How a country treats its women could be an important factor in understanding how it treats its neighbors, suggests a new study by a Brigham Young University-led research team. Their results are reported in the new issue of the journal International Security, published by Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
The researchers spent seven years building a new database that covers 260 factors regarding the treatment of women in 174 countries. Then they used that data to show a statistically significant relationship between the security of women and peacefulness of nations.
"We suggest that the root of what we call national security may actually lie in a very unusual or unexpected place, and that is the treatment of women in society," says lead author Valerie Hudson, BYU professor of political science. "We offer what we consider to be fairly strong preliminary empirical evidence based on our new database that this is a viable alternative hypothesis."
The researchers compared their findings regarding the treatment of women with commonly held explanations for peacefulness: levels of democracy, levels of wealth and identity of the civilization. The association with peace was strongest with the treatment of women.
"If you used all four variables to try to predict state peacefulness, the one that would give you the best predictions of the four would be violence against women," Hudson found.
Hudson and her co-authors acknowledge that the relationship they observed can operate in the other direction, that is, state insecurity and violence can exaggerate the insecurity of women. And they say much further research is necessary before their results can be considered authoritative.
"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.'"
The idea springs from Hudson's effort to broaden the definition of the study of international security beyond the study of wars and conflicts between nations. What about, she and her co-authors ask, the security of women, who face female infanticide, sex-selective abortions and other threats? Since 1980 those practices, they estimate, have cost India 40 times as many lives as its fight for independence and all wars since.
China is another country that has tens of millions more men than women as a result of similar societal attitudes and practices, Hudson says. Her earlier research explored higher levels of violence and instability that all those "surplus" men, with no hope for marriage, may be causing in Asia.
To begin to examine their theory in detail, the research team believed they needed more data than what was currently collected in existing databases such as the UN's Women's Indicators and Statistics Database, which tracks approximately 76 statistics.
"The only way we could do that is comb through the primary source material, as well as country reports and NGO [nongovernmental organization] reports, and try to tease out these levels of violence," Hudson says. "So we decided it was time to put in one place for researchers all of the information we could find about the status of women in countries around the world."
She enlisted the aid of an army of BYU undergraduates - a total of 56 over the years - to seek out and enter such data. Now known as the WomanStats database, the resource includes more than 90,000 pieces of information and tracks all nations with more than 200,000 inhabitants.
Whereas existing databases may track state-reported incidences of domestic violence and laws against domestic violence, the WomanStats database goes deeper. It collects data that seek to answer these questions as well: is domestic violence generally reported? Why or why not? What is the level of societal support for victims? What is the range of punishments for this offense? Is violence against wives or daughters sometimes sanctioned by the culture? There are seven variables on domestic violence alone. Registration to access the database is free and available at: Womanstats.org.
Armed with this data, Hudson then compared it with measures of national security: the Global Peace Index assembled by the Economist Intelligence Unit; one of its subsets that focuses on relationships with neighbors; and another scale that considers nations' degree of conformity with international treaties and conventions. She and her co-authors compared the strength of these associations with other proposed explanations for the roots of peacefulness.
The researchers hope to eventually measure changes in this effect over time, which would show whether there is any true cause-and-effect relationship.
"These preliminary findings will encourage new avenues of research designed to explore the ramifications of the ways women are treated," said study co-author Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill of BYU. "Investigations will no longer have to rely on anecdotes, biased accounts and spotty reporting - they will be advantaged by the availability of the worldwide data in WomanStats."
Other co-authors on the paper are Mary Caprioli at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, Rose McDermott at Brown University, and Chad Emmett of BYU.
Writer: Angela Fischer