Reflecting upon women and children first

“Let us take care of the women and children first.” – J.H. Buckingham.

Feminist achievement over the past century is slowly, but surely levelling the playing field for men and women. For most, the conception of the adult woman as nothing more than a homemaker, care-giver, and good Mother is thankfully a disdained memory of the past. 

As stated in the quote from J.H. Buckingham, the concept of “women and children first” (WACF) prioritises the lives of women and children, grouping them together in life-threatening situations. With its origin in the wrecking of the HMS Birkenhead in 1852, this 19th century code of conduct was primarily used in the context of disaster as a means of helping the vulnerable. 

Fast-forward to the modern day, in 2012 Richard Pellew, Chief Surveyor for the south east region at the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, acknowledged the obsolete nature of this nautical conduct as he informed the Guardian that “Women and children first is a Victorian hangover. There is nothing in policy other than in human nature.”

Although it is now infrequently used, this old-fashioned discourse is still, to some extent, present in the narrative of catastrophe. The contemporary version of this concept focusses upon the protection of women and children in crises in which hegemonic masculinity is prevalent. 

The reality of women and children first  

The crisis context that this narrative exists in challenges its problematic nature. When considering WACF, it is important to acknowledge that it has given rise to critical support and humanitarian aid for endangered and displaced women and children. 

Re-appropriating the language of an oppressive past, the charity Women and Children First provides support structures and humanitarian aid for vulnerable women with the ambition to pioneer a world “where all women, children and young people can survive and thrive.” As a result, the concept no longer carries with it the connotations of weakness that it had in the past, instead supporting women who are forced into vulnerable positions. 

In a statement for humanitarian aid in Northwest Syria from February 2020, the UN pointed out that, in fact, women and children are often more adversely affected than men in times of crisis. The report details that the “vast majority” of displaced peoples are “women and children.” Painting a picture of the struggle, the UN details that “Mothers burn plastic to keep children warm. Babies and small children are dying because of the cold.” 

It therefore becomes clear that rather than being an inherently feminist issue, WACF is actually a necessity in times of crisis. Yet, it is additionally important to point out that this is a vulnerability of its own creation due to the male-centric nature of crises. 

Writing at length on the damaging relationship between crisis and international law, academic Hillary Charlesworth comments upon the silencing of women in crises. She persuasively notes that, “Men are the protagonists, men are at the negotiating table, men are making threats, retaliating, intervening. The lives of women are considered part of a crisis only when they are harmed in a way that is seen to demean the whole of their social group.” 

Where do men come into this?

In spite of the masculine nature of the international relations that lead to crisis, for displaced or endangered civilian men, WACF separates them from their families and removes their ability to care for their children. Placing women and children first, therefore, feeds upon gender roles rather than simply being parents or carers and children.  

It goes without saying that children should be prioritised during times of crisis – but why are woman automatically grouped with them? Of course, there are some practicalities with the example of a breastfeeding child. However, you cannot help but wonder why it should be the woman who is automatically grouped with the child, as it seemingly serves gender stereotypes. 

WACF is again difficult in that it implies that a man’s life is less valuable than a woman’s. The prioritisation and grouping of women and children perpetuates the concept of male expendability, in which the loss of a man’s life is deemed less significant than the loss of a woman’s. According to Ivana Milojević, the expendability of men places them as violence-objects and women as sex-objects; men have historically been used in combat, with lower ranking men deemed nothing more than “cannon-fodder”. Although it may seem dated, this social construct that values life by age and gender is magnified in crisis. 

Exploring specifically why women and children should not be prioritised in the Refugee Crisis, Jennifer Saul wonders at which point a young boy’s life becomes less valuable. She notes that the UK’s desire to prioritise the acceptance of women and children is rooted in a racism towards foreign refugees, as males are viewed as a greater threat. Saul also points out the “casual willingness (of receiving countries) to destroy families.” 

The 2015 Refugee Crisis was an especially potent period for the use of WACF. In a 2015 interview, former Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett expressed his belief that women and children should be spotlighted in the humanitarian efforts in response to the crisis. He acknowledged the particular adversity women and children face, as he implied that mere funding would not “overcom(e) the sheer, blinding misery of women and children who have nowhere else to go, who are destitute.”

Nevertheless, whether this gendered life value system devalues men’s lives over women’s or not, women are nonetheless forcibly placed into a position of vulnerability in this context. Fundamentally, men are the primary actors in crises and occupy different discourses. 

Acknowledging perspective 

When reflecting upon the modern use of WACF from a feminist western perspective, it risks overlooking the reality that the discourse provides critical aid in times of crisis. It begs the question as to whether there is even place to ascribe a western feminist perspective to this narrative.

Nonetheless, even though WACF helps women in dangerous situations, it does not make it inherently good as it relies upon a forced vulnerability consequent to the male-centric nature of crises. The narrative is typically prescribed by receptive countries, particularly during the Refugee Crisis. It resides in an uncertain space, transgressing the borders of gender roles, humanitarianism and an old-fashioned misogyny. 

Whilst being aware of its positive humanitarian function, WACF remains problematic. Admittedly, the aid that WACF provides should not be diminished, and the narrative is, to some extent, being redefined. Perhaps the greater issue is the hegemonic masculinity of crises that place women in these positions in the first place. 

Graphic courtesy of Izzie Armitage.

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