Why everyday gender inequality could lead to our next war

By — September 14, 2012

What if I suggested that reducing the rates of rape and sexism in the U.S. would reduce our risk of international conflict? You might think that American girls and women who regularly adapt their lives to deal with “harmless” street harassment, or who are assaulted by American men, have little to do with, say, the Iraq War. Yet research shows an undeniable relationship between the treatment of women in everyday life and a nation’s propensity for engaging in war.  

Such is the conclusion of a fascinating book, Sex and World Peace, based on studies that spanned 10 years. The authors—Valerie M. Hudson, Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, Mary Caprioli, and Chad F. Emmett—took the question, How does a nation’s security affect the status of its women? and flipped it: Does the status of women affect a nation’s security? Their results are startling in their power and clarity.

According to the authors, the very best indicator and predictor of a state’s peacefulness is not wealth, military expenditures, or religion; the best predictor is how well its girls and women are treated. And before you start making exceptions for the U.S., think about this: Democracies with high levels of violence against women are as insecure and unstable as non-democracies. Whether a country is a democracy or not is irrelevant.

Gender is the fundamental construct for how a society understands difference. Regardless of which state we are talking about, tolerance for street harassment, rape, domestic violence, and restrictions on reproductive freedom are among several indicators of gender inequality rooted in such difference. These behaviors correlate to state security in multiple dimensions. In the simplest terms, states in which women are subjected to violence and uncontested male rule at home, where they are not allowed equal freedoms and rights to bodily integrity, privacy, and equal protection under the law, are those most likely to engage in violence as nations, the authors report. Microaggression against women in private connects to macroaggressive national behavior. The larger a nation’s gender gap in equality between men and women or the more violently patriarchal their structures, the greater the likelihood that a nation will resort to force and violence in the form of aggressive nationalism.

(WomanStats)

The book’s findings and conclusions are compellingly derived from the authors’ creation and use of the WomanStats database. Containing more than 130,000 datapoints, the database includes more than 375 variables for 175 countries, all of which have populations of at least 200,000 people. It is, according to its website, the most comprehensive bank of data on the status of women in the world today. During the course of 10 years, researchers used this resource to analyze various aspects of women’s live in areas such as domestic violence, maternal mortality, rape, and women’s political participation.

The authors analyzed this broad spectrum of behaviors to rank women’s security on a scale of 0 (best) to 4 (worst). In addition to granular empirical analysis, the authors mapped these data to illustrate the distribution of violence against women geographically and to graphically illustrate the scope of the issues.

Notably, when it came to the physical security of women, not one country received a zero. The average for the world, 3.04, demonstrates the nation-neutral, ubiquitous, and persistent fact of violence perpetrated against women for being women. The United States scored below the world average, receiving a 2 on this scale, but U.S. levels of rape, domestic abuse and spousal murder are still extremely high.

Also notable is the correlation between the degree to which a state is weak in its women-protecting law enforcement and the degree to which the same state does not comply with international norms, treaties, and obligations. Like CEDAW.

CEDAW—the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, is otherwise known as a global bill of rights for women. Among the many thoughtful recommendations the authors make is that countries adhere to the clear guidelines laid out in the convention. The United States cannot, however, follow this suggestion, since we are the only democracy in the world that is not a state party to CEDAW. The U.S. Senate has never ratified the convention and, without this ratification our country is not bound by its provisions. Do I even have to say why? Those in the United States who oppose it think it is a proxy for the Equal Rights Amendment that will undermine “traditional” family values and parental rights, encourage same-sex marriage, and dissolve the gender barriers on which their worldview is based.

This is important because, regardless of nation, women’s inequality and the gender gap is vectored most effectively through adherence to complementary, gender hierarchical roles within families. As I’ve written about previously, conservative, fundamentalist Americans share this focus on hierarchical patriarchal family structure—where family “privacy” trumps a woman’s individual rights and freedoms—with conservative fundamentalists elsewhere in the world. Gender dynamics within the private, domestic sphere are directly related to the distribution of justice and rights within a society and how that society’s power is wielded on the world stage. When women remain prey to state-tolerated violence at home, their countries remain in the thrall of violence abroad.

Yet even if for some reason you are not concerned with world conflict—or if your gender shields you from the direct effects of violence against women—listen up. As the Washington-based nonprofit Woodrow Wilson Center’s Kate Diamond explains in a post about Sex and World Peace, the authors also found that gender inequalities increase a nation’s risk of famine, poverty, disease, and poor governance. Meaning, no matter where you stand on the gender spectrum, or how worried you are about our next war, the harassment of women can still take away your health—or your next meal.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The ninth paragraph has been clarified to reflect that the U.S. has not ratified CEDAW but is actually a signatory.