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Women’s Rights and Empowerment – the Need for a National Security Approach

First published by INSCT on Security – link to initial publication.

In July 2010, the UN General Assembly established UNWomen – the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. The decision to establish a single UN body dealing with gender stemmed from a realization that the campaign towards gender equality and women’s empowerment need to be more focused, organized and unified. Interestingly over the last few months reports, studies and websites[1] dealing with gender and the status of women have appeared, emphasizing the plight that many women around the world face. These studies make it clear why UNWomen has stated that, “…gender inequalities remain deeply entrenched in every society. Women lack access to decent work and face occupational segregation and gender wage gaps. They are too often denied access to basic education and health care. Women in all parts of the world suffer violence and discrimination. They are under-represented in political and economic decision-making processes.”[2] A possible explanation (beyond the male-domination of domestic and international politics) for the lack of substantive progress in promoting women’s rights is that the issue is seen as one of either development or politics. These are considered not to be as important as defense or national security as it is understood in the post-9/11 world. In other words, when there is a clash between defense and development issues, the former always takes precedence.[3] The reality however is that by making gender and women’s empowerment a national security issue, a rapid change in women’s rights would occur especially as in the post-9/11 world it is easier to attain consensus and support for policies and programs when they take place under “national security.”[4]

In June 2011, the Thompson Reuters Foundation launched a specialist website TrustLaw Women to advance gender equality. The website which aims to provide women’s groups around the world with legal advice as to how to best contend with discrimination and violence comes at the most appropriate of times when the UN has recognized the lack of legal protection for women [UN Women Report “In Pursuit of Justice.”[5]]  TrustLaw Women contains a survey – based on responses from over 200 aid professionals, academics, health workers, development specialists and policymakers chosen for their expertise in gender issues – highlighting the five most dangerous countries for women to live in: Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Pakistan, India and Somalia. What is striking about the report is that four of these countries receive vast sums of aid from the international community and the other is the world’s largest democracy. The survey has six categories: health; discrimination and lack of access to resources; human trafficking; conflict-related violence; sexual violence; and, cultural and religious practices.

The report unsurprisingly identified Afghanistan as the worse place for women to live. This is because women continue to suffer economic, social and political hardship and discrimination: having one of the highest rates of maternal mortality and one of the highest illiteracy rates for women and girls in the world (approximately 12% of females 15 years and older can read and write in Afghanistan compared to 39% of males). Most recently, the Taliban has reinitiated its campaign against women with the use of “night letters” designed to intimidate or poison women. The DRC, dubbed by the UN as the “rape capital of the world,” despite having the second largest UN peacekeeping presence – MONUSCO – whose mandate is to provide civilians with protection (MONUSCO has 22,000 peacekeepers and an annual budget of over $1.3 billion) came second in the Thompson Reuters report.[6] Pakistan took the third place because cultural, tribal and religious practices consistently harm women’s rights. Pakistani women endure acid attacks, child and forced marriages and the application of physical violence as punishment and retribution.[7] Somewhat surprisingly, India came fourth due to the high level of human trafficking, which is largely domestic (of India’s 3 million prostitutes, 40% are children; the Indian National Human Rights Commission estimates that 60,000 children go missing annually in India, with fewer than a third being found). India also has the highest female infanticide and feticide rate in the world, as parents opt to have boys for cultural, economic and social reasons.[8] Somalia came fifth as the most dangerous country in the world for women. Somali women endure high levels of rape, female gentile mutilation, limited access to education and health care, leading to a high rate of maternal mortality. (The Guardian, June 17, 2011)

Since the 1990s the international community has sought to promote “human security” – freedom from want and freedom from fear. This has led to some major changes in international politics such as the prosecution of those engaging in sexual-based violence, which includes rape, sexual abuse and public humiliation. (Prosecutor v. Akayesu ICTR-96-4-T, 2 September 1998) The Security Council has contributed to the campaign by adopting resolutions placing gender at the heart of peacekeeping operations (Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000)) as well as demanding an end to sexual violence (Security Council Resolution 1888 (2008)). The economic world through various initiatives and programs has sought to promote women’s economic empowerment and self-sufficiency. And yet, the question remains as to why women continue to experience immense human rights violations?

