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Expertes en genre et connaissances féministes sur le développement

Christine Verschuur

Circulation de connaissances féministes et institutions de développement : lost in translation ?

“I speak fluent patriarchy, but it’s not my mother tongue”. Perspectives of a feminist insider within international institutions

Nadine Puechguirbal

Note de l’éditeur

Référence papier : Puechguirbal, N. 2017 ‘ « I speak fluent patriarchy, but it’s not my mother tongue ». Perspectives of a feminist insider within international institutions, in C. Verschuur (dir.), Qui sait ? Expertes en genre et connaissances féministes sur le développement, Paris : L’Harmattan. Collection Genre et développement. Rencontres, pp. 201-220. Acheter le .pdf chapitre éditeur.

Note de l’auteur

Please note that the views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of the United Nations, its agencies and programs or the offices in which the author has served.

Texte intégral


1In 2014, a Senior Gender Adviser working for a hyper-masculine department at the United Nations (UN), made a request to her supervisor to be invited to the weekly Senior Management Meeting; she wanted to present an important development in the work of gender mainstreaming. Access was granted, but her intervention was put as the last point of the agenda, under what is commonly referred to as “Any Other Business” (AOB), thus sending the not so subliminal message that gender-related work was too trivial to be an actual agenda item that warrants more time for discussion, such as security, military deployment, police work and rule of law.

2I think that “AOB” adequately summarises the work we are doing on gender-related issues at the UN.

3What does it mean to be a feminist working on gender-related issues in a patriarchal organisation? Is it even possible? Why do the majority of gender advisers refuse to define themselves as feminists? Are we deceiving ourselves in pretending that we can challenge the system from within? What is the price to pay? What are our coping strategies and mechanisms? These are a few questions that I will try to answer in this paper.

4The breadth of gender-related knowledge in international organisations is difficult to determine because the literature has still much room to grow. There, what is left for us to rely on are the first-hand experiences and insights provided by feminists working in patriarchal institutions, but they are few. There are several possible reasons for this oversight: first of all, the few feminists under cover do not want to attract attention to themselves and testify against a dysfunctional system; it could be that they believe their testimonies are not interesting or relevant to mainstream research, or they simply think that sharing their experiences will not make a difference. As a result, I have decided to make my own contribution to the process of deconstructing patriarchy from a feminist perspective by challenging a few myths that perpetuate stereotypes and keep gender advisers in denial.

5I will draw on my personal experience, working as a feminist in international institutions. This paper will also reflect the numerous insightful discussions that I had with my mentor and friend, Professor Cynthia Enloe, on deconstructing patriarchy. I am indebted to her for inspiring me to continue working as a feminist insider in spite of the numerous obstacles that I have encountered on my path, and to document real life situations with the aim of better understanding the different schemes that patriarchy utilises to deceive us and remain unscathed and unchallenged. I hope that this paper will serve as a catalyst to trigger some feminist curiosity in the audience and inspire further research on the subject matter.

The tension between feminism and patriarchy


6To better analyse the tension between feminism and patriarchy, one has to understand their antagonistic perspectives. As Professor Cynthia Enloe writes: “As one learns to look at the world through gender-curious feminist eyes, one learns to ask whether anything that passes for natural, inevitable, inherent, traditional, or biological has been made” (Enloe 2014, 12). Approaching gender-related issues with a feminist perspective allows us to make visible the hierarchy of power relations, and understand how masculinity and femininity are constructed with the aim of serving a patriarchal concept. As a feminist, one asks radical questions, which is interpreted very often as being too extreme, unreasonable, not serious, and too confrontational. However, Cynthia Enloe argues that “Radical, of course, comes from the Greek word that means ‘root’ – to be radical may mean that you wear pastels, that you speak very softly, that you’ve never been seen carrying a banner. But you are radical insofar as you ask root questions. That’s what makes one radical and that’s what developing a feminist curiosity does […]”(Enloe and Puechguirbal 2004, 8).

7Representatives of patriarchy prefer to reduce every challenge to “problem solving”. That allows them to avoid asking – or letting you ask root questions. Instead, they try to avoid interrogating basic structures, basic assumptions, basic understandings. This avoidance, this reduction of every challenge to an immediate “problem” that needs “solving”, ensures that the answers they might receive do not reveal deep gaps that they would have to deal with. As a result, UN insider gender specialists are tempted to slip into the dominant institutional problem-solving mode. They distance themselves daily from any comment that suggests that they are aware of deeper institutional flaws, from any attitude that might seem to their colleagues to be “flirting” with feminism.

8First observation: I have witnessed time and time again in international organisational settings the dismissal of feminism as too challenging, or too trivial, and not “relevant” to the subject under immediate discussion. This is often combined, however, with the speaker making a seemingly gender-equity committed statement, e.g. the necessity of increasing women’s participation in UN operations.

