Gender and All Forms of Discrimination, in Particular Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance

Mely G. Tan



  1. Nation-states today are characterized by the heterogeneity of their societies. A study of a sample of 132 national societies found that in the 1970’s only 12 could be considered homogeneous. In the others there was a high proportion of a variety of ethnic groups, while in 53 (almost 40 percent) of the sampled countries the population was composed of five or more constituent groups [1]. Today this is still the prevailing pattern in most societies.
  2. This diversity in the composition of the population is perceived as positive, in that there is the possibility of complimentarity, leading to mutual enrichment, thereby benefiting the society as a whole. On the other hand, it can also be perceived negatively whereby differences are seen as the seeds for conflict. Interestingly, there is a tendency for mature democracies to establish closer cooperation between states, while conversely, societies that are in transition from a repressive to a more democratic government, are inclined to break up along primordial lines.
  3. The diversity of the people in nation-states is a result of the movement of peoples that goes back to the early history of humankind. In this sense, globalization is not a recent phenomenon; the movement of peoples across and crossing continents, is one of its earliest forms. Paradoxically, wars, and in particular, the two World Wars, have contributed to this phenomenon today. One of the, perhaps unintended, consequences of these wars, in addition to the peaceful movement in pursuit of trade, work and the spread of religion, are the intermarriage/sexual union between peoples of a different race. Their offspring have created new groups that make it problematic to consider them as belonging to a particular race, as they are of mixed descent. Consequently, in the social sciences, the prevailing term for these people is ethnic group, indicating a cultural identification rather than a racial one.
  4. Hence, I subscribe to the definition of "racial discrimination" as noted in the Thematic Issues before the Commission on the Status of Women based on the definition of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination: "any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms, in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life". In this broad-based definition the term "race " is thus used to include "all forms of group-based discrimination, based on formal racial distinctions, as well as those based on color, ethnicity, and caste whether by descent, and/or occupation, national origin or ancestry"[p.22,23].
  5. After World War II, wars between nations, although on a smaller scale, have persisted. Perhaps with an even more devastating impact, because it may involve people who used to be neighbors or who are actually relatives, are the wars within a state which are often based on ethnicity and/or religion. These wars have usually resulted in an exodus of people from one country to another or from one area to another within the country, as can be seen in the long lines of haggard-looking international refugees and internally displaced persons moving from one camp to another, usually on foot or in open trucks. In most cases, by far the majority of them are women, including older women, and children, including infants [2].
  6. Starting in this century there is the highly disturbing phenomenon in wars and other situations of armed conflict, of the shift in casualties from military to civilian. The civilian casualties as a proportion of all deaths in World War II are estimated to range from one-half to two-thirds, including victims from death camps and massacres as well as civilians killed in bombing raids on cities. The figures for today are even more grim: it is estimated that three-quarters of war-related deaths are civilians, and if refugees and wounded are included, some estimates indicate that about 90 percent are civilians. During 1993 a cumulative total of four to six million people may have been killed in various wars all over the world. If international refugees and internally displaced persons are included, as many as thirty million people may have been forced to flee from their homes through the impact or the fear of war [3]. Moreover, if these civilian casualty figures were more gender specific, undoubtedly, a highly disproportionate number of them would be women and children.
  7. In situations of armed conflict, be they international or national in scope, gender becomes a crucial factor in the intersection between gender and racial/ethnic/religious group. This implies a recognition that women and men are affected differently in situations of armed conflict where race/ethnicity/religion play a role, which in turn implies the recognition that the life experiences of women are different from that of men, both in public and private life.
  8. Certain forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance may be directed towards women specifically because of their gender, such as sexual violence committed against women of a particular racial, ethnic or religious group during armed conflict, in detention, in refugee camps; the forced sterilization of indigenous women, abuse and sexual violence of women migrant workers, and the trafficking in women and girls internationally.

The Main Issues

The euphoria generated by the end of the Cold War as marked dramatically by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, was soon dissipated, as the high expectations that this would signal the reduction of armed conflict, did not materialize. As a matter of fact, the 1990’s, the last decade of the second millennium, is fraught with the onslaught of "new wars" and the continuation and escalation of "old wars". Then there are the more recent violent social disturbances in most parts of the world.

Globally, or on the level of nation-states, the first half of the 1990’s has shown a remarkable improvement in the life conditions of most people in most parts of the world. Especially in Asia there was the report of the World Bank published in 1993, entitled The East Asian Miracle, extolling the achievements of the eight countries in East and Southeast Asia, referred to as the High-performing Asian Economies led by Japan. The other seven are the Four Tigers: South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan and the three Newly Industrial Economies (NIE’s): Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia. They are characterized by rapid economic growth.

