The Hidden Link Between Women and War

Domestic violence against women may actually be a cause of war—so how do we disrupt the vicious cycle that propels young men into battle?

The UN’s 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence run until December 10, Human Rights Day, and as we reflect on 2014, there is no denying it has been a particularly vicious year for violence against women. The images are forever seared in our minds: the kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls, the trafficked Yazidi women, the assassination attempts on Afghan women leaders, the sexual assaults on Egyptian women in Tahrir Square, the horrific gang rapes of girls in India and the brutal honor killings in Pakistan.

These atrocities are all by-products of the resurgence of a particularly ancient kind of war—extremely violent, religiously or ethnically motivated civil conflicts that now rage across parts of Africa, South Asia and the Middle East. All of the conflicts involve large groups of young men, undereducated, overarmed and delirious with power; caught in a labyrinth of shifting relationships and competing interests; united in their efforts to control and oppress women and girls.

Why is violence against women central to so many of the conflicts that plague the planet today? What is driving young groups of men to mobilize against women? And what can we do to prevent it?

But what if we have it the wrong way around? What if violence against women is not a by-product of war, but rather a major cause of it? What if it is cultures of violence against women that are producing these groups of young men with their profoundly violent ideologies? What does this imply for how we respond to, and ultimately aim to prevent, the rise of these groups that so threaten our peace and security?

In their 2012 book Sex and World Peace, Valerie Hudson and colleagues argue, in an exhaustive multi-country analysis, that the single greatest predictor of a nation at war, internally or externally, is not the level of wealth or democracy, or the presence of religious or ethnic conflict, but rather the level of violence against women. “What happens to women,” they conclude, “affects the security, stability, prosperity, bellicosity, corruption, health, regime type, and (yes) the power of the state. The days when one could claim that the situation of women had nothing to do with matters of national or international security are, frankly, over.”

In that case, we have reason to worry, because the rates of violence against women are very high, particularly in the most fragile and insecure regions of the world..

Last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) found that a massive 30% of women in the world experience physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner, with rates as high as 66% in central sub-Saharan Africa, 42% in western sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, and 35% in northern Africa and the Middle East. The rate of partner violence dwarfs the number of women who experience sexual assault from a stranger (7%).

The impact of family violence on women is enormous, with studies showing that victims are 16% more likely to have a low-birth-weight baby, more than twice as likely to have an induced abortion, and in some regions are more susceptible to disease (1.5 times more likely to become infected with HIV and 1.6 times more likely to have syphilis). The annual cost of such violence is estimated at $8 trillion, more than eight times the costs of civil war and terrorism, according to the Copenhagen Consensus. Not surprisingly, the WHO concluded that violence against women is a “global public health problem of epidemic proportions, requiring urgent action.”

In response to the mounting evidence, the influential British medical journalThe Lancet just released its first series on Violence Against Women and Girls, calling on governments to ensure that health sectors play a greater role in responding to violence against women. The Lancet urges funding of programs that challenge male control over women; that reduce levels of childhood exposures to violence; that reform discriminatory family laws; that strengthen women’s economic and legal rights; and that eliminate gender inequalities in access to employment and secondary education. These recommendations are in keeping with a World Health Assembly Resolution to strengthen the way health systems respond to violence against women, endorsed by 194 governments earlier this year. There should be no more excuses for inaction on violence against women.

But what about prevention, especially in those parts of Africa, South Asia and the Middle East where women face an insidious, ever-present threat of partner violence as part of their daily lives, and where this violence seeds larger, ever more violent conflicts?

There are at least three reasons to be concerned. First, the attitudes of young people toward violence against women don’t seem to be changing fast enough. UNICEF reports that an alarming majority of adolescents in many African, Asian and Middle Eastern countries—boys and girls —still find it acceptable for a husband to beat his wife for burning food, arguing, neglecting children, refusing sexual relations or leaving the house without permission. As the population of young people aged 15 to 29 grows by more than 40% over the next 15 years, their attitudes will increasingly determine the future security of women and our world.

Second, as many African, Asian and Middle Eastern countries score lowest on the latest Global Gender Gap Report, women will continue to fall behind men in health, education, economic and political status in many of the countries most prone to violence. Of great concern is the worsening sex ratio at birth in several countries, including India, where the number of single men trying to marry after 2030 might exceed the corresponding number of unmarried women by 50 to 60%, which could ignite further violence.

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Third, a large proportion of the population growth in these high-violence regions will occur in cities and towns, putting pressure on limited resources, according to the UN’s World Urbanization Prospects. Where these three forces combine, they could ignite conflict by increasing the pipeline of angry young men, seasoned by a culture of violence at home, on the march to the cities looking for opportunities that are just not there. Funnelling this pipeline of young men of working age into a force for economic growth and social development in the high-violence countries is one of the most important development challenges of the next decade.

Our greatest hope is reaching young people in the regions most affected by violence and working to change rigid gender attitudes and dynamics and eliminate the acceptability of violence. We must simultaneously reduce the risks that men will perpetrate violence (by tackling alcohol abuse and work-related stress) and that women will be victims of violence (by increasing women’s economic independence, control over their own fertility and access to political power).

What would this new development agenda look like? We should invest in new leaders, new conversations and new collaborations. We should identify and mentor young men and women who advocate reducing violence against women as a strategy for peace and security and economic and social development. We must host new conversations about women’s empowerment through media platforms that tap young, mainstream voices, and use new collaborative technologies to bring together traditionally opposing sides and encourage civil dialogue. All of these strategies need to include young men, so that they are part of the solution.

But the world hasn’t yet fully realized that reducing violence against women is an insurance policy against war and insecurity and a hefty downpayment on economic and social development. Until that happens, we will likely be inundated with more and more images of the “insurgents du jour”—young men armed to the teeth in full destruction mode, wreaking havoc on their families, their neighbors, and their nations. We’ve been so conditioned to think that violence against women is a by-product of war that we wait for it to happen and then try to clean up the mess. But if we work to stop violence against women at home, where for generations certain men have been rehearsing their violent ambition, we might at least disrupt the cycle.

Find out how you can support the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence by visiting the United Nations Secretary-General’s UNiTE to End Violence Against Women Campaign.

Leith Greenslade is Vice-Chair at the MDG Health Alliance, a special initiative in support of the UN Secretary-General’s Every Woman, Every Child movement to advance the health of women and children globally, and a member of the Peace and Security Funders Group.