  • 1 Peter Maurer is President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

9For instance, a high-ranking official working for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) announced at a conference on women and war in 2014 that he believed that women were as capable as men: “[…] But are women really more vulnerable than men? […] Are they less resilient? Without wanting to break into a feminist lecture: certainly not. Women are not more vulnerable than men. They have over centuries, been made more vulnerable. But women are made vulnerable or weaker, first and foremost by the conditions that are imposed on them, not by their sex” (Maurer 2015, 11; emphasis mine)1.

10Listening to that official at that conference I realised what a subtle patriarchal manoeuver this official had just carried out. On the one hand, he asserted that women were equal to men, that they were not disabled from capable action by their allegedly feminised vulnerability. On the other hand, he denied making a feminist statement to reassure his audience.

11Listening to this influential man’s double-messaged statement made me wonder about the impact of his discourse, had he announced that he was indeed going to break into a feminist lecture. What was his fear or reluctance? Was he afraid of not being taken seriously? Or was he concerned about getting into too deep of an analytical perspective that would open the door to questioning the way business is conducted in humanitarian organisations? A “feminist lecture” might indeed be seen as too radical for that official and the organisation he represents.


12There are several definitions of patriarchy that could be used here, but I have chosen Cynthia Enloe’s description to remain consistent, since I borrowed her perspective on feminism. Her definition of patriarchy summarises in a simple and straightforward manner the issues at stake.

13As she explains, patriarchy maintains itself thanks to a system with multiple layers that “ […] (1) sustain the privileging of certain forms of masculinity; (2) treat most women as if they naturally lack autonomy, and (3) weigh all things deemed to be feminine as of lesser value than those deemed masculine when the discussion turns to topics that matter” (Enloe 2013, 11).

14Against the backdrop of that definition, I would add that decision-makers within a patriarchal system only pretend to take women “seriously” when they can use them for their own operational purposes. For example, today there is a stronger call to get more women in peacekeeping operations. This now-frequent call is, however, not motivated by a rights-based approach but rather by an operational imperative defined according to the masculine norm. Simply adding numbers of women and deploying them on mission according to existing patriarchal essentialist notions of “what women are good for” does nothing to dismantle a masculinity-privileging institutional system.

15According to the official website of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO): “In all fields of peacekeeping, women peacekeepers have proven that they can perform the same roles, to the same standards and under the same difficult conditions, as their male counterparts. It is an operational imperative that we recruit and retain female peacekeepers”2. At first glance, this DPKO assertion seems to be a statement in the belief that women and men are equal in their capacities and skills. But it is women – not male soldiers – who have had to “prove” themselves. It is thus only after women “have proven” that they can be trustworthy of male confidence, and capable of performing the same functions as men, that they can be given responsibilities.

16On the same DPKO webpage, one can find a long list of reasons that the men who design and conduct military peacekeeping missions – in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Mali provide to explain why “we” need at least some women in peacekeeping operations. Flowing from these policy-makers’ essentialist belief that women “naturally” are more peaceful than men, they will be better at conflict resolution, mediation, reconciliation, supporting women survivors of violence. It is silently presumed, however, that all of these activities will be conducted in a larger strategic framework whose design will continue to be the purview of the DPKO’s senior male officials.

17While some of these attributes may indeed be accurate descriptions of some women’s skills, the discursive framework in which they are set averts more complicated albeit essential questions about the responsibilities of men and the construction of a hyper-masculinity prevailing in peacekeeping operations. As a body of literature on women and peacekeeping has shown, for instance: “When women’s participation is wanted it is often because of stereotypical assumptions of ‘feminine qualities’. […] What makes this notion of women even more problematic is that these assumptions ignore questions regarding masculinity, military culture and training, which are starkly expressed in camp life on peacekeeping missions” (Valenius 2007, 519).

18Very often, gender advisers will adopt this justification to promote the participation of women in peacekeeping operations without questioning its relevance. This approach is well illustrated by Cynthia Enloe when she writes: "[…] The trap the dangerous temptation here is to adopt other people's patriarchal criteria for what is worthy of serious attention as our own criteria" (Enloe 2013, 15). Applied to that context, it means that women do not matter for their own worth: they can only be taken seriously once their competency and capability have been assessed by men and found acceptable. The criteria defined by men for women’s acceptability are those that we find in the mainstream literature at the UN and accept as the reference criteria to which everything else will be compared and measured. Accepting the masculine norm as the only anchor point in defining roles, responsibilities and functions of individuals is a subtle way to perpetuate a patriarchal order. Decision-makers have yet to question that order.

19Gender-related issues: repackaging a militaristic and highly masculinised approach in an updated patriarchal wrapping.

20Keeping this tension in mind, it is then very difficult for a feminist to work on gender-related issues within a patriarchal institution without being caught in a “double-bind” situation. People working in a patriarchal organisation feel most comfortable when they can act as though what they imagine to be feminism and patriarchy are positioned at opposite extreme ends of the spectrum. In doing so, they can simultaneously imagine that their own routine and daily actions and uses of language are in the moderate, reasonable middle.

21My experience is that working on gender within a patriarchal institution only reinforces the power of the men in decision-making positions (and of those women who play by patriarchal rules) by itself and thus does not necessarily translate into changing the system.

