“Women and Children First”- A Euphemistic Exclusion



Colorful building blocks vs Black and white

By Naagha Shyamala R

What do fundamentalism, war, toxic patriotism, patriarchy, capitalism, racism, dictatorship and other systems with power imbalance have in common? Often, we find that they are unsustainable and value-destroying. The efforts to maintain the power imbalance may be rooted in the perception that differences are hazardous rather than harmonious, again leading to unsustainable outcomes.

Can the Dialogic Method, which approaches differences in perspectives and lived experiences as valuable resources, result in harmonious outcomes and offer a solution?  

Understanding Power Differences

The pervasiveness of power imbalances range from domestic dynamics to international board rooms to the United Nations General Assembly. These can appear in many forms, from the finances of the entire family in centralised control of one person, to restricting access, opportunities, choices, mobility etc. It can take on the guise of honour killings and ethnic cleansing when it manifests as oppression and on the other hand,  justifying abuse as “love”, and sympathetic charities and Western “interventions” in developing ranging from Avengers-level heroism of saving the world to “peace-building” in conflict-ridden countries when it manifests as “protection”. 

A very common result of such imbalance is the categorization of women and children as the most vulnerable population who always need to be “protected and controlled” by “men”. The resulting action of this belief in the Indian context dates way back to the Manusmriti (Chapter IX, Verse 1)1, which dictates how a woman should be under the control of her father/husband/son at different points in her life and extends to the lack of agency and voice for children either at homes and schools and also, the modern emergency-time command “Women and Children First”.

“Women and Children First”

The emergency call “Women and Children First” gained traction after the infamous Titanic tragedy, where the captain is believed to have given this command during the ongoing rescue as the available lifeboats were limited. However, the command gained popularity much before the Titanic tragedy in 1852, after the sinking of the HMS Birkenhead. This call stems from the “traditional” order of prioritization of the “vulnerable population”. However, nearly 100 years after the Titanic sank, two Swedish researchers (Elinder & Erixson, 2012) analysed 18 of the world’s most famous maritime disasters and found that the “male chivalry” is a myth and men have been surviving more in number than women. In the analysis of 18 accidents, only 17.8% of women survived compared with 34.5% of men (Elinder & Erixson, 2012)2.  The Titanic was an exception due to the Captain’s orders or threats to shoot men who did not yield their lifeboat seats to women. In every other maritime disaster, however, the general pattern has been that male passengers, captains and their crew have been more likely to survive (Elinder & Erixson, 2012)3. The above analysis and findings from it changed the foundational call from the mythical “Women and Children first” to the realistic “Every man for himself”. 

Both these statements are evidently problematic for the simple reason that they do not work. When evacuation and rescue efforts are the focus, either of these models is going to leave a significant number of people behind and make the mission a miserable failure. 

Why is that the call “Women and Children First” has proved ineffective? The prioritisation of women and children comes from traditional beliefs rooted in ethical, moral and social codes, especially expectations of men’s behaviour towards women. However, these beliefs and codes stem from the patriarchal fixation that women and children are the weakest and most vulnerable who always need to be helped and taken care of. Ironically, the same belief also allows and makes it easier and socially acceptable to abuse and dismiss them unapologetically. Such a belief also means, the population that is considered stronger and less vulnerable (typically, the men) will have less opportunities and access to safety. The possibility of the presence of a more vulnerable population other than women and children (like the elderly and differently-abled who will need more assistance than women during emergencies) will not be considered. Hence, this “saviour complex” and “heroism” perceived in this model leads predominantly to “invisibility and neglect” of a huge population.

The Visible Invisibility

The invisibility and exclusion happens even within the genders. Invisibility is not just threatening and dehumanising to the person on its receiving end, but could also  significantly compromise the intended result/impact of any mission. In a time and space where innovation and profitability, impact and progress is driven multifold by co-creation, neglecting potential value-creating stakeholders could be heavily penalising and that would be unaffordable. Hence interventions aimed at enabling co-creation often focus on inclusivity and equality in different sectors. One notable example is the International Labour Organisation’s efforts towards gender equality of men and women in workplaces – a tool to drive this being “Social Dialogue”.4

The recent International Labour Organisation’s report on the “Contribution of Social Dialogue to Gender Equality (2020)” highlights the role of Social Dialogue to drive the process towards achieving gender equality indicators like equal wage for equal value of work for men and women, equal opportunities and parental leave for men and women, equally safe spaces for men and women, to name a few. This report shifts the narrative towards women from “saving the vulnerable” to “potential stakeholders” whose diversity, inclusion and equality ensures a stable and rich workforce leading to increase in profitability benefitting the organisation.5

However, the report is limited by a largely binary approach to gender – covering only “men” and “women”, and excluding genders beyond this approach. Again, this stems from the belief that women are the most vulnerable and their rights are violated the most, whereas, we have many other genders whose recognition and acknowledgment is still an ongoing battle. Consequently, the impact objectives of the International Labour Organisation are heavily compromised. This can either result in an insufficiently diverse workforce or complete non-existence of a category in the workplaces. 

