Grantee/Partner News

Opinion: What You Do to Your Women, You Do to Your Nation

March 6, 2020

Grantee News From: The Bush School of Government & Public Service, Texas A&M University.

Gender isn’t just a human interest sideshow to high politics.

In 1995, the U.N. World Conference for Women in Beijing championed the idea that the fate of nations was tied to the status of their female citizens. In 2000, U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325 asserted that peace is inextricably linked with gender equality.

This year, as we approach the conference’s 25th anniversary and the resolution’s 20th anniversary, research has only emphasized that what was said then still holds true today: Violence against women and women’s subordination are not simply problems of the home and family. We now know, for example, that the prevalence of violence against women in a country can be a predictor of a national predilection toward terrorism and civil conflict. That’s why 83 countries have created national action plans on women, peace and security.

Great strides have been made for women since 1995. Globally, maternal mortality has plummeted at least 45 percent, primary school enrollment for boys and girls is at virtual parity, and the percentage of women represented in national legislatures has more than doubled.

These gains are not unalloyed: Decreased maternal mortality comes primarily as a result of the gains of one country, China; girls lag boys in graduating from primary school; and women fill only approximately 24.5 percent of legislative seats, with some bodies still having no female representation at all. But still, measurable progress.

 At the same time, we also see troubling indications that old evils are making a comeback. Whether we speak of attempts to banalmost all abortions, even in the case of rape or incest, here in the United States, or debates about legalizing polygyny in Central Asia, or that in 2015, three times the number of nations had abnormal childhood sex ratios favoring males than was the case 20 years prior, clearly the world cannot assume progress for women will be steady and straightforward. Furthermore, some harms seem perennial, such as domestic violence, sexual harassment and sex trafficking.

While we might be tempted to see all of this as a human interest sideshow to the high politics of the world, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, it is time to say again what was said in Beijing a quarter-century ago: The fate of nations is tied to the status of women. In a new study, my co-authors and I demonstrate that nearly every dimension of national security is intertwined with whether women are subordinated or empowered within their society. (Remarkably, the Department of Defense funded this study in order to better anticipate instability abroad — a sign that at least some in the security establishment have begun taking these links seriously.)

We have found that household-level practices in many countries subordinate women even when they are educated, even when they are in the labor force, even when they serve in government. One of the most crucial conversations I ever had was with a female member of the Afghan legislature, the loya jirga. She was university-educated and had a career — and yet, she asked, how empowered was she, really, if her husband could divorce her simply by saying so, and she would lose custody of her children and have nowhere to live if he did?

Surely it gives one pause that Saudi women have the same rates of university education as German women yet are still subject to male guardianship over certain aspects of their lives. Or that Rwanda has the highest female labor force participation rates as well as the highest percentage of women in the national parliamentin the world even as family law and property rights there are often governed by traditions that favor men.

Saudi women were only recently allowed to drive and obtain passports without a male guardian’s permission. 
Saudi women were only recently allowed to drive and obtain passports without a male guardian’s permission. Credit…Iman Al-Dabbagh for The New York Times

This means we need to examine the things that constrain women in their homes, in their personal lives — high levels of violence against women and impunity for their assailants, lack of property and inheritance rights, laws that favor men in divorce and child custody cases, polygyny, bride prices, dowries. These practices constitute the first political order of any society. The structure of the relationship between the two halves of humanity is the basis for the political order of every nation, and if that order allows autocracy, violence and extortion, a nation will arc in those directions as well.

This is not philosophical, this is practical. Studies have shown that men who hold that women are inferiors are much more likely to engage in political violence. They are also much more likely to be hostile to minorities and foreigners. If household governance is by male fiat, no wonder government winds up autocratic, ineffective and corrupt. The household is the training ground: Men are trained in the practices they will use when they gain societal power.

Societies that subordinate women also find themselves saddled with chronic destabilization caused by the practices that produce that subordination. If sex-selective abortion has culled 12 percent of 15 percent of the females in a society, as has happened in China and India, national instability follows. When bride prices go through the roof, terrorist groups discover they can gain recruits by promising money for bride prices and even brides to young men.

In sum, the law of the first political order is this: What you do to your women, you do to your nation.

Examining 122 outcome variables capturing nine dimensions of national security including governance, conflict, economic performance, health and environmental preservation, my co-authors and I have found that the first political order is both highly significant and displays the largest or second-largest explanatory power for outcomes.

So, yes, by all means create an Office of Global Women’s Empowerment in the State Department, as recent legislation has done. But there is much more to do, and it starts at home. The to-do list includes refusing to erode women’s hard-won reproductive rights, and ensuring women can combine reproduction and production. It also means refusing to redefine household-level subordinative practices, such as polygamy, as just another lifestyle choice, as well as understanding domestic violence for what it really is — a form of terrorism which must be treated as such under the law.

Curse your women, and you curse your nation. And you curse our world with all the instability caused as a result.

Valerie M. Hudson, a professor of international affairs at Texas A&M University, is, with Donna Lee Bowen and Perpetua Lynne Nielsen, an author of “The First Political Order: How Sex Shapes Governance and National Security Worldwide.”

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