement.” Lunds universitet- Statsvetenskapliga institutionen, pp. 14.

[15] Sinead Murray and Anne Achieng, Gender-Based Violence Assessment Hagadera Refugee Camp Dadaab, Kenya (Nairobi: IRC, 2011), 4.

[16] Tickner, J. Ann. “Feminism and Security.” Security Studies: a Reader, edited by Hughes, Christopher. Routledge, 2011, pp. 48

[17] Tickner, J. Ann. “Feminism and Security.” Security Studies: a Reader, edited by Hughes, Christopher. Routledge, 2011, pp. 48

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