22As Professor Sandra Whitworth (2004, 139) puts it: “One of the reasons gender has become a safe idea is that the manner in which it has been used within the UN understandings of peace and security issues has transformed it from a radical perspective to a problem-solving tool, which does not challenge prevailing practices in armed conflict, peace and security”. Feminists working on gender-related issues in international institutions are made to believe that they can challenge and change an unequal system; but it is a big deception. By pretending to support the work on gender on the surface, decision-makers have found the perfect strategy to make their work look good; for example, integrating a gender perspective into peacekeeping operations will provide cosmetic transformation without questioning whether a militarised operation is the solution in the first place.

23In everyday practice, this means that heads of mission and/or decision-makers can use this rhetoric without translating it into allocating resources for gender mainstreaming and without lending their own authoritative support to the work of gender advisers.

24Since there is no accountability for the work done or, more often, not done, on gender, managers are not compelled to turn promises into action. This is the same approach in terms of always looking at the “added value” of women, rather than the inherent value of women. Gender expertise is assessed by supervisors up the ladder in terms of what it “can bring to the table” of immediate problem solving, rather than what it stands for/represents in its own right.

25This situation is also reflected in what feminist social anthropologist Rosalind Eyben (2010, 55) writes: “[…] Feminists face the dilemma of engaging with the state machinery so as to change it while devoting most of their time to performing the tasks that the bureaucracy requires of them, after which the machinery fails to deliver the hoped-for transformations”.

26A good example to illustrate this is the function of Gender Focal Point, which is used to promote gender mainstreaming across the board in different international organisations.

27Gender Focal Points are staff members with a full time job as Protection Adviser, Human Rights Observer, or Civil Affairs Officer. They are expected by their managers – and by the UN as a whole to “take care of gender” after hours, when they are done with their daily job. Adding “Gender Focal Point” to the job description – usually to women staff members’ job descriptions – of course, saves money. In practice, it is another trick to avoid allocating dedicated resources or creating full time posts of gender advisers to properly deliver their mandate. On paper it makes the UN appear “gender aware”. In practice it updates sustainable patriarchy.

28Anything that is merely an “add on” is not something that the organisation takes seriously.

The work of a Gender Adviser at the United Nations

Profile of a gender adviser: is it a real profession?

29For a long time, I was convinced that part of the problem of the lack of results was the appointment of incompetent gender advisers who were not delivering; in the early years of the implementation of resolution 1325, there was no real job description for gender advisers. This was a rather “new” job, especially for peacekeeping operations, so the profile was not associated with a job family such as Security Officer, or Political Adviser, or Administrator, etc. It was not perceived as a real profession in fact. As a result, the tendency was to mainly hire women who had worked either on women’s rights or gender-related issues, but were maybe not qualified for a particular post of gender adviser in the specific context of peacekeeping operations. The fact that they were women was considered a guarantee of their ability to work on gender since gender and women are often conflated and used interchangeably.

30In July 2012, Joanne Sandler, a former high-ranking officer at UNIFEM, which pre-dated UN Women, wrote a paper highlighting the hurdles that feminists encountered while working at the UN. Three years later, reading her paper makes me realise that I might have unconsciously assimilated our collective position of submissiveness to the power of patriarchy. She wrote: “Staff in gender units – like others who feel powerless and turn their frustrations inward rather than strategising to overturn what is oppressing them – are much more likely to publicly criticise each other than to say anything about those in power who fail to change inequitable gender arrangements” (Sandler 2012, 17). I therefore realised that part of the problem of no one delivering results was maybe to be found in the system itself, since it was setting gender advisers up for failure by creating tension and competition among them through relentless criticism of their work, lack of support and marginalisation. The end result was that gender advisers started to turn against each other in their quest for validation and acceptance by the male decision-makers. Some gender advisers were praised by the patriarchal representatives while others were heavily criticised, thus paving the way for internal division. Patriarchy is very skilled at dividing people to better control them, using a “divide and conquer” strategy.

Legitimacy and access: internally displaced persons

31Over the years, we have observed a “ghettoisation” of the work of gender advisers. Indeed, very often the Gender Unit is treated as a stand-alone unit lost at the bottom of the Humanitarian Pillar of a mission. This placement limits access to decision-makers and results in the marginalisation of the gender adviser, whose credibility is impacted. The visibility of the unit is dependent on the personality of management, so its success and failure often does not reflect improvements/challenges encountered by broader agendas.

32At UN headquarters in New York, very often gender advisers do not have the level required to give them access to authority; poor location that contributes to the invisibility of the work of gender advisers, coupled with a lower level of authority, is a recipe for failure.

33We can relate to the observations of Joanne Sandler (2012, 13): “[…] Keeping the unit or organisation responsible for gender equality at a lower level and hence disadvantaged level is another pathway for restricting its influence and effectiveness in a hierarchy where organisational access is determined by the level of leadership”. We have to keep in mind that the UN is a patriarchal organisation relying on a hierarchy of power (from top to bottom). The representatives of patriarchy protect their power by avoiding contact with staff from lower levels who could question their authority. Relying on the hierarchy is another convenient trick to keep powerful men (and some women) inaccessible and locked high up in their ivory tower.

