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Last Updated: 06/06/2013
Gendered Language in the United Nations Secretary-General's Report on Sudan
Hala Eltom

This article discusses the 2005 report of the UN Secretary-General calling for a "peace support operation" in Sudan (S/2005/57), a proposal subsequently supported by the Security Council in resolutions 1547 and 1574. Hala Eltom analyses the language of this report from a gender perspective and finds that it relies on generalities that lead to policy ambiguities, and reflects the persistent gender biases of the UN as an institution.

The usage of particular words or phrases influences the context, message and overall style of written or spoken language. When mastered, the careful use of language can lead to successful, effective, and persuasive news articles, speeches, media marketing campaigns and even propaganda. However, when ambiguous language is used within the context of an international legal or UN framework, it can create a wide gap between reality and various legislations. Thus, language should be highly specific and exact in United Nation documents, especially when it comes to gender issues and rights that outline prevention and protection strategies. Prior to examining the gendered and non-gendered specific and ambiguous language used in the report of the secretary general on Sudan and throughout the different sections, it is also critical to understand the objective and context of the report, the history of conflict as well as the local cultures and traditions. Also, in order to deconstruct and analyze the gender specific (or unspecific) language in any UN reports, it is important to acknowledge the responsibility of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations in implement gender mainstreaming, which is described by Sylvia Walby in Gender Mainstreaming: Productive Tensions in Theory and Practice (2005) as “a form of gendered political and policy practice and a new gendered strategy for theory development”. Ultimately, this would include the integration of gender perspectives into all elements of policy development such as Security Sector Reform; Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration; and policies on Police, Military, and Elections.

Due to the unstable relationship between Sudan and South Sudan at the time, an extensive report of the secretary-general on Sudan S/2005/57 was adopted by the Security Council in resolutions 1547 (2004) and 1574 (2004) on 31 January 2005. This report proposed a detailed United Nations Mission in Sudan under the resolution 1590. The main objective of secretary-general report was to establish a multidimensional peace support operation by stressing the importance of a joint, integrated strategy among UN agencies, funds and programs in order to successfully implement the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the Government of Sudan and South Sudan (UNMIS p.1). This mission was established to focus on four board areas including; good offices and political support for the peace process; security; governance; and humanitarian and development assistance, through the deployment of 10,000 military personnel and an appropriate civilian component, including more than 700 police officers (UNMIS p.1). Without providing any gender disaggregated data regarding the military personnel and police officers, we can assume that they are gendered with a prevailing male default category because of the patriarchal structure enshrined in the military and police institutions.

While the report does cover some aspects of gender mainstreaming, seen from a gender perspective, the report remains ambiguous and lacks specificity in the terminology that is used when describing specific cases. The broad usage of terms like “people” or “individuals”, and statics such as “ 2 million people” , are rather gender insensitive and do not provide any substantial information about the case, the severity of the situation and the type of assistance the various individuals need. Furthermore, completely devoid of the differential impact of the situation on the people and their different experiences. Consider the following statement, taken from line 26 under “Humanitarian and development considerations”:

In Darfur alone, some 2.5 million people are expected to need humanitarian assistance in 2005, including more than 1.6 million internally displaced persons.

While there should be a place for aggregate figures of this type, such a statement does not provide any concrete information on the gender and age of those individuals or the type of gender specific assistance they will need to receive. This form of broad generalization, also does not inform us of the impact on the different intersectional ties (race, class, caste, sexual orientation, religion, etc.) or the ratio of displaced men, women, girls and boys. Meaning, there was a disregard to all of the different aforementioned elements.

As seen in United Nations Security Council Resolution 1820 on sexual violence in armed conflict, mainstreaming gender and gender balance are a crucial part of peacekeeping mission, as women are utilized as peacekeepers as an “operational imperative”, as they play a crucial role in preventing the phenomenon of sexual violence by helping survivors build their own capacities for conflict resolution and empower themselves (Mazzotta 2011). Regardless of women’s involvement as peacekeepers, however, or the women-relevant references in the report, the patriarchal approach underlying both the mission itself and the report did not allow for gender-relevant strategies to be developed. Thus, in this particular mission, both gender mainstreaming and balance were missing.

