The Double Bind: A Gender Analysis of Forced Displacement and Resettlement

Published on 1 January 2008

This paper offers conceptual, practical and political perspectives on issues of gender, displacement and resettlement. It argues that displaced women are often caught in a double bind. On the one hand, male biases in society help perpetuate gender inequality in terms of unequal resource allocation and distribution and also legitimise the silencing of women’s interests in forced displacement processes. On the other hand, biases within state institutions, structures and policies dealing with R and R help perpetuate and exacerbate these inequalities, even though resettlement programmes have the potential to create institutional structures that at least at the de jure level could help remedy past inequalities.

The paper begins by examining how a gender analysis of current practice in resettlement calls for a re-examination of several key concepts around which displacement processes and resettlement programmes are premised. They include: the notion of the oustee which is often unproblematically assumed to be a male householder; the family which is assumed to be a unitary and homogenous entity; the nature of losses which are deemed to be calculable and notions of well-being which are often conceived of in material terms. However, women’s rights, assets and spheres of control often centre around informal institutional arrangements which are rarely captured in and understood by policy makers and risk being undermined in the course of resettlement.

The paper also examines the widely applied Risks and Reconstruction model of World Bank sociologist Micheal Cernea which has enhanced resettlement theory, research and practice by its focus on impoverishment. The paper argues that while this model acknowledges that women might suffer a more severe impact, it fails to systematically unpack how risks are borne differently by different groups and how mitigating the risks of some, could increase the vulnerability of other weaker and more marginalised groups.

The paper concludes with practical and political challenges that need to be addressed in order to achieve gender justice in R and R policies and programmes. These arguments are developed by drawing on empirical material from ongoing research on gender, displacement and resistance in the Narmada Valley, India, following a dam construction project.


Lyla Mehta

Professorial Fellow

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published by
Mehta, L.
Mehta, L.