  • 3 Ratna Kapur was Senior Gender Advisor/Chief of Section, United Nations Mission in Nepal.

34As a former gender adviser for the UN Mission in Nepal has witnessed: “There has been a serious concern over the ghettoization of the issue of gender within the Mission. While gender is both a cross-cutting issue and a deeply political issue, it is unfortunate that it has been regarded as a theme. This in turn has made it very difficult to advise senior management due to lack of access, or give visibility to the issue within the mission or project gender as a priority concern outside of the mission and with the various stakeholders” (Kapur 2008, 7; personal communication with the author)3.

  • 4 Special Representative of the Secretary General.

35The positioning of the gender adviser is key in building a strong gender architecture that would allow access and grant more authority to the function. I would like to use here one concrete case study as a case in point. When I was working as the Senior Gender Adviser for DPKO in 2013, I decided to request a meeting with the head of the department to highlight the difficulties in integrating gender in peacekeeping operations, at a time when discussions were taking place about merging gender units with human rights components. I wanted to offer a new model of gender mainstreaming that would allow the gender adviser to get out of the ghetto… With the support of the Head of DPKO, we offered to conduct a pilot project in Haiti where we would reorganise the Gender Unit. The idea was to place the Senior Gender Adviser in the SRSG’s4 office (Head of mission), and strategically send three gender affairs officers from the Gender Unit to different components, depending on the priority of the mission, i.e. in this case Office of Rule of Law, Civil Affairs and Elections. As I wrote to document the good practice:

[…] The Senior Gender Adviser (SGA) should be located at the level of the SRSG’s office for the following two reasons: a) since the ultimate responsibility of gender mainstreaming lies with the SRSG, the SGA would be in a better position to advise and support the SRSG in the implementation of her/his mandate; and b) being positioned within the SRSG’s office, the SGA would have a better overview of all the mission’s components and be strategically placed with enough authority to reach out to the heads of sections. (Puechguirbal 2015, 265)

36One year later, an assessment of the pilot project was conducted, and I have it on good authority that the new restructuring of the Gender Unit has had a positive impact on the work of the overall mission; for example, placing the Senior Gender Adviser in the SRSG office reinforces the mission’s leadership (better access to the Head of mission, more accountability, etc.) and embedding staff from the Gender Unit in substantial components offers better results (immersion in the team allows for daily interaction on gender).

37Nevertheless, remaining gaps were identified, such as a persistent lack of capacity on gender to cover priority areas (three gender affairs officers can provide advisory support to three main components of the mission, but what about the other offices?); a need for the mission leadership to inform all staff about the new gender architecture and its mechanism for mainstreaming (persistent lack of understanding about the work on gender) and a need to document good practices for this pilot in order to replicate it in other missions (the main concern is that it will remain a one-time pilot project that is non-threatening to existing conservatism in other missions).

38I would like to add that, although scattering gender officers throughout the mission is a step forward, the ideal situation would be to get specific job descriptions for different professions that would require gender expertise, for Political Affairs Officers, Civil Affairs, Protection of Civilians, etc. It would enhance the ownership of each component and avoid the perception of gender as being imposed from the outside or as an additional workload. Finally, it would relieve the gender adviser’s burden of being the only person accountable for gender issues within the mission.

“I am not a feminist but…”: living in fear

39It strikes me over and over again that most of my colleagues who work as gender advisers are reluctant to be defined as feminists; as if a feminist-informed action is seen as a threat to acceptability by the system. As Elisabeth Prügl, Rahel Kunz and Hayley Thompson found out in their research on gender expertise: “Many gender experts do not self-identify as feminists or do so only in private. Indeed, our survey found that over 40 per cent rejected the label ‘feminist’ to describe themselves. Some of these argue that fostering change requires pragmatism; and adopting feminist politics stands in the way of such a pragmatism” (Prügl, Kunz and Thompson 2015, 10). Although in their research they also show that some gender advisers embrace feminism, I think that the majority of gender experts consciously or unconsciously reject the notion of feminism.

40This is very interesting research because it shows how gender advisers live in denial, convinced that because they adopt a pragmatic approach, they will be able to foster changes. However, as I have indicated earlier about the deployment of female peacekeepers, pragmatism essentially means playing by the rules established by the patriarchal system and adopting criteria defined according to the masculine norm that we accept as the reality. Of course, as a feminist I am aware that we can pretend to accept the rules and use them to achieve our objectives, thus avoiding a confrontation with patriarchy that will never end to our advantage. However, I still think that pragmatism is a decoy used to trap us into validating the patriarchal perspective.

