‘When security begins to unravel for women, it begins to unravel for all.'
Bad news. The average level of global peacefulness has deteriorated in 2022, part of a 15-year downward trend. This is not what we need to see in 2023, when we are halfway towards our target year for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Clearly, we are not doing enough to achieve sustainable global peace. Addressing group-based grievance, extremism, and transnational shocks (climatic, economic, pandemics), as well as new threats to peace, like disinformation, cyber-attacks, and food and energy insecurity requires targeted efforts and new approaches to sustaining peace.
Now for the good news: we know that sex-based equality can bring about a more peaceful world and prevent violence and conflict nationally and internationally.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has shaken our thinking about global peace and security. It has shattered peace in Ukraine and beyond; killed and wounded thousands, undermined food security across the globe, resulted in rewriting of national and international security strategies, increased spends on militarisation, and pushed millions of Ukrainian refugees out of their homes to other European countries. The fact is that war rarely confines itself neatly within the borders of the parties involved.
So far, surprisingly, little attention has been given to the link between unequal sex-based norms and gender-based violence within the Russian Federation and the war. The evidence presented in the second edition of Sex and World Peace provides strong data on how higher levels of sex-based inequality increases the likelihood that states will use violence and force internally and internationally. Using statistics available in the WomanStats database authors illuminate the relationship between the status of women in society and aspects of internal, national, regional, and international security, such as first use of force and adherence to international law. They delve into aspects of women's physical security and bodily integrity (including rape), as well as equity in family law and parity in decision-making bodies.
The evidence is clear: states with higher levels of sex-based inequality are more likely to be violent and enter violent conflict. The authors demonstrate that ‘the inequality between female and males is a form of violence that creates a generalised context of violence and exploitation at societal level’. Domestic violence, for example, normalises usage of violence in the home and day-to-day life. Men with history of committing domestic violence are more likely to be mass shooters or join terrorist and extremist groups; while those who believe in male superiority to women are more likely to engage in political violence.
The data in the WomanStats database on the violence against and status of women in the Russian Federation is shocking: there is high rate of murder of women of all ages; evidence required under domestic violence law is unreasonable; cultural norms around reporting rapes are severe – and women may face punishment even if innocent; women lack physical security; there is little enforcement of the Convention of the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women; and low participation of women in politics. And it’s not just Russia. We must ask: to what extent are compounded sex-based inequalities in Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo driving their violence and conflict? These countries rank among the least peaceful countries in the world according to Global Peace Index 2023.
The connection between women’s security and international security is not a new argument. However, the recent data adds weight to calls for investing in conflict prevention. In a recently adopted New Agenda for Peace, the Secretary General of the UN calls for an investment in prevention through the elimination of all forms of violence, including sex-based inequalities, to maintain international peace. The efforts should go beyond conflict-affected or “fragile” contexts and encompass all countries prioritising prevention and sustaining peace at the national level. He calls for strengthening national infrastructure through ‘reinforcing state institutions, promote the rule of law, and strengthening civil society and social cohesion, to ensure greater tolerance and solidarity.’ The Secretary-General emphasises the need for a rapid transformation of gendered power dynamics, recognising that change so far, has proven insufficient.
There is significant evidence to suggest that working towards sex-based equality can serve as an effective strategy for preventing conflict and violence. The authors of the Sex and World Peace go further and predict that ‘battle lines of the future are more likely to be found between those states that treat females equally and those states that don’t’, rather than religions or cultures. This sex-based equality needs to extend to women’s leadership and participation within states so to strengthen the correlation between peace and democracy.
The positive impact of women’s leadership in building sustainable peace and preventing conflict is well evidenced. While recognising it, now it is time to take the sex-based inequality more seriously and make it an international and national security matter. Move it from peripheries to the centre of the peace and security discourses. By doing so, we can mitigate global polarisation, conflict, and violence and foster the global sustainable peace so urgently needed today. Without it we are at risk of continuing to respond to violence and conflict instead of preventing it in a first place. Violence is not enriching, peace is.