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Sex and World Peace: How the Treatment of Women Affects Development and Security

Valerie Hudson and Chad Emmett present their new book in which they argue that the status of women is the single most important predictive factor in determining state stability.

Date & Time

Apr. 26, 2012
12:00pm – 2:00pm ET


5th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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“What we have discovered is that the very best predictor of how insecure and unstable a nation is not its level of democracy, it’s not its level of wealth, it’s not what ‘Huntington civilization’ it belongs to, but is in fact best predicted by the level of violence against women in the society,” said Valerie Hudson, co-author of Sex and World Peace, at an April 26 book launch at the Wilson Center. 

Co-author Chad Emmett joined Hudson, along with Jeni Klugman, the World Bank’s director of gender and development, and Richard Cincotta, demographer-in-residence at the Stimson Center, to discuss the security implications of gender inequality and potential policy responses.

The Paradox of Missing Women

The basis of the book – applying a gender lens to international security – followed from early feedback from her colleagues at Brigham Young University, who suggested that if her goal was to understand the reasons for “blood spilt and lives lost,” she would do better to look at ideological conflict rather than women’s security. 

In response, she made a simple comparison of deaths from conflict and the number of “missing women” in the world. Looking at “as many [conflicts] as I possibly could,” Hudson said she totaled 152 million deaths in 20th century fighting. By comparison, the United Nations Population Fund reported that at the turn of the century – just “one generation, if you will, of the century” – 163 million women went missing from Asia alone

The missing women phenomenon is “a significant paradox” in global development, said Klugman. “On the one hand there have been enormous advances in terms of life expectancy, but at the same time, relative to boys and men, there’s still enormous excess mortality.”

“We see females who are missing at birth – and that’s the fairly well-known problem of sex-selective abortions…in China and India,” she continued. “And then we have girls who die before they reach their fifth birthday…inadequate water and bad sanitation…and then of course we still have fairly high rates of maternal mortality, which are affecting women of child-bearing age.”

Where a woman lives also affects her security, or lack thereof, at different stages of her life, said Emmett. In sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, relatively balanced sex ratios suggest that females are safer as babies than in South Asia, where ratios skew in males’ favor. As mothers, however, women may have a “more favorable status” in the Middle East and North Africa than sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia, given the region’s relatively low maternal mortality rates, he said.

“A Clash of Gender Civilizations”

Looking at these inequalities, Hudson and Emmett, along with co-authors Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill and Mary Caprioli, put the standard question of whether a state’s security affects the security of its women “on its head,” said Hudson, and instead asked “does the security of women impact the security of states?” 

Do gender inequities make problems like food insecurity and famine more likely? Do they make poverty, disease, demographic problems, poor governance, and conflict more likely? 

In short, the authors say 10 years of empirically-based, interdisciplinary research indicate the answer is yes. “Perhaps the engine of state conflict is actually a clash of gender civilizations,” Hudson said, and not the “clash of civilizations” that Samuel Huntington put forth in his seminal 1993 article.

Looking at health, for instance, the authors found that “the larger the gender gap, the higher the AIDS rate and the higher the rate of infectious diseases,” said Hudson. “And the larger the gender gap, the lower the life expectancy not just for women, but for men.” 

Conversely, “the smaller the gender gap, the lower the infant mortality rates, the lower the child malnutrition rates.” Tying the two together, she asked, “might inequitable treatment of women make disease and ill health more likely for the nation?”

The authors repeated that analysis across the board: states with a larger gender gap and fewer rights for women tend to have higher levels of both perceived and actual corruption, lower national incomes, higher and less sustainable fertility levels, and a greater likelihood of both inter- and intra-state violence. Conversely, a smaller gender gap and stronger women’s rights are linked with more durable peace agreements, lower infant mortality and child malnutrition rates, a greater focus on social welfare issues, and higher levels of trust in government.

Convincing the Unconvinced: “A Tough Order”

If gender inequality is one of conflict’s “tap roots,” Hudson continued, “then maybe we would have more success in helping the international system be more peaceful if we concentrated…more on holding nations accountable to their obligations under CEDAW [the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women].”

That goal, however, “is a tough order,” said Cincotta, who was the discussant on the panel. “What we’re talking about is in a world governed by men, largely, countries governed by men, who appeal for their power largely to communities also controlled by men – how do you convince them that giving up some of their power is in their best interest?”

Cincotta pointed to a specific conclusion the authors drew in the book: that states would welcome greater scrutiny of potential rights violations once they understood the connection between stronger women’s rights and stronger state security. 

“That to me is a real stretch,” he said. “You’re asking for [states] to say ‘okay, I’m going to bring in [women and human rights defenders], and allow these reports to be made, and I’m going to be better off for it.’” 

“[The authors] start out from the beginning warning you that this is the beginning of a long venture and that they can’t prove causality with all the things that they talk about…but they point to certain relationships that are worth thinking about.”

Bottom-Up and Top-Down Progress

Although states may be hesitant to adopt a gendered approach to improving state security, Emmett said women are taking the lead in fostering bottom-up momentum for greater equality. For example, in Saudi Arabia, women activists are pressing the government to be allowed to drive; in Afghanistan, girls arepersevering in the face of acid attacks to attend school; and Somali women are raising the call to end female genital mutilation.

The international community also has a role to play, said Klugman. The World Bank’s 2012 World Development Report focused on gender inequality for the first time in its 35-year history, and for the first time made “the explicit recognition that these [gender] gaps do not disappear with [economic] growth.” Achieving greater equality will depend on activists and policymakers at every level, and in all sectors, working in tandem, she said.

“You can intervene if you like in one domain, for example making a formal policy change,” Klugman said, “but unless you’re thinking about what’s happening with respect to the other norms…you’re not really going to realize the hoped-for gains.”

Drafted by Kate Diamond, edited by Schuyler Null.


Hosted By

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

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