The Salt Lake Tribune ran an article yesterday that highlights the findings of “The Heart of the Matter: The Security of Women and the Security of States,” a study published in Harvard’s journal International Security. The study provides preliminary, empirical evidence that how a nation treats half of its population, specifically the female half, is predictive of its violent, oppressive tendencies as a state.
I was intrigued by the promise of hard data to support an argument that the International Women’s Health Coalition often makes: we will not achieve global peace or security until we secure every woman’s right to a just and healthy life. Only when women are healthy and safe are they fully productive workers and effective participants in their country’s political processes. Women are the building blocks of stable societies and growing economies.
In undertaking this analysis, the authors note the paucity of gender-specific data and the strength and limitations of the available gender indices. In response, they created their own database, WomanStats, which coalesces 260 variables, including measures of domestic violence, marriage practice, and rape, from 174 states to assess the security of women in these states.
The authors then compared different statistical measurements of women’s security to three measurements of a nation’s security: the Global Peace Index, the States of Concern to the International Community index, and Relations with Neighbors index. They also compared women’s security to a state’s wealth, level of democracy, and adherence to Islam. Although a state’s wealth, level of democracy, and adherence to Islam are associated with women’s security in the state, this study finds that the best predictor of a state’s relative peacefulness is the security of the women in that nation.
Yet, the question of causality remains. Is a state more peaceful because its female citizens are safe or does it respect other nations, and in turn women’s rights, because it is not a particularly aggressive nation? The authors admit that their current analysis cannot prove causality, but they provide a theory, based in evolutionary biology, to explain why women’s security is a predictor of national security.
Following the authors’ logic, many, perhaps most, societies have created legal, political, and social systems that favor men’s reproductive interests and success. These systems are founded on “male dominance hierarchies [that] were naturally selected among humans to maximize protection against out-group males and minimize conflict between in-group males….[where] ‘alpha’ males dominate subordinate males and…control sexual access to females.” Again following evolutionary biology, the authors point out that because most women are physically weak compared to most men, “coercion is an effective male mating strategy.” This leads systems that passively or explicitly accept violence against women and perpetrate double standards that favor men, for example, in marital and divorce laws.
The authors expand on this argument to say that “the foreign policy of human groups, including modern states, is more dangerous because of [this] human male evolutionary legacy.” Without cultural mores and social systems to check the tendency towards gender inequality, violence can diffuse through a society and will manifest in the behavior of the nation.
Although it is a preliminary analysis, this study provides important evidence that women’s security should be considered when assessing the potential threat of states to the international community. It also suggests that achieving gender equality has the potential to stabilize the world’s most insecure states and the international community.
Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, via the creative commons Flickr stream.
Susanna Smith is the Program Officer for Communications at the International Women’s Health Coalition. Read her bio here.