41I believe that most of us do live in fear cultivated by patriarchy: fear of not being accepted by the system, fear of losing support, and being rejected. This fear is very well illustrated by the example of a few high-ranking women who succeeded in climbing to the top of the UN ladder. One of them was explaining to me that she managed to reach the top thanks to her merits (and here I am asking myself “but who is defining merit in this organisation?”). She was convinced that other women could do the same if they worked hard enough. This is a clear state of denial that also shows how co-optation into the “boys club” works. It is as if women reaching the top are victims of amnesia and forget about their years of struggle, trying to carve out a space for themselves in a highly masculine environment. These women could do so much for the promotion of women within such a hierarchical system, but they choose to adopt a very conservative attitude. They have internalised the fear of rejection and, since most of them are suffering from low self-esteem that they have disguised under the myth of hard work that rewards only those who die on the job, they will isolate themselves once they reach the top of the organisation. They do not want to be seen as favouring women over men, and will champion a tough approach on gender-related issues to prove to the boys club that they can be trusted. The idea of “aggression” and “arrogance” is often associated with power, and anything less than this is weak. So often women will try to counteract how they are perceived by putting up a defensive, aggressive front to demonstrate they deserve attention of the established patriarchal system.

42As we have seen previously, “they have proven that they can perform the same roles [as men]”. The wheel has spun full circle.

Being taken seriously: knowing your place

43In line with what I discussed earlier, patriarchy is subtly using psychological pressure to ensure that men and women know their place within the organisation. For example, I have been in situations where I was clearly not respecting the implicit rules of behaviour; I remember being in a meeting with interlocutors from outside who were asking a lot of questions about gender and peacekeepers that I was happy to answer. One high-ranking woman sitting next to me was becoming restless because her male protégé, who was deemed knowledgeable on peacekeeping simply by virtue of being male, was not able to speak up. So she quietly turned to me and whispered in my ear: “Let X speak”, which immediately sent the signal to my psyche that my intervention was not perceived as important, nor taken seriously, and that I was expected to retreat to my place, i.e. remain silent, while the male prodigy would inject a remarkable/”worthy” opinion on the topic under discussion.

44This experience made me realise that, if I want to continue to be invited to those meetings, I have to walk a fine line between being able to express myself and not overshadowing the men who have to speak up, regardless of the topic under discussion, because silence is a sign of weakness and incompetence in patriarchy. Interestingly enough, when men occupy space and time in meetings with endless and irrelevant contributions, nobody turns to them to ask them to let the women speak up.

How patriarchy sustains itself


  • 5 Emphasis mine.

45It is key to understand how language influences thoughts and policies that, in turn, perpetuate a gendered imbalance of power as well as gender inequalities. Very few individuals at the UN actually question the use of a militaristic and hyper-masculine language in their daily interactions. For example, I continue to be amazed by my male colleagues who talk about “penetrating the field to increase efficiency in tackling issues of conflict-related sexual violence” or “making sure we detonate this issue in all the right and strategic forums...”, or even “engaging in sustained efforts to break the back of the problem”5.

46For an outside audience without a particular feminist perspective, these sentences can make a vivid impression as they carry a strong message. However, the language used in those terms only reinforces a strong hierarchy of power based on the allegory of war and aggression, embedded into masculine, militarised discourse from which women are excluded.

47The “women-and-children” syndrome

48The victimisation of women and girls has been institutionalised at the UN and other international organisations; women are repeatedly depicted as powerless victims in need of (male) protection and part of the so-called vulnerable group, together with children. This approach removes the agency of women and prevents them from being defined as active agents of change within their communities, seen as actors with a voice: the best example of this approach is their recurrent absence from peace processes as so-called victims are never invited to represent their views. As a result, I think that one of the tasks of a gender adviser working with a feminist perspective would be to challenge the language each time an opportunity arises. It is of the utmost importance to change the narrative to become more all-inclusive of the different experiences of women in times of war. If not, I am afraid that we will become accomplices to patriarchy in perpetuating stereotypes about women and girls, thus limiting their access to power as influential actors.

49As Professor Jacqui True writes: “When women are primarily seen as victims, ‘collateral damage’ or ‘unintended costs’, rather than agents, the focus is deflected from biased and exclusionary institutions and structures” (True 2003, 384). This can have long-lasting consequences in the post-conflict phase of reconstruction: indeed, women defined as war victims might be excluded from access to skills training, jobs, and rehabilitation programs specifically designed for (young) men. Instead, women will be targeted as passive beneficiaries of humanitarian programs and will not be entrusted with responsibilities.

The art of procrastination

50One interesting strategy that patriarchy uses time and time again is the promise made to take care of gender-related issues “later”. According to my experience in international organisations such as the UN, “later” means that it is not relevant/important enough and can be put on the back burner until it falls through the cracks. If the problem does not exist, decision-makers will not have to deal with it. As Cynthia Enloe so astutely noted: “Later is a patriarchal time zone” (Enloe 2004, 215). It is a very subtle move, but it ensures that decision-makers can gain time. Any time-bound promises by representatives of patriarchy have to be considered as empty shells and not trusted.

