This module is a resource for lecturers




What comes to your mind when you see the topic "Gender and Organized Crime"? Stories of young, beautiful, exotic women who are the blind, submissive lovers of equally exotic but dangerous male bosses of organized criminal groups? Images of foreign, frail, innocent girls taken advantage of by transnational male criminals operating in the shadows? Men who lead, even from behind bars, complex trafficking networks worldwide? Savvy, conniving women who ´take over´ what is depicted as a predominantly male underworld?

Leaning on and simultaneously nourishing society's collective fascination with organized crime, television and online series, movies, books and even scholarly literature worldwide have offered many representations of the men - and women - involved in this illicit, yet very profitable business. Walk into any bookstore around the world and it is likely that you will find a variety of books claiming to tell the 'true story' of drug dealers or transnational youth gangs; videos and television series abound with the feats of the male members of organized criminal groups and terrorist organizations colluding with anyone from drug dealers to human traffickers. Women tend not to be represented as often, but when they do, they are typically relegated to supporting roles, wilful yet blind appendixes to their male counterparts, at times femme fatales and generally not truly autonomous. When they are depicted in positions of leadership, it is generally to showcase what happened to them because of going against gender roles. Take for example the case of Sandra Avila Beltran, known in Mexican law enforcement circles as The Queen of the Pacific, who was running a successful cocaine enterprise and eventually ended up in a US prison. Or of Sister Ping, whose profitable career smuggling migrants out of China came to an end following the tragic death by suffocation of a group whose smuggling she coordinated.

Critical criminology and gender scholars have warned us: none of these representations is neutral or apolitical. Stories and narratives of crime communicate specific messages concerning gender. These messages concerning what men and women do, should do or should not do, are reproduced by all of us in the context of our lives. These messages are present in what we consume through the media, but also in our day to day lives and interactions with others. These messages may only partially or superficially discuss the experiences, challenges and perspectives, but rather focus on stereotypes that may be assumed as reflecting realities. Think for example of how people tend to automatically associate crimes like drug trafficking or terrorism to men from specific nationalities, or of how women are the first ones to come to mind when one mentions human trafficking. Not only is it a matter of mentioning men and/or women, but of how they are then represented: as violent, greedy, resourceful men or as naïve, young, migrant women.

Are the ways men and women are represented in crime true, or even valid? How do people's own notions of gender shape the way they understand organized crime? Why is it that ideas concerning race and class are also such a common part of organized crime representations? In short: why should we care about gender when discussing crime, and particularly organized crime?

This Module answers these questions. It relies on theoretical concepts, examples drawn from empirical research and case studies to show the ways people experience and respond to crime depending on their gender. It also shows how gender and the way gender is performed and understood shape criminal justice system outcomes. In other words, men and women have different experiences. It should therefore not come as a surprise that these differences are also present in the way men and women experience the criminal justice system.

The Module introduces basic gender concepts to the study of organized crime. Using case studies and examples drawn from empirical research, the Module highlights the importance of having a gender perspective when exploring crime, criminalization and the administration of justice processes (for additional information, see Module 13 on Gender Dimension in Smuggling of Migrants and Trafficking in Persons of the Teaching Module Series on Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants; and Module 9 on Gender Dimensions of Ethics of the Module Series on Integrity and Ethics).


Cisgender: A term used to refer to individuals whose sense of their gender aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth.

Classism: A prejudice against people belonging to a social class.

Femininity: Pattern of social behaviour that is associated with ideals about how women and girls should behave and their position within gender relations.

Feminization of poverty: Set of phenomena that refer to a widening gapbetween women and men caught in the cycle of poverty.Around the world, women suffer more from severe poverty than men, and female poverty has a more marked tendency to increase, largely because of the rise in the number of female-headed households.

Gender: Term used to describe the roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society at a given time considers appropriate for men and women. In addition to the social attributes and opportunities associated with being male and female and the relationships between women and men and girls and boys, "gender" also refers to the relations between women and men. These attributes, opportunities and relationships are socially constructed and are learned through socialization processes.

