In every country, women from all walks of life experience violence, abuse and exploitation. But all women are not equally vulnerable to men’s violence as the phrase “violence against women” somehow implies.
Some women and girls are more vulnerable to violence especially those who are poor, indigenous, migrants, ethnic minorities, widows, and living with disabilities for instance.
They are less able to protect themselves from men’s violence precisely because they have lesser access to important social and economic resources such as land, property, credit, education, employment, food, health and social security. Individual men’s violence against women, threats to women’s rights by governments, political and religious groups, and the escalation of war and conflict all have material roots in the political economy of gender inequality.
No matter which way we cut into the socioeconomics of war it is connected to the socioeconomics of gender. So if we want to prevent violence against women, first and foremost, we need to challenge gendered inequalities and ensure that women and girls have a good economic and social status.
War is fought over competition for economic and political resources that are unequally distributed and this competition virtually never benefits women to the same extent as men. Societies engaged in armed conflict prioritise military spending on arms and armies over spending on education, health and the achievement of gender-equal development.
The socioeconomics of war exacerbates the war on women. Soldiers take up arms to protect the nation and their manly honour as well as their privileged status as breadwinners and heads of households.
During war substantial economic value is extracted from women’s bodies to sustain the fighting, whether as “bush wives” servicing male militia in hiding as in Sierre Leone’s conflict 1992-2002, or as agricultural labour enabling the survival of households and societies such as in Colombia’s protracted armed conflict.
In fact, women were raped and mutilated in Uganda’s civil war precisely to cut the food supply of the enemy.
In armed conflicts in Palestine, Kashmir, and Bosnia violence against women and children has been used to force them from their homes in order to expropriate land, property and territory.
Margot Wallstrom recently suggested that calculating the monetary cost of sexual violence in armed conflict would reveal it as a losing rather than winning strategy and contribute to ending the violence.
But doing so – as well as costing the sex-related, trafficking and feminised service industry in post-conflict peace building missions would more likely show the tremendous exploitation of women and girls that keeps the war machine going in so-called ‘peace time’.
Eliminating sexual violence from armed conflict would not change this gendered political economy. Taking the rape out of war will not make the war economy safe for women.
After conflict, many women, including former combatants, lose their economic livelihoods and right to education, are displaced and stripped of assets, and may become sole heads of households due to the death of husbands and male relatives.
This precarious situation frequently makes women and girls even more vulnerable to violence than during war; the experience of post-conflict violence prevents them from going to school, getting a job, becoming economically independent and participating in peace-building decision making.
Moreover, the impact of war and political instability on the economy reflected in substantial decreases in national income is unequally felt. Men’s reactions to poverty and loss of employment as a result of conflict-related economic downturn include violent attacks on their female family members at home. At the same time, women and girls struggle to find work and other opportunities as post-conflict societies typically put male former combatants and ‘breadwinners’ first.
To uphold women’s human rights and end violence against women and girls it is clear, we must oppose all war and prepare for peace by creating gender-equal societies where women and girls are empowered economically, socially and politically.
By Jackie True
Jacqui True is Professor of Politics & International Relations at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia and author of “The Political Economy of Violence against Women”, Oxford University Press, 2012.