However, four years thereafter, in mid-1997, these economies, some more some less, were hit by a monetary crisis, that in some of them turned into an economic crisis and even a total economic and political crisis, from which today they are still struggling to recover. It is shown that in a crisis situation of this magnitude, countries that are pluralistic in nature, comprising a variety of ethnic and religious groups, and where poverty persist, tensions that may be latent between these groups, can easily explode into violent social unrest whereby women of a particular ethnic and/or religious group, are singled out, because of their gender, to become extra-ordinary victims of sexual violence and mass rape. This type of conflict situation shows clearly the intersection between gender and ethnicity in a particular type of conflict situation, usually referred to as a horizontal conflict situation as it involves different ethnic and/or religious groups.

The major issue in these conflict situations is the tenuous inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations manifested in some multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies, often aggravated by the persistence of stereotyping, prejudice and expressed in discriminatory actions by the majority group towards minority groups, thereby generating mutual distrust. In some cases there are also the attitude, policies and actions of the authorities, both civil and military, that reinforces this mutual distrust and latent hostility between various groups in society. As a consequence, when the latent tensions turn into open conflict, in many cases women who are in a position exposed to multiple or compound discrimination, as they are of a particular racial or ethnic group and at the same time of a particular socio-economic status and in a certain work situation or occupation, as an act of terror towards the racial or ethnic group they are part of, often become victims of sexual violence including rape.

In this context a related major issue is the response and behavior towards this violence against women, on the part of the authorities, civil, military and police. In many cases the response they present is that of a systematic state of denial that, for instance, mass rape could have occurred. The main argument put forward is usually that no victim has come forward to report to the authorities.

This issue is directly related to the situation, especially in countries in transition from a repressive to a more democratic government, where the laws and judicial procedures are inadequate to bring about justice in cases of violations of human rights. In addition there is the problem of the exposure to acts of terror towards victims and witnesses of these violations, including towards human rights workers, in order to deter them from coming forward and disclosing the facts. Therefore, it is imperative to enact legislation to protect them.

Another major issue indicating the intersection of gender and race/ethnicity, expressed in racial/ethnic discrimination, is international migrant workers. In many developing countries, motivated basically by economic considerations, there is a tendency for women to become migrant workers in countries that are socially and culturally completely different from their own. In many cases these women work as professionals such as nurses or as sales personnel at international duty free shopping areas. However, a significant number of them are also employed as domestic workers, where they can be vulnerable to mistreatment and abuse, including sexual abuse by their male employer or other males in the household of the employer. Cases have surfaced in which because of their low level of education and ignorance of their right as workers, these women are exposed to exploitation and violations of their human rights without sufficient access to legal assistance, and therefore to justice. There was even the case of a woman worker being accused of the murder of her employer, put on trial, convicted, put in jail and executed without the relevant authorities of her country, and therefore also the family, having been notified. On the other hand, there is also the situation where these women are already exploited and sometimes mistreated when recruited in the home country. This indicates the necessity on the part of the relevant government and private agencies in the sending and receiving countries of these workers to provide the means and instruments for the legal, social and personal protection of these women workers from the time they are recruited in their home country to the work situation in the country of employment.


Racism, as a conscious mindset is an ideology that determines the attitude and is expressed in discriminative behavior towards particular categories in society. So is xenophobia and any other type of intolerance (although perhaps not an ideology), including towards people of a different religion, or towards older persons, the mentally and physically handicapped. The injustice of this mindset and behavior if directed towards a racial or ethnic group or towards a particular gender should even be more unacceptable, when one realizes that being of a certain race or ethnic group or being a woman or a man is an "accident of birth", or if one believes in God, is "an act of God".

We also know that this type of attitude and behavior is learned and not a trait inherent in human beings. Therefore it is imperative that as early as possible, and most importantly in the home environment and continued in the school environment, children learn the value of diversity and respect for and appreciation of difference. This is the essence of pluralism and essential components of the culture of peace.

However, to establish this type of attitude and behavior, there needs to be an enabling environment. This means legal reform, changing the mindset of society, and changing the mindset of women themselves.