Other research (Cooke, L. P. (2021)) (Albinsson, Gunilla; Arnesson, Kerstin (2017)) continues this trend, highlighting the invisibility and exclusion of gender fluidity and non-binary genders. While targeted research about certain genders is crucial, the zoomed out research about gender issues and themes have seldom included the non-binary population. While all these researches were explored at the intersection of dialogue and gender, the papers have missed a significant part of both the themes, which is the fact that vulnerable populations can refer to more people.6 7

The Doors of Dialogue

Dialogue is a way to receive thoughts, perspectives, ideas and expressions of everyone at the table, and as such, is increasingly seen as essential towards achieving sustainability and inclusion. Security and Human Rights Hub is a knowledge hub for tackling complex challenges in companies and The World Business Council for Sustainable Development ensure the inclusion and engagement of all the stakeholders in their dialogues to pool expertise, increase the capacities and possibilities to find more solutions for complex problems, efficiently use resources, reduce strategic failures by promoting transparency and increasing willingness to work together.8 9 Case studies show how business giants like Nike and Starbucks have harnessed the transformational and value creating potential of dialogue.10

Gender concerns notwithstanding, is an emergency situation – like that on board the Titanic – the right time and place for a dialogic approach? 

Undoubtedly, emergencies require action and not dialogue. However dialogue can be an effective tool to draw up plans, heuristics and even normative codes for action in an emergency – actions that take into account the various stakeholders involved. Indeed, stakeholder engagement has been an important part of designing disaster management and response plans.11 Some of the important dialogic questions that can be asked while preparing for such situations could be; 

1. When we want to prioritise the safety of the ‘vulnerable population’, who are we taking into account and who are we leaving behind?

2. What are the criteria and limits of the vulnerable population?

3. Do we just want to save the ‘vulnerable population’ or leave behind the rest of the population just because they don’t fit the criteria of being “vulnerable”? 

The hyper-focused assumption that women and children are the most vulnerable population extends in the field of research as well. The need for highlighting the issues of women and considering their current equity needs with respect to their centuries-long oppression is important and valid in gender-based research. However, the need for the representation of all the other genders would be the effective way towards sustainable and inclusive outcomes. Some of the social and psychological research papers have also explored the effects of gender (mis)-measurements in the field.12

The consequences of the exclusion, to name a few, are skewed findings and compromised scientific integrity which leads to unsustainable outcomes, unrest and highly compromised and diminished value creation in any context. As a result, the implications made by the research that lead to policy making or social interventions would still result in unsustainable fixes. Dialogues that ensure the presence of every stakeholder in a sensitive theme like gender, and representation of every gender whose existence has been denied and unacknowledged, could give rise to a diverse, value positive outcome rather than it having remained as a conflict and chaos due to the simple reasons of neglect and silence.

When either considering the vulnerable population or working towards gender equality, the focus is constrained to girls and women. Dialogues which expand the focus to other vulnerable groups, being intersectional and non-binary genders, would be the way to go to ensure an inclusive participation towards a win-win-win solution. Hence, neither “Women and Children first” nor “Every man for himself” is unlikely to accomplish rescue from any literal maritime or figurative social, commercial or personal disaster as everyone is yet to be “on board”. 

  1.  https://constitutii.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/the-laws-of-manu.pdf ↩︎
  2. Ibid
  3.  Elinder M, Erixson O. Gender, social norms, and survival in maritime disasters. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Aug 14;109(33):13220-4. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1207156109. Epub 2012 Jul 30. PMID: 22847426; PMCID: PMC3421183.
  4.  Contribution of Social Dialogue to Gender Equality (2020), International labour Organisation. https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_protect/—protrav/—travail/documents/publication/wcms_679957.pdf
  5. Ibid ↩︎
  6.  Cooke, L. P. (2021), ‘Gender revolution, evolution or neverlution?’, IFS Deaton Review of Inequalities https://ifs.org.uk/inequality/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/IFS-inequality-review-Gender-revolution-evolution-or-neverlution.pdf ↩︎
  7. Gunilla Albinsson & Kerstin Arnesson (2017): Dialogue in a learning process: problematization of gender and gender equality in higher education, Reflective Practice. http://www.tandfonline.com/action/showCitFormats?doi=10.1080/14623943.2017.1307728 ↩︎
  8. Stakeholder Dialogues Manual (2011), Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH https://www.securityhumanrightshub.org/sites/default/files/2020-04/giz_stakeholder_dialogues_kuenkel.pdf ↩︎
  9. Stakeholder Dialogue-The WBCSD’s approach to engagement (2001), World Business Council for Sustainable Development 
  10.  https://kshetra.space/dialogue-a-universal-business-strategy/ ↩︎
  11.  Associate Professor Bhishna Bajracharya Peter Hastings (2020), Stakeholder engagement for disaster management in master-planned communities, Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience https://knowledge.aidr.org.au/resources/ajem-july-2020-stakeholder-engagement-for-disaster-management-in-master-planned-communities/ ↩︎
  12. Cameron JJ, Stinson DA. Gender (mis)measurement: Guidelines for respecting gender diversity in psychological research. Soc Personal Psychol Compass. 2019; 13:e12506.
    https://doi.org/10.1111/spc3.12506 ↩︎