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Militarism, Violence and Conflict – How Women Bear the Brunt of War

FRIDAY FILE: Militarism, conflict and violence are on the rise and have a range of gender-specific impacts. Increased spending on defense, arms and security often means that spending on social services is being cut. In the context of militarism and conflict violence against women also increases and attacks on women’s human rights defenders are growing and are increasingly normalized.

Mavic Cabrera-Balleza

AWID spoke with Mavic Cabrera-Balleza[1] about the linkages between the global crises, militarism, conflict and the perpetuation of violence against women (VAW).

This article is part of a series of Friday Files to explore some of the issues and debates related to the AWID 2012 Forum theme and draw the connections between women’s rights issues and economic power.

Find more information related to militarism, conflict and violence

AWID: How has the global context of multiple crises - economic, financial, food, water and environmental - impacted militarism and the perpetuation of the VAW across the world?

Mavic Cabrera-Balleza (MCB): There are two key factors here - the use of “power over the other” (with women being the other) as a predominant principle in military strategies and campaigns; and the use of VAW as a mechanism for preventing women from challenging structures that perpetuate the crises.

The use of violence against women as part of military strategy is now more evident as seen in the use of rape as a weapon of war in a number of countries including Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Democratic Republic of Congo. There are also many examples of violence against women who speak out and condemn corporate greed, and social inequalities; and demand social protection amidst the crises. Very recently, women from the Borei Keila community in Cambodia were beaten and arrested by Cambodian police forces for their peaceful action to demand their land and housing rights and oppose forced eviction.

On the other hand, the multiple global crises enabled social movements and the women’s movement to rethink, innovate and consolidate our responses to the issues aggravated by the crises –militarism and VAW included. The Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street are just two of the recent and concrete examples of people coming together to think of multiple socially progressive responses to the multiple global crises.

Peace activists are also taking part in transnational activism and building solidarity across issues and geo-political spaces. We invest time, efforts and resources to negotiate our political identities and agenda and forge linkages with those who share our fundamental goals, values and principles. The adoption of the UN Security Council Resolutions (UNSCR) 1325 and 1820 and the three other supporting resolutions as well as the ongoing advocacy around the CEDAW General Recommendation on Women in Conflict and Post-conflict Situations are both the outcomes and evidence of such efforts to build solidarity and link the issues confronted by women in communities directly affected by conflict with those of other women in similar conflict-affected situations around the world.

AWID: What is your understanding of the linkages between neoliberal globalization, VAW and militarization?

MCB: Neoliberal globalization brought about an increase in poverty on a scale we have never seen before. Income inequalities have drastically increased both within and across countries. And since women represent disproportionate percentages of the world’s poor it further increases their vulnerability to violence and all forms of abuse.

Moreover, neoliberal globalization has undermined people’s rights and resulted into States abandoning their responsibility to provide basic social services and it is again women who are first to be negatively affected. Their health is compromised because they have less access to government health care services. Women and girls’ access to education has also decreased. Their livelihood, employment and other economic rights are diminished. In other words, neoliberal policies further strengthened the existing socio-political and economic systems and structures in ways that reinforce gender inequalities that make women and girls more vulnerable to violence, particularly those living in poverty, in conflict-affected situations, migrant women, indigenous women, and women from racial, ethnic and religious minorities.

Militarization is the usual response of States and corporations to resistance –often collaborating in their actions and sometimes acting independently, but using State apparatus, like the police and military, to discipline, criminalize, and control women and other marginalized groups who resist neoliberal policies.

AWID: What do you think an alternative development strategy - grounded in economic, environmental and gender justice - looks like?

MCB: An alternative development strategy has as its starting point social objectives such as poverty reduction, right to health, right to education, right to clean environment and sustainable peace. It is people-centered, rights-based and needs based. It is neither driven by the desire for economic growth nor market expansion. It requires a bottom-up approach that entails optimum use of resources and builds on countries’ and communities’ socio-cultural and political contexts while respecting international human rights laws and policies. It takes into account human, natural and technological resources as well as the environmental situation.