51Scholars like Angela Raven-Roberts (2005, 57), who has years of experience with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the UN, has observed that: “[i]n emergency contexts, there is ‛no time′ to do gender work, as what is needed is rapid action, life-saving food, and material distribution. Performing nuanced analyses and targeting change is too cumbersome, complex, and time consuming, indeed downright harmful to the ‘real work’ of saving lives”. This observation is true in any context, from humanitarian to development or peacekeeping operations. Gender advisers know that time is of the essence when trying to integrate a gender perspective into the work of missions: the sooner the better, before budgets have been allocated, activities defined and responsibilities shared. It will be more difficult to influence the process at a later stage, when UN staff have already started to work on a plan of action in all areas of interest: humanitarian, rule of law, elections, civil affairs, human rights, etc. Fixing a lack of gender perspective “later” will require a lot of effort and might come at a cost. For example, if we produce posters during an electoral campaign to encourage the population to go to vote but represent only men on those posters, it will cost money to get new posters printed that display both women and men.

52This seems to be a very trivial detail, but patriarchy cannot survive details because scrutiny will reveal a wide range of problems. For instance, when sex- and age-disaggregated data are provided in any operation, it gives an accurate picture of the reality on the ground and the gaps between women and men in all aspects of the social spectrum, including education, income, access to and control over resources, urban and rural divide, and safety issues. Once the problem has been identified, it is more difficult to blatantly ignore it. We can link this to the fact that decision-makers do not ask radical questions, with the same objective of preventing problems from coming to the surface.

Procrastination is the autograph of patriarchy.

Oppression, protection and omission

53First of all, the different forms of oppression by patriarchy can be very subtle as oppression comes in disguise. For example, since patriarchy is a microcosm of what society is, it makes me think of the dynamics happening in a family. In the way a family is structured, there is a favourite child who can get away with anything and is always protected by the mother/father. Then there is a less favourite child who is sometimes pretty rebellious against family rules and, whatever that child does is never enough to get the love/appreciation of the mother/father. Translated into the language of patriarchy at stake in big organisations like the UN, this means that if you abide by the rules established by the regime, you will be accepted/tolerated; but if you question the regime and refuse to be obedient, then you will be labelled as “too independent” and systematically harassed/oppressed until you are tamed and you behave. The only solution to surviving without bending too much to the rules is to develop coping mechanisms that will allow survival in disguise (see next section).

54Having said that, many individuals working in a patriarchal system do internalise the oppressive regime. When their space is shrinking and they want to protect themselves against the oppression, this is the only alternative. In her book about deconstructing gender mainstreaming in development, Rebecca Tiessen (2007, 46) writes: “[…] People internalize their oppression after years of being systematically denied power and influence. Over time, people begin to believe the messages they receive. The ‘internalized oppression’ becomes deeply entrenched in one’s identity and the inequality becomes reality; so normalized it goes unquestioned”. By its subtle manipulation of power relations, patriarchy is slowly wearing people down.

55Patriarchy is best known for being an oppressive system, but we talk less about how it protects and rewards those who follow its rules. Colleagues at the UN want to be acknowledged for the work they are doing because acknowledgement supposedly means “being recognised by my peers”, thus creating a sense of belonging and safety. As I demonstrated earlier, patriarchy cultivates a certain level of fear among the staff to hold them in check. For women especially, being acknowledged by the representatives of patriarchy as “serious” interlocutors sitting around the table can be seen as a great personal achievement. As Cynthia Enloe (2013, 14) explains: “Patriarchy is stubbornly perpetuated because it is not simply oppressive; it is rewarding, it is alluring. It is reassuring to be protected. It is satisfying to be called respectable”. Indeed, respectability is especially important for women who have been educated in so-called values of “being respectable” and “well-behaved”; so when a decision-maker praises a woman for her contribution in a meeting, she unconsciously understands that he might respect her and she can maybe hope to belong, finally.

56Lastly, patriarchy is also operating through omission by hiring people who will never rock the boat and who will promote a very conservative approach on gender-related issues; e.g. extremely ambitious individuals focused on their career, ego-centric men and women who lack empathy, incompetent staff only attracted to the job for its benefits and glory, faithful representatives of patriarchy dedicated to the system, etc.

The Drama Triangle: rescuer/victim/persecutor

57I will be using here a psychological model to explain the different roles that patriarchy can play within the same organisation. I started to think about this triangle in relation to the behaviour of UN peacekeepers in host communities. The men who are deployed as peacekeepers are trained to believe that they will “save” people who have been impoverished by a war and that their action will bring security and hope in building a post-conflict society; for that, these “local” people will be eternally grateful.

58As a result, peacekeepers first arrive in their country of assignment as rescuers/saviours. Slowly, however, the expectations they have raised among the host community turn into disappointment and sometimes anger at the UN passivity/inaction. Therefore, from rescuers they become victims of ungrateful “local” men and women who are not that pleased with the occupation of their country by peacekeepers. With their new “victim” status, there is a thin line to cross before they become perpetrators out of retaliation against the very same people that the peacekeepers were supposed to “save” in the first place; in addition, a sense of entitlement, reinforced by a differential power between the peacekeepers and the host community, can quickly escalate and lead peacekeepers to become perpetrators and commit crimes, including sexual exploitation and abuse.