Although there has been a higher level of women’s inclusion and recruitment within the United Nation’s system in recent years more than ever before (U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs 2010), women are still taking on comparatively less powerful and less influential positions than men. This type of patriarchy is not only imbedded within many aspects of society, but also within the United Nations as an institution, as reflected in the language used to describe, for example, certain high level positions. In the report on Sudan, the masculine “he” rather than feminine “she” is used when referring to the capacity of the Deputy Special Representative, who happens to play an essential role in the mission in Sudan as a Humanitarian Coordinator for the Sudan (Mission structure line 34). Without any further context, the reader of the report does not know whether the position of the humanitarian coordinator is already filled by a man, which would explain the present reference to the term “he”, or whether the job description requires or expects a man to fulfill the position. This type of language usage is gendered in of itself, by referring to the male default category as able bodies and thus creating a structural power dynamics which perpetrates further inequality among men and women.

The report, on several occasions, classifies women and children in the same group as vulnerable persons, which may suggest that gender is mainstreamed in the report. This is problematic, however, because it does not create any differentiation between able women and actual vulnerable persons who can be men, women, girls and boys. An example of this categorization includes the protection plan (line 75), whereby there is a proposal for a strategic work plan for displaced individuals or those in armed conflict. However, rather than focusing on a protection plan for all displaced individuals or those in conflict areas and each of their different needs, the protection plan specifically categorizes women, children and the vulnerable all in one group. This suggests that the needs of women, children, and vulnerable people are all the same in terms of needs, and perhaps even more problematically, that all women, children and vulnerable individuals need protection. This type of categorization does not recognize any of those aforementioned groups as possessing abilities or capabilities to help themselves and continues the precedent of clustering them as the helpless ones needing of protection. The classification is damaging on a different level by creating a cycle of victimization, whereby those survivors are only seen as helpless victims. This removes them from their own individuality and ultimately, legitimatizing dependency.

Despite the gender ambiguous terminology that is used, interestingly, in the gender section, special recognition is given to gender mainstreaming. The main mission is to facilitate capacity-building support of civilians (line 85). Generally, within the report there is a broad acknowledgment that war affects women and men differently and thus have separate needs in the socio-political and economic spheres. Women and men, however, are affected in various ways beyond just those constructed spheres and those differential elements are rarely taken into account when addressing protection, security, disarmament, demobilization, etc. Nonetheless, one of the most effective initiatives is the report’s proposal of an action plan that is specifically designed to target Darfur’s emergency cases that would focus on prevention and response measures “to address the high rate of reported incidents of sexual and gender-based violence” (line 86). By assuming this responsibility, the mission becomes more effective in addressing the different gender based needs and ensures that the assistance is gender sensitive and appropriate.

Still, the gender insensitivity and ambiguity in the language of the report lead to the conclusion that the mission has not fully addressed the various gender related issues in the various sections, and thus it may not be a complete success. By taking on more gender conscious steps, through gender mainstreaming, the integration of women peacekeepers, and gender sensitive measures, and especially, by avoiding gendered language that leads to ambiguity, peacekeeping missions can be more successful and effective in the future as they address the various and different needs and experiences of individuals.


Mazzotta, Cecilia. "THE ROLE OF WOMEN PEACEKEEPERS IN COMBATING SEXUAL VIOLENCE IN ARMED CONFLICT SITUATIONS: Perspectives from Latin American Troop-Contributing Countries." Pearson Papers. 13. (2011): 39.

Walby, Sylvia. "Gender Mainstreaming: Productive Tensions in Theory and Practice ." Oxford Journal. (2005): 321-343. 10 Mar. 2013.

United Nations, Peacekeeping Operation, UN Mission in Sudan, available at: [accessed 10 March 2012]

United Nations Report of the Secretary-General. Resolution 1547(2004) and 1574(2004)[Proposal of UN mission in Sudan]. (S/2005/57). 31 January 2005.

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. The World's Women 2010: Trends and Statistics. United Nations. New York (2010).

Hala Eltom is an MA candidate at the University for Peace in the media, peace and conflict studies programme.