Archive for the ‘Gender equality’ Category


February 18, 2016

Earlier this month, Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter announced a new Pentagon program that will pay for servicemen and women to freeze their sperm and eggs for future family planning. Carter gave two main reasons for the program. One, it would keep women on the career military path, which typically runs right through the childbearing years. Two, it would give deployed troops peace of mind in that they potentially could still have children even if their reproductive organs become casualties of war. The first goal is in line with what appears to be Carter’s commitment to the needs of servicewomen. He has advocated for improved maternity leave, childcare, and breastfeeding support policies, all of which he hopes will help women personnel balance work and family and remain in the service. The second goal speaks to the problems of trying to maintain an all-volunteer force in an age of continuous war.

This is not the first time the U.S. military has gotten into the baby-making business. The 1948 Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, which allowed women to serve as permanent members of the military, permitted the forces to discharge women if they got pregnant. Personnel needs during the Vietnam War led the Army Nurse Corps to grant waivers to some nurses who got pregnant but wanted to stay in the military. In 1975, the Defense Department ruled that the armed forces could no longer forcibly discharge a servicewoman who became pregnant.[1] Considered in this context, Carter’s proposal looks like the next step toward gender equality in the military by giving women the option of delaying childbearing while they advance their careers. Observers have suggested that this policy could position the military as a model that other major employers wanting to implement progressive, pro-family, pro-woman policies in order to recruit and retain the best personnel could follow.

The argument that