BYU study links women's safety, nation's peace

Published March 21, 2009 9:17 pm
Research » Scholars compile database they hope will advance gender-focused social science in the future.
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In Pakistan's scenic and once-peaceful Swat Valley, Islamic militants shut down 200 girls schools in January, leveling many with explosives. Besides foreclosing education for some 50,000 girls, such gender-targeted hostility may also undermine a nation's security and peacefulness, according to a new study led by a Brigham Young University scholar.

The study, titled "Heart of the Matter," in the Harvard-published journal International Security , concludes the best predictor of societies' peacefulness is how well they safeguard the interests of women. To determine that, researchers looked at data on such factors as women's voice in government, access to victim services, crime statistics, maternal health, and laws and social mores regarding women's rights.

The level of gender-based violence correlates more closely with peacefulness than such factors as democracy, wealth and Islamic cultural identity, says lead author Valerie Hudson, a BYU professor of political science.

"We're hoping for a spirited investigation of this thesis," Hudson says. "We believe there will be people who read this who say, 'No way,' and other people who read it and say 'Oh, I've never really looked at it this way before.'"

It's impossible to distinguish cause and effect with certainty, the authors stress. Deteriorating security in Pakistan is helping snuff out education for girls, but to what extent does the lack of such education contribute to the perilous security situation in the first place?

The BYU study draws a "strong and significant relationship" between peace and women's security, which begs further study to ferret out causal relationships, says co-author Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill. Any meaningful analysis of a nation's security must consider gender-based violence.

"From the overall data, it's clear that where there is devaluation of females in the society, there is a greater tendency for conflict, both inter- and intrastate conflict," says Ballif-Spanvill, a psychology professor who directs BYU's Women's Research Institute. "We want people to study these issues through the lens of gender."

Greater gender equity could have more positive influence on torn societies than the exportation of democracy and free markets, the study suggests. The findings could be helpful in guiding efforts to repair the world's failed and failing states.

"Women's status may actually be an integral element of any proposed solutions for international conflict. Although the treatment of women is written deeply in the culture of a society, it is amenable to change," the authors conclude. "Security is a garment that must be woven without seam: if we are not paying attention, the loose threads of women's system insecurity will unravel peace for all."

Hudson's insights emerged several years ago when she documented how skewed gender ratios caused by female infanticide and abortion in India and China led to security risks for those countries' governments. Her past research showed that these practices have cost India 40 times more lives since 1980 than all the wars since its 1947 struggle for independence, while China has become saddled with millions of young men with no hope of marriage.

"This inspired me to ask whether, more generally, the devaluation of women was linked to dysfunctional state outcomes," Hudson says. "My co-authors have all written about these subjects previously, and it was a delight to merge talents and perspectives in preparing this article."

Co-authors include BYU geographer Chad Emmett and political scientists Mary Caprioli of the University of Minnesota-Duluth and Rose McDermott of Brown University.

The team found existing databases, such as the Women's Indicators and Statistics Database compiled by the United Nations, were inadequate for their goals. Instead of settling on a quantitative accounting of domestic violence or rape in a particular country, for example, the researchers sought qualitative information: whether victims report abuse, the level of victim support, level of punishment for abusers, and whether violence is culturally sanctioned. They sought to tease out the nuances between statistics, law and custom to find meaningful and reliable measures for women's security, according Ballif-Spanvill.

With the help of dozens of BYU undergraduates, the team amassed more than 100,000 data points on 260 variables regarding women's security in every country with a population over 200,000. They hope their WomanStats Database (http://www.womanstats.org" Target="_BLANK">http://www.womanstats.org) will advance gender-focused social science in the future.

"These preliminary findings will encourage new avenues of research designed to explore the ramifications of the ways women are treated," Ballif-Spanvill says. "Investigations will no longer have to rely on anecdotes, biased accounts and spotty reporting."

bmaffly@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">bmaffly@sltrib.com

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