It is important to note that the women’s and social movements are not just resisting neo-liberalization and the myriad problems it brings. They are identifying alternatives, and formulating and developing solutions - and in a number of instances - opportunities. We are not starting from scratch when we talk about an alternative development strategy. There are already a number of good initiatives we can build on, draw lessons from, modify, replicate and use as building blocks for a more inclusive and holistic alternative development strategy. Women’s groups and other civil society actors have been part of authentic fair trade initiatives; livelihood and farming cooperatives; and community-based primary health care programs among others.

AWID: UNSCR 1325 on Women, Peace and Security is one of the most important international mandates covering the full and equal participation of women in all peace and security initiatives? How does the resolution address women's economic empowerment? What in your opinion are the gaps in this area?

MCB: UNSCR 1325 or the Security Council itself does not address the issue of women's economic empowerment. This reflects the compartmentalization of UN structures and mandates. Under the UN Charter, the Security Council’s primary function is to maintain international peace and security in accordance with the principles and purposes of the United Nations. The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) is the principal organ that coordinates economic, social, and related work in the UN. The ECOSOC is the central forum for discussing international economic and social issues, and for formulating policy recommendations addressed to Member States and the United Nations system[2].

The lack of attention to the links between financial and in-kind resources, employment, livelihoods and human security in the women and peace and security agenda is a major concern for us. This is the reason why Global Network of Women Peacebuilders (GNWP) and Cordaid initiated a study on Costing and Financing Implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 as well as discussions on women’s economic empowerment in conflict-affected environments.

AWID: What are the consequences of military expenditure on women's security?

MCB: We first need to clarify which concept of security we are discussing - and there are two concepts of security that are relevant in the context of our discussion: national security[3] and human security[4].

Women peace activists subscribe to the concept of human security. Coming from this position, we can say outright, that military expenditure supports war efforts that sacrifice women’s security. In addition, military expenditure eats up the funds that could feed, clothe and educate women and girls and in the process help guarantee their security. World military expenditure in 2010 is estimated to have been $1630 billion. The region with the largest increase in military spending was South America, with a 5.8 per cent increase, reaching a total of $63.3 billion, according to data published by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute on April 11, 2011.

Public spending reflects fundamental social values and national priorities. When States limit social spending in favor of the military, this indicates less value being placed on human security, total human development, including women's contributions and women's social functions. Women's full participation in budget allocation and monitoring of public spending is needed in order to change the pattern of public spending and direct it toward social needs.

AWID: For many, war equals employment (in armed and security forces etc.), but is also linked to expensive contracts and corruption. How does this apply to and impact on women?

MCB: War=jobs= “development” is a false equation. What most countries spend on war is beyond what they can afford and as a result they generate public debts. Taking resources that could be used to feed, clothe and educate people, build homes, mitigate the impact of environmental degradation in order to manufacture or purchase guns, bullets and bombs does not make sense for any economy. In addition, the production and sale of arms, tanks, ships and other military hardware does not facilitate exchange of goods nor obey market laws as they are directly bought or traded by states. We should not also forget the human cost of war in terms of deaths and displacements; and the other financial costs for medical care and disability pension for current and future war veterans.

Women have not benefitted from the business of war. They bear the brunt of war. 80% of the victims of war are women and children. We need to educate our constituents about the multiple impacts of war and how it stunts the growth of the productive economy and genuine development of societies.

[1] International Coordinator, Global Network of Women Peacebuilders (GNWP) and program partner of the International Civil Society Action Network

[2] It is responsible for: promoting higher standards of living, full employment, and economic and social progress; identifying solutions to international economic, social and health problems; facilitating international cultural and educational cooperation; and encouraging universal respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

[3] “National security refers to the protection of a nation from attack or other danger by holding adequate armed forces and guarding state secrets. The term national security encompasses within it economic security, monetary security, energy security, environmental security, military security, political security and security of energy and natural resources…. ( National Security Law & Legal Definition. Retrieved from on Feb. 7, 2012).

[4] The Commission on Human Security defines human security as the protection of "the vital core of all human lives in ways that enhance human freedoms and fulfillment. [Therefore,] human security means protecting fundamental freedoms; protecting people from critical and pervasive threats and situations using processes that build on people's strengths and aspirations. It means creating political, social, environmental, economic, military and cultural systems that, when combined, give people the building blocks for survival, livelihood and dignity. …. (UN Trust Fund for Human Security. Human Security. Retrieved from on Feb. 7, 2012).