Gender, Violence and Human Security:
Critical Feminist Perspectives

Aili Mari Tripp, Myra Marx Ferree and Christina Ewig (eds.)

Book Review

Gender, Violence and Human Security, edited by Aili Mari Tripp, Myra Marx Ferree, and Christina Ewig, is a timely intervention into current debates over human security as an approach to (in)security, violence, and gender. The book is organised into four sections: re-theorising human security through a gender lens; a group of case studies of gendered violence; a section on policy considerations for reducing violence and increasing human security; and a conclusion drawing the major themes together. Aili Mari Tripp frames the book’s central arguments in her chapter ‘Towards a Gender Perspective on Human Security’, where she points out that human security incorporates important agency-oriented, people-centred, and bottom-up perspectives that have already proved useful to scholars, policymakers, and activists adopting a gendered approach to security, conflict, and post-conflict.

While the human security approach has often regarded the state as gender neutral, Aili Mari Tripp points out that states are both gendered and patriarchal, often with negative consequences for the security of men and women. She calls for more attention to the links between personal insecurity, economic and political inequality, and conflict, the need to focus on power relations including gendered power relations, the problem with gender binaries, the need for an intersectional approach to gender and human security, the role of agency and the importance of situated, contextualised analysis identifying the limits and possibilities facing women and men seeking security in an often insecure world.

While acknowledging the often contested nature of the concept, Myra Marx Ferree’s very useful final chapter argues that human security is both deeply gendered and in need of a grounded intersectional feminist approach that recognises the often multiple and interrelated injustices a person can face on the basis of sex, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, and so on. Indeed, the feminist approach advanced in Gender, Violence and Human Security builds on a feminist intersectionality that is committed to broadly defined social justice and a critical feminist understanding of gender. It pays attention to the security of both women and men, while also addressing women’s particular concerns with resisting patriarchal power and ending gendered inequalities.

The book connects the macro and micro through attention to both structure and agency, while warning against an essentialist view that presents women and men as solid, oppositional groups locked in eternal opposition. The book challenges gendered approaches to human security that focus on women as either vulnerable victims or, more rarely, as active agents, and calls for a non-binary gendered intersectional approach that maintains a commitment to carefully situated analysis of gender in war and peace.

The substantive chapters provide small and selective glimpses into global efforts to increase human security, framed within a shared concern with how gender, along with other cross-cutting issues, influence specific security dilemmas. The chapters by Lisa D. Brush, Kristin Bumiller, and Katherine Pratt Ewing focus on human security in the global North. They challenge the assumption that the global North has all the answers, either for themselves or the global South. Indeed, the authors demonstrate the profound limitations of both German attitudes and policies towards their Muslim population and the United States’ attempts to regulate and ‘improve’ the lives of poor women. The chapters by Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, Narda Henríquez, and Christina Ewig, as well as Laura J. Heideman, emphasise the role of marginalised women and men in articulating issues of concern, making political claims, and resolving conflicts. They highlight the importance of understanding grassroots mobilisation in specific contexts, particularly in the complex post-conflict worlds often created when local cultural and social gender norms interface with patriarchal values brought in by international observers.

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin’s chapter highlights the dangers of these patriarchal bargains for women and some men in many post-conflict contexts. Elizabeth Stites, V. Spike Peterson, Lisa D. Brush, and Edith Kinney explore the impact of the social organisation of gender on macro-level human insecurities. Their chapters demonstrate the crucial connection between economic survival and human security, and the importance of integrating women’s particular needs and obligations into the analysis. The impact of institutional positions also affect people’s (in)security and are incorporated in the analysis. The significance of material and cultural aspects of gender relations are incorporated in many chapters. For example, Katherine Pratt Ewing focuses on both the material and cultural insecurities facing Muslims in Germany, while V. Spike Peterson brings cultural and material factors into her analysis of informalisation and combat economies.

The substantive introductory and concluding chapters thus provide an excellent basis for considering the benefits of an intersectional gender analysis of human security. The section on policy prescriptions suggests three directions for a gendered approach to policymaking and implementation. Human security is about power relationships and policies, which all too often erase gender from discussions and practices. Advocates of a gendered human security approach will have to be aware of this tendency, and the importance of countering it with convincing arguments for more gendered approaches. They will also need to draw on feminist arguments for a more open, transparent, and inclusive approach to human security policy and practice, while remaining cautious about alliances with the state and its various agendas. The policy section concludes with an exhortation for an intersectional feminist approach to human security policy which acknowledges the contributions of women’s human rights and capability approach to human development.

Gender, Violence and Human Security is an important contribution to the literature on human security, as well as human rights and human development. It confronts the short-comings of human security as a concept, particularly its broad definition of security/insecurity and the difficulties of using such an approach. More attention could have been spent on the various debates around the concept, particularly by the Copenhagen School, which has broadened the traditional scope of security studies. However, the critique of the absence of gender in human security, the argument for its centrality, and the call for an intersectional feminist approach to human security are both convincing and important. The book leaves no doubt that a nuanced, grounded approach to gender is vital for understanding and action around human security issues. The attention to intersectionality and the need to avoid a binary gender analysis is an important contribution to human security, both analytically and in relation to policy and practice. At the same time, more attention could have been paid to sexuality, the masculinities literature, and embodied performativity, as well as recent work on gender and agency that challenges the tendency to frame feminist agency in Western-based gender binaries (Mahmood 2005). Jasbir Puar’s (2007) critique of intersectionality, which focuses on assemblages rather than a more rigid intersectional model, would also have been useful. Nevertheless, Gender, Violence and Human Security plays a vital role in fostering essential discussions about the centrality of gender to discussions of violence and human security, the benefits of an intersectional, non-binary gendered approach, and the vital importance of placing gender at the heart of debates and actions that all too often return to the comforts of a gender-free analysis of violence and insecurity.


Mahmood, Saba (2005) The Politics of Piety, Princeton: Princeton University Press

Puar, Jasbir (2007) Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times, Raleigh, NC: Duke University Press

© 2014, Jane Parpart, Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security, and Global Governance, University of Massachusetts Boston, USA

Gender, Violence and Human Security: Critical Feminist Perspectives is published by New York University Press
Review originally published in Gender & Development 22.3 (2014)