In terms of legal reform, what needs to be done is to identify and eliminate all laws, regulations and policies and implementation thereof, that are in any way indicative of discrimination on the basis of gender, and in particular towards women of a particular race, ethnic group, religious group, indigenous women, disadvantaged and handicapped women, the girl child and older women. In particular related to sexual assault and rape of women, the present laws and judicial system, especially in countries in transition from a repressive to a more democratic government, are inadequate to bring perpetrators to court. If eventually brought to court, the laws and judicial system are inadequate to get them convicted, while if convicted, they get off with an unjust light sentence. In general, the laws and criminal procedures now in place are in many cases completely inadequate in cases of violations of human rights. For this reason, in some countries today, the concept of transitional justice is being explored for its applicability in delivering justice in these cases.

What is meant by changing the mindset of society has to do with the notion of gender equality and justice, the enhancement of the value, status and role of women. It has to do with empowerment of women, their participation in the decision making process in the family and in society, with power sharing with men in the political arena, with involvement of men to take joint responsibility with women for the promotion of gender equality and justice. It has to do with parental sharing and caring in the family. An important aspect is the notion of pluralism and therefore the ability in society for the management of diversity and related to this the management of conflict. Related to conflict and insecure situations is the concept of human security, and in particular the component of personal security [see Note 2]. This is pertinent to women, as in situations where criminality is high, as in big cities, and in generally insecure situations, women are at high risk to be robbed, physically attacked, raped and eventually killed.

As for the change in the mindset of individual women, this is related to the increase of their educational level, the enhancement of their self-confidence, self-esteem and self-worth. A key aspect is to enable women to be independent economically, financially and socially.






Research Agenda

It is generally acknowledged that good quality research is essential for the formulation of policies and programs that are appropriate, implementable and imbued with a gender perspective. To this end, this type of research should be done by both women and men researchers in order to create a cross-fertilization of women’s and men’s perspectives, thereby achieving mutual understanding and appreciation. The subject of Gender and Racial discrimination, in particular Racism, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, being global in nature, this requires the methodology to be preferably multi-disciplinary, transnational, and longitudinal with a built-in monitoring mechanism. In addition, to be effective, the results of the studies should be packaged and presented in such a way that decision-makers will make use of them, and the general public can be enlightened about the importance of the elimination of this problem and the related necessity of the understanding of a gender perspective, and the promotion of gender equality and justice.

I suggest, that there are at least three clusters of research topics that need to be explored. The first is to get an understanding of the root causes and ramifications of the gender aspect and gender perspective of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. The second is related to legal reform, and the reform of the process of justice at all levels of the judicial system, in particular with respect to the legal aspects of gender-related violence. The third is to focus on society that today is mostly pluralistic in nature, in order to facilitate the building of the capacity to manage diversity and conflict situations, with special attention to the gender dimension.


1. R.A. Schermerhorn, 1978. Comparative Ethnic Relations. A Framework for Theory and Research. With a New Preface. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, p. xiv. This book, that was first published in 1970 and again in 1978 with a new preface, is one of the basic references on the sociology of intergroup relations, with special focus on the concepts of ethnicity, racism, pluralism and other related concepts, including an appendix on research topics (Types of data collection required for testing major propositions). Another more recent study on ethnicity, in particular in relation to human rights, is Rodolfo Stavenhagen, 1990. The Ethnic Question. Conflicts, Development and Human Rights. Tokyo: United Nations University Press. In particular Chapter 5 Ethnic Rights in the International System and the sections on Human Rights and Minority Rights and on The Rights of Indigenous Peoples; Chapter 9 Immigration and Racism in Western Europe, and the section on The New Racism in Europe.

2. UNDP. Human Development Report 1994 (Delhi: Oxford University Press), the annual report of the UNDP of 1994 was focused on the World Summit for Social Development, that was held in Copenhagen in March 1995. As stated in the Overview entitled "An Agenda for the Social Summit": "The world can never be at peace unless people have security in their daily lives. Future conflicts may often be within nations rather than between them…" [p.1] Other relevant concepts/topics for the present paper are on Human Security (p.23), on Components of Human Security (p.24), and on Armed Conflicts within States (box, p.47).

3. Dan Smith, 1993. War, Peace and Third World Development. UNDP: Human Development Report Office: Occasional Papers, 16, pp.1,2,3. Dan Smith is affiliated with the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo. The staggering facts and figures quoted here are the result of research done by this Institute. See also my article Mely G. Tan, "Equality, Development and the Pursuit of Peace" in Unesco/UNU, 1996, Tokyo Symposium. Science and Culture: A Common Path for the Future. Final Report; and in the French publication, Mely G. Tan, "Egalite des femmes, developpement et recherche de la paix , in Michel Random, 1996, La Mutation du Futur. Colloque de Tokyo. Paris: Albin Michel, pp.185-205.