I keep seeing and hearing the expression women and children in print and on NPR when referring to a set of people in a war zone. Do they literally mean women and children? Or has that become an expression to mean something else, like maybe civilians or vulnerable members of society?

Of course I know what women and children are, but why would a government official or military leader interviewed on NPR refer to that particular group of people literally? It sounds silly to me, so I'm wondering if maybe this is an accepted way to refer to a certain group of people in a war zone or conflict who aren't directly involved in it.

  • In re: "a concise way ... to refer to those [in a warzone] who aren't fighting but are in danger". Most frequently, such people are known as "civilians" or "noncombatants".
    – Dan Bron
    Aug 21, 2014 at 19:24
  • the comments to the article are telling. What do you want from here? non-combatants? collateral damage? victims of war? Are you interested in finding a set of terms that comprise your view or simply needing a word that means "non-fighting victims of war"?
    – SrJoven
    Aug 21, 2014 at 19:25
  • @Dan, yeah, I realized this is good enough after posting. I'll get rid of that part of the question since there are plenty of terms I didn't think of.
    – user85526
    Aug 21, 2014 at 19:25
  • I also removed the second part since it was just bloat. I just want to know what the people in the news intend to say when they use that expression.
    – user85526
    Aug 21, 2014 at 19:28
  • In the particular article you linked to, it's pretty clear the author literally means "female and juvenile human beings" (the first, most prominent photograph is of a literal woman and literal children).
    – Dan Bron
    Aug 21, 2014 at 19:31

3 Answers 3


The reason that women and children are specifically mentioned is a traditional (and possibly sexist) one: traditionally, only grown men would be warriors.

In a war situation, it would be the man's job to fight, and that means that traditionally, men getting killed in a war is nothing special — that's their job.

Women and children, although often legitimate spoils of war were never seen as rightful victims.

Not only in war situations, but also in other calamities, women and children are traditionally supposed to deserve being saved first, hence the same expression being used on a sinking ship when directing people to the lifeboats: women and children first!

Due to emancipation, in many countries, soldiers can be, and are, nowadays also women. And sadly, in some conflicts, children have been recruited as soldiers.

Broadly, women and children still refers to just that, but it is to be understood indeed as "non-combatant innocent victims of the situation", regardless of there possibly being other women or children among the soldiers — those soldiers do not fall under the generic women and children flag. In contrast, non-combatant men are now sometimes included, even if not specifically mentioned.


I think it is safe to say that women and children mean women, and children.

  • Yes. And in context it might also have meant women and children civilians, if some women and children are combatants. The devil is in the details, of which we have none to go on, here.
    – Drew
    Aug 21, 2014 at 20:55

When NPR says women and children they mean women and children, at least as far as news reporting and analysis goes.

They are typically very careful with the terminology they use, especially in a context as important as war, refugees, atrocities, and such. They say civilians when they mean civilians in general. I have heard them speak in the same context about both civilians and, among the civilians, women and children.

And they often speak specifically about women these days, in the context of the Yazidi in Iraq, where men and children have been summarily executed and women have been taken as slaves, er... the religiously enlightened.

My suggestion is to listen more carefully, and to ask yourself why they specifically mentioned women and children in a given context.

Wrt English usage: No, I don't think that women and children is a euphemism in NPR news and interviews, or code for something else. Of course, perhaps someone they interviewed used it that way, but since you say nothing specific about what you heard or who was saying it, it's hard to guess what that might be.

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