  • 6 The majority of gender advisers are women; a few men are currently working as gender advisers. It w (...)

59The same dynamic is at play in different situations that can develop within a patriarchal institution, which further illustrates the discussion earlier in the paper about oppression, protection and omission. Representatives of patriarchy will allow a gender adviser to conduct her6 activities within boundaries that have been set by the system; the person will feel rewarded and accepted, provided that she never crosses a line that would be perceived as challenging the authority. In case she persists in crossing the line in spite of receiving several warnings, she will encounter the wrath of patriarchy’s representatives. However, before persecuting her, she will be made to feel guilty, inadequate, rejected and ungrateful to the people who supported her in the first place. Patriarchy excels at the art of breaking down self-esteem, especially in women. Then you are one small step away from being persecuted for not respecting the rules.

60Getting out of this triangle is not that easy.

Survival strategies for feminists working in patriarchal institutions

“I speak fluent patriarchy, but it’s not my mother tongue”

61Learning the language of the organisation is a key skill for surviving. Indeed, language has to be taken seriously because it helps us adjust to an environment or a situation while, at the same time, enabling us to understand the subtleties at stake. Just as we learn a new language in order to better understand another culture, work in a different environment, or fit in a foreign country, speaking fluent patriarchy can help to avoid common misunderstanding.

62One has to remain vigilant to steer clear of the co-optation trap set by the system, though, because once we speak a language fluently, we often feel a sense of belonging and start behaving like the “natives”. As a result, we must always find a good balance between the games we play with patriarchy and the ethical principles we keep. Observing oneself while speaking the language is a powerful tool to deconstruct all assumptions on which patriarchy is built. It means that we tailor our intervention to the audience, trying to sound convincing, without using a confrontational tone, and avoiding aggression and criticism that would close all doors. This closely ties into my next point.

Being a feminist observer

63As much as we are the observers of our own emotions and thoughts in meditation, we can also become savvy observers of patriarchy with a feminist perspective. Instead of taking everything personally and becoming confrontational which can only lead to increased frustration due to differential power I find observation a very practical tool, borrowed from the practical toolbox, to resist patriarchy. Indeed, we learn so much from observing men and women around a table, such as their body language, which words they use, how their fears are expressed, as well as their satisfaction and pride at being acknowledged by the men (or women) in power or the reverse (how their frustrations manifest at not being acknowledged). Putting oneself in the position of an observer allows more distance from the reality, more detachment and the power to examine a situation by recognising all gender-related stereotypes at play. The findings of observing patriarchy can feed into more research on the subject matter and uncover its subtle or more obvious tactics and manoeuvering. This observation tool should be utilised regularly to allow for identification of patterns.

Relying on a supportive network of like-minded people

64Working in isolation leads us to complete exclusion from decision-making centres, especially in such a difficult environment. Creating alliances with NGOs, Member States to the UN and other supportive individuals or groups, politically or ideologically, can bear fruit and help to strengthen our position. As Joanne Sandler (2012, 14) reminisces: “I will never forget when a very irritated high-level UN official warned us, after yet another failed effort to dissolve UNIFEM, ‘The only reason we can’t absorb you is because you have a constituency. That’s what is saving you’”.

  • 7 An Arria Formula is an informal consultation between members of the UN Security Council and represe (...)

65Indeed, for representatives of patriarchy who are relentlessly trying to dismiss gender-related issues as irrelevant, an act of massive support can have an impact on decision-makers, especially when it comes from a highly masculine political body of the UN. I remember that in 2013, when I was still working as the Senior Gender Adviser for DPKO, we organised an Arria Formula7 co-chaired by Guatemala and Australia, two countries that had a seat at the Security Council that year. We had invited gender advisers and Women Protection Advisers from field missions to come to New York to share their experiences with members of the Security Council, talk about good practices and highlight obstacles and challenges in their daily work. The event was very well attended and sparked a very dynamic exchange between the participants and members of the Security Council. The Head of DPKO even accepted to sit on the panel, together with the Ambassadors of Australia and Guatemala.

  • 8 Personal observation of the author. Emphasis mine.

66At the end of the event, as I was congratulating the participants, one incredulous high-ranking (male) UN official who had been sitting next to me, turned to me and said: “I didn’t know that Member States were that interested in those issues… It’s good to know8. What this individual meant was that if members of the Security Council who address serious peace and security issues throughout the world take the time to attend such an event and take it seriously, it is probably something to not completely ignore. This example serves to illustrate the strength of a network and the political capital that we can gain through lobbying with countries at the UN that are allies in the women, peace and security agenda.

The Stockholm Syndrome

67In her analysis of the UN system, Joanne Sandler dared to compare the impact of a patriarchal system on the staff with the “battered women’s syndrome”. She defined four stages of the process, including denial (as a coping mechanism for not being able to challenge the system openly), guilt (blaming ourselves for failing to mainstream gender), recognition/awareness (realising that the system is the problem, not us), and empowerment (being confident enough to use the system in order to achieve our goals). She stated that many people do not go beyond the first two stages.