The answer lies, as Charlsworth noted more than a decade ago, in the gendered nature of international relations (Hillary Charlesworth 1994). By not seeing gender inequality as a national security issue, an opportunity is missed to challenge those seeking to keep gender in the “private realm.” When looking at the Thompson Reuters study in none of the five countries do national security and gender issues intercede.[9] This is unfortunate as by making women’s right a national security issue it becomes possible to not only punish individuals that use archaic cultural or religious practices to subvert women, but to change the national discourse about gender. By showing the national benefits that come from allowing women to own land or receive an education, the State is strengthened as women repeatedly prove themselves capable providers, entrepreneurs and policymakers.[10]

UNWomen, gender advocates, donor states and emerging countries (China, Brazil South Korea are major investors in the developing world, which provides them with enormous say in global politics) must challenge governments that fail to see gender as a national security issue. Governments that fail to promote gender equality do not recognize that every year that a girl spends in secondary school increases her future wages by 15-20%. (The Guardian May 18, 2011) This makes major differences to the fragile states. Undoubtedly the economic argument in gender and specifically “investing in women” helps perpetuate myths in respect to gender roles[11], but it is also the language that the male-dominate political system understands. In other words, the male dominated political system has to be shown the tangible advantages that come from empowering women, instead of arguing that it is a basic right (even if it is such a thing). Using human rights discourse to advocate gender equality has not born many fruits especially when it has been applied to the countries where women’s rights are at their lowest. Thus, by changing the discourse and using national security, it would be possible to advance gender equality.


[1] The Loomba Foundation’s report “Invisible, Forgotten Sufferers: The Plight of Widows around the World” (June 2010), which claimed that out of the 245 million widows worldwide approximately 115 million live in extreme poverty. The British charity Plan UK, [] asserts that there are approximately 10 million child brides (girls under the age of 18) every year. The June 2011 US State Department’s 400-page “Trafficking in Persons” Report [], emphasized the extent of human trafficking (800,000 people – the majority of which are women – are trafficked annually) and the 2011 report “State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples, 2011” by the Minority Rights Group International [] has catalogued the rights of indigenous women, who suffer discrimination and abuse.

[3] A good example of this is the willingness of the Karzai government to negotiate with the Taliban despite their horrific treatment of women.

[4] Mark Neocleous persuasively demonstrate that national security stemmed from Roosevelt’s conception of economic security and the havoc caused by the Depression, which is why economic and national security need to be interlinked especially when viewed through a securitization paradigm. Neocleous shows the link Mark Neocleous, “From Social Security to National Security on the Fabrication of Economic Order,” Security Dialogue, Vol. 37, No. 3 (2006), pp. 363-384.

[6] Rebel forces rape women and girls as a retaliatory tool, as for example for the Nianga ethnic group, which constitutes the majority of the population in some parts of the region “it would be better to die than to be a victim of rape committed by FDLR or their allies, as rape constitutes the worst human humiliation.” (Women’s Voices, January 2011) Conversely, there is evidence of Congolese soldiers also engaging in mass rapes. In addition to being used as “tools of war,” women are also raped because there is no security, allowing the men to engage in such activities with impunity.

[7] The case of Shahnaz Bibi is indicative of the plight of women in rural Pakistan. Bibi was dragged by six men from her home because her son was accused of having sexual relations with a married woman. She was forced to walk naked around the village without a single person helping her (none of the villagers even reported the incident to the police). Due to her ordeal, Bibi cannot return to the village. (BBC News, June 21, 2011)

[8] The Indian novelist Kishwar Desai, author of award-winning novel Witness the Night has written that she came across cases where newborn female babies were discarded – thrown out to be gnawed by rats, while others were drowned or given fatal drugs (Sydney Morning Herald, June 19, 2011). The Minority Rights Group International has claimed that Dalit (untouchable) women face rape and custodial torture by virtue of their caste.

[9] According to The Washington Post, J. Alexander Their director of USAID’s Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs, when asked as to why USAID changed its $140 million land reform program in Afghanistan, which was supposed to promote women’s rights through helping them attain land rights occurred because “The women’s issue is one where we need hardheaded realism. There are things we can do, and do well. But if we become unrealistic and overfocused . . . we get ourselves in trouble.” The Post added that a senior official noted that “Gender issues are going to have to take a back seat to other priorities,”. Rajiv Chandrasekaran, “In Afghanistan, U.S. Shifts Strategy on Women’s Rights as it Eyes Wider Priorities,” The Washington Post, March 6, 2011. []

[10] The African Development Bank in its June 2011 meeting recognized that women entrepreneurs demanded $19 billion dollars in loans, leading Caleb Fundanga, the governor of Zambia’s Central Bank saw the failure to support women entrepreneurs as a missed opportunity for his country and others. (The Guardian, June 14, 2011)

[11] For a critique of the “girl effect” see for example, Anna Carella’s blog (January 4, 2011) in AID WATCH