Women’s security and international security

When Swanee Hunt[1], Director of the Women and Public Policy Program (WAPPP) at the Kennedy School,[1][2] and former United States Ambassador to Austria, went to the Pentagon to discuss women’s security in Iraq she was given a surprising response. In her own words, she was speaking to one of the highest ranking officials involved in the Iraq conflict and when she suggested this would be a good time to address women’s issues and women’s security by installing some women in high offices she was told that the first priority was to secure the area and then women’s issues would be looked at. This shows not only a complete lack of understanding of the part of the Pentagon about how to deal with women’s security issues, but also shows that they do not take into account the statistics that show that countries that have higher gender equality tend to be less violent. Effectively setting up a new state in Iraq would be the perfect time for women’s security to come to the forefront of global politics with the US taking a lead but this does not seem to be the case, despite evidence that suggests it would help create a more peaceful regime.

Security has traditionally been seen as a male issue, with the classic image of war being a uniformed male or a male soldier lying dead in a field and this tends to bring about the view that it is only males that are effected by war as they are generally the ones who fight in it and that women’s security is something to be dealt with after the war has finished (certainly what Swanee Hunt would tell us that the pentagon’s view is).  However security is more than simply scholars analysing wars. Valerie Hudson[2] et al show us in their article The Heart of the Matter: The Security of Women and the Security of States that in the twentieth century the total death toll of women outside of state conflicts exceeds the death toll of all the wars during the century put together (remember this includes the First and Second World Wars as well as numerous other conflicts). This shows that when scholars look at ‘security’ issues there are only looking at it from one angle, the conflict aspect, when in fact an equally important issue, women’s security is being overlooked.

 Aside from the fact that this is an area that should be looked into anyway once one is made aware of the number of women missing or killed, if one was still focused on the ‘traditional’ aspect of security then there is evidence that suggests that addressing women’s issues will not only address women’s security but also state security in general. Studies show that countries that have high levels of domestic violence are more likely to become involved in state conflicts[3]. This can then lead to women being abused in the war as we have seen various examples of soldiers raping women in many conflicts over the last few decades. Security though, as mentioned above is not solely about war. Female infanticide is another huge issue in security terms but this is something embedded in the social structure of a nation, rather than a conflict. Whilst it is not an issue in Iraq, the attitude of sorting out women’s issues after ‘real security’ issues is what will allow practices like this to continue even when there is intervention.

 It is impossible to have a complete debate about women’s security in a single blog entry but this entry aims to show that the way that security is studies is somewhat outdated. Viewing conflict and women’s issues as separate entities shows either a lack of understanding of the societies they are studying or a lack of understanding of women’s issues. To tackle women’s security issues properly it all needs to be dealt with at the same time and the attitudes shown by the pentagon need to change if we are to see any real progress made in terms of women’s security. Quite apart from the fact that there is evidence gender equality makes interstate wars less likely, this is an issue that should be being dealt with simply because of the sheer amount of people it effects, yet it continues to remain somewhat under the radar.


[1] Swanee Hunt Women Peacebuilding and Advancing the Rule of Law  Speech given at Tilar House, 28th October  2008 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lTf8xTh2siM

[2] Hudson, Valerie M., et al. “The heart of the matter: The security of women and the security of states.” International Security 33.3 (2009): 7-45.

[3] Gerald M. Erchak, “Family Violence,” in Carol R. Ember and Melvin Ember, eds., Research

Frontiers in Anthropology (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1994); Gerald M. Erchak and Richard

Rosenfeld, “Societal Isolation, Violent Norms, and Gender Relations: A Reexamination and Extension

of Levinson’s Model of Wife Beating,” Cross-Cultural Research, Vol. 28, No. 2 (May 1994),

pp. 111–133; David Levinson, Family Violence in Cross-Cultural Perspective (Newbury Park, Calif.:

Sage, 1989); and Cynthia Cockburn, “The Gendered Dynamics of Armed Conflict and Political Violence,”

in Caroline O.N. Moser and Fiona C. Clark, eds., Victims, Perpetrators, or Actors? Gender,

Armed Conflict, and Political Violence (New York: Zed, 2001), pp. 13–29.                                   

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About School of Politics and International Relations

This blog has been set up for the students of PO665, Advanced Topics in Politics and International Relations: Global Gender Justice, which is a course for final year Honours students in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent. As part of their participation in the course, students submit blog posts that examine issues pertaining to gender justice within the family, the community, the state and global society. We aim to explore the extent to which gender inequality within the state has an impact on state behaviour, with a specific focus on state development and state security, and further aim to analyse the effectiveness and limits of international organisations, international human rights instruments, NGOs and activists to bring about greater gender justice.
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