68In the same vein, I was made aware by a friend of mine who is a women’s human rights activist that I might be suffering from the so-called “Stockholm Syndrome”. I first found this comparison a little bit out of scope, but after giving it much thought, it appears to bear some weight. Indeed, when I think about all the games I have to play to survive, the language I have had to learn, the low profile I have to keep and the camouflage I have to wear to avoid being identified as a feminist too frequently, it definitely appears that I have adjusted to the requirements of patriarchy. I might even have been accepted as “a member of the big family”, as one colleague would say.


69In conclusion, I would like to pose a simple question (Puechguirbal 2014, 33): “[…] If the men in power have so few incentives to change, why do we continue to work within the same system that doesn't allow any results or any accountability?”

70International organisations create positions of gender advisers that are used as a cover to make the organisations look good, in compliance with different resolutions or international instruments promoting gender equality and women’s human rights. However, the patriarchal environment where the gender advisers work remains unchallenged, unshaken. We end up making cosmetic changes within a system that deceives everybody by pretending to integrate a gender perspective into its work, but without providing gender advisers with the necessary resources and authority.

71As I have tried to demonstrate in this paper, patriarchy can rely on a set of tricks to continue to dominate, influence policies according to masculine norms, and deceive people by using different tactics in the framework of a well-experienced machine.

72As Jacqui True (2003, 384) has shown: “Gender mainstreaming efforts [….] will not change institutional practices and norms unless they are supported by social movement activism on gender equity and subjected to the ongoing critical scrutiny of a gender perspective by feminist scholars and activists”. But for feminist scholars and activists to make a difference and have their voices heard in the current discourse controlled by patriarchy, there is a need to break down the system we are working in.

73Finally, as we are often approaching patriarchy from a sociology or anthropology perspective, I would like to see more research done from a psychological point of view. I have a feeling that we only touch the surface of what could be a deep explanation of the ego-centric power stronghold of patriarchy; the way women have been educated and have internalised their status of second class citizens, thus somehow accepting a regime that oppresses them but at the same time rewards their loyal behaviour. I want to understand the need of individuals at the UN and in big organisations for absolute control of others, the way they behave out of fear, their lack of self-esteem (especially women) or confidence that prevents them from letting go and becoming supportive managers; the need of individuals in decision-making positions to maintain a gendered hierarchy of power, relying on patriarchal assumptions that being tough is a sign of competency, thus avoiding dialogue or any signs that could be interpreted as weakness and/or incompetence.

74The lack of empathy among individuals in these international institutions is a sign that the system is dysfunctional, spiritually empty, and that a deep analytical perspective is needed to change it. We, as feminists, have not been able to challenge the system because we continue to think according to the masculine norm, which has also served to isolate us from each other. As feminists, it is our collective responsibility to reinvent the codes and norms that have been defined by the men in power and imposed on us as universal references; create our own space and seize the fossilised language used on the international stage to transform it. Only then will we be able to make a difference.


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1 Peter Maurer is President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

2 . Emphasis mine.

3 Ratna Kapur was Senior Gender Advisor/Chief of Section, United Nations Mission in Nepal.

4 Special Representative of the Secretary General.

5 Emphasis mine.

6 The majority of gender advisers are women; a few men are currently working as gender advisers. It would be interesting to find out whether a) they are more accepted because there are men; or b) they are not taken seriously, not because of their sex, but because of the position they occupy.

7 An Arria Formula is an informal consultation between members of the UN Security Council and representatives of civil society or any invited group on issues pertaining to peace and security. The practice was initiated by Ambassador Diego Arria, representative of Venezuela on the Council in 1992-1993.

8 Personal observation of the author. Emphasis mine.


Nadine Puechguirbal est actuellement la coordinatrice pour l’Action des Nations Unies contre la violence sexuelle dans les conflits, basée au Bureau du Représentant spécial du Secrétaire général des Nations Unies sur la violence sexuelle dans les conflits, à New York. Elle était auparavant conseillère sur les questions de genre pour le Département des opérations de maintien de la paix à New York. Elle a également travaillé en tant que conseillère sur les femmes et la guerre pour le Comité international de la Croix-Rouge (CICR) à Genève. De juin 2004 à juin 2008, elle a été conseillère sur les questions de genre pour la Mission de stabilisation des Nations Unies en Haïti (MINUSTAH). Nadine Puechguirbal est Senior Fellow et professeure invitée à l’Université pour la paix au Costa Rica (UPEACE), affiliée aux Nations Unies, où elle enseigne dans le département des études sur la paix et les conflits.

Nadine Puechguirbal is currently the Coordinator for the UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict, based in the Office of the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, in New York. She was formerly the Senior Gender Advisor for the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) in New York. She also worked as the Women and War Advisor for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva. From June 2004 to June 2008, she was the Senior Gender Advisor for the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). Nadine Puechguirbal is a Senior Fellow and Visiting Professor at the UN-affiliated University for Peace in Costa Rica (UPEACE) where she teaches for the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies.

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