Natural Humanitarians?

Today is International Women’s Day: the day after tomorrow, Mother’s Day (in the UK). A juxtaposition I find unsettling.  Not because mothers don’t deserve flowers or breakfast in bed – or recognition for all the work they do in bringing us up to be sentient human beings – but because too often, it’s still wife and mother that are viewed as the only socially valid identities. In a world in which an estimated 150 million girls are victims ofsexual violence every year, in which women are still denied access to basic political, civil and human rights, the label ‘wife and mother’ can be a sentence as well as a celebration.
Step forward International Women’s Day – which began, let’s not forget, as International Working Women’s Day.  Except it is sometimes still implied that the jobs we should wish to do are the ones that suit us because we’re women.  Even by those who should know better – like Valerie Amos, who declared this week in Stylist magazine that ‘women are natural humanitarians’.
Humanitarian work undoubtedly attracts many empowered, articulate women. And I’ve writtenbefore about the obvious and overwhelming gender bias in the humanitarian classroom – 75% of my students are women.  In the NGO workshops and research conferences I attend, it’s not unusual for female participants to outnumber the men.  This engagement of women in humanitarian issues should be recognised and celebrated, not least because it provides a powerful impetus for change to crack that glass ceiling which mean Amos’ rise to the top of the humanitarian pyramid is still so unusual.
Yet so many things are wrong with Amos’ statement that it is hard to know where to begin.  But let’s start with the idea that it’s women who are “natural” humanitarians.  Is the implication that men aren’t? Surely humanitarianism speaks, if nothing else, to the idea of a common humanity.  So either the claim’s redundant – because all humans are humanitarians – or it places the weight of alleviating human suffering in conflict, crisis and disaster upon women, exculpating – and excluding – men.
But “women nurture, women care” I hear the Daily Mail cry. And isn’t that what humantiarians do? Feed the starving babies of Africa? Humanitarians, after all don’t do politics – they do assistance, they do ‘nurture and support‘. So it’s a very suitable job for a woman. This is the double danger in Amos’ words. 
First, the implication is that, even in venturing outside the home, women should remain in the soft caring professions – and outside the hard political sphere.  Because this, after all, is what women do best. And it’s precisely this sort of framing that diminishes many women’s ambitions: the idea that somehow, we’re hard-wired to care, not to think.
But second, Amos implicitly selling humanitarianism – and the women who work as humanitarians — short too.  Humanitarianism isn’t nurture, or charity: not when it’s done well.  It’s an exhausting, demanding, exhilarating job that often pulls you far away from relationships and family life. It demands confrontation both with impossible moral dilemmas and hard bureaucratic realities.  It’s not “natural” sentiment; it’s professional skill.
Humanitarianism should not be reduced to the “natural” outcome of a “natural” emotional empathy that is apparently shared by only half the world’s population.  That’s not something to be celebrated. That humanitarianism isn’t ‘unstoppable’: it won’t get us anywhere.  It echoes the old ideas that women are best placed outside politics. It reduces humanitarian action to charity and emotional empathy.  Worst of all, in playing to the idea that gender roles and talents are hard-wired, it undercuts the notion of common humanresponsibility as the bedrock of humanitarian action and its capacity to effect change.
The powerful are responsible for the wars and atrocities and terrible death tolls that cling to modern history.  And most of the powerful are not, have not, been women. So yes, our interests lie in challenging the structures of inequity and injustice and in reaching through politics.  But we have to recognise this in order to understand how our interests align with the disempowered, with changing and not just joining power.   That’s why – on International Women’s Day — we should reject the idea women are “natural” humanitarians, and instead laud the women – no nurture, no nature about it – who have made humanitarianism a conscious, political, choice.