Gender blindness: The failure to recognize that the roles and responsibilities of men and boys and women and girls are given to them in and against specific social, cultural, economic and political contexts and backgrounds. Projects, programmes, policies and attitudes that are gender blind do not take into account these different roles and diverse needs, maintain the status quo and will not help transform the unequal structure of gender relations.

Gender discrimination: Any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex/gender/sexual orientation (as the grounds of discrimination relevant to this Module) which has, for any individual, or any group of individuals, the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field [United Nations, 1979. 'Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women'. Article 1].

Gender equality: term that refers to the equal rights, responsibilities and opportunities of women and men and girls and boys. Equality does not mean that women and men will become the same, but that their rights, responsibilities and opportunities will not depend on whether they are born male or female. Gender equality implies that the interests, needs and priorities of both women and men are taken into consideration, recognizing the diversity of different groups of women and men. Equality between women and men is seen as both a human rights issue and a precondition for, and indicator of, sustainable, people-centred development.

Gender neutral, gender sensitive, gender transformative: These terms describe approaches that do not consider gender and do not affect norms, roles and relations ( gender neutral); consider and address gender norms, roles and access to resources only in so far as needed to reach project goals ( gender sensitive); consider gender central and transform unequal gender relations to promote shared power, control of resources, decision-making, and support for women's empowerment ( gender transformative).

Gender norms: Ideas about how men and women should be and act. These are the standards and expectations to which gender identity generally conforms, within a range that defines a particular society, culture and community at that point in time.

Intersectionality: A concept often used in critical theories to describe the fact that individuals may be subjected to multiple and compounding forms of discrimination, related to various specificities of identity or circumstance. These forms of discrimination can be based on: race/ethnicity, indigenous or minority status, sex, age, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion or other belief, political opinion, national origin, health status, urban/rural location or geographical remoteness, (etc.). These categories are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another.

LGBTI: An acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons. In certain contexts, 'intersex' - persons born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that does not seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male - is not included (LGBT); in others, Q is added to represent 'queer' /'questioning' (LGBTQ); or the symbol '+' is added to denote other persons of diverse sexual orientation and gender identity (such as asexual, pansexual and so forth).

Masculinity: Pattern of social behaviour that is associated with ideals about how men and boys should behave and their position within gender relations.

Racism: A prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race/ethnicity based on the belief that one's own race/ethnicity is superior.

Sex: Either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and most other living things are divided based on their reproductive functions.

Sexism: Prejudice, stereotyping, or discriminating, typically against women, based on sex.

Sexual orientation: Term that refers to a person's sexual or romantic attraction towards other people. This is not to be confused with same sex attraction (i.e. gay or lesbian sexual orientation). Heterosexuals (those attracted to persons of a different sex to themselves) have a heterosexual sexual orientation. Sex characteristics and gender identity do not determine sexual orientation.

Stereotype: A widely held, but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a person/group or thing.

Stigma: A mark of disgrace associated with a circumstance, quality, or person.

Social construction: Meanings, notions and connotations that do not exist objectively or inherently, but because of human interaction.

Transgender: 'An umbrella term used to describe people with a wide range of identities - including transsexual people, cross-dressers (sometimes referred to as "transvestites"), people who identify as third gender, and others whose appearance and characteristics are gender atypical and whose sense of their own gender is different to the sex that they were assigned at birth. Trans women identify as women but were classified as males when they were born. Trans men identify as men but were classified female when they were born' (UNFE, n/a).

Many of the definitions in this glossary are based on those contained in the "Gender Equality Glossary of the Training Centre of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women".


Topics covered

  • Organized crime
  • Gender
  • Intersectionality
  • Stereotypes

Learning outcomes

  • Explain the differences between gender and sex
  • Understand and use basic conceptual/theoretical tools concerning gender (e.g. gender, sex, intersectionality)
  • Understand the implications and importance of bringing gender into the study of organized crime, criminalization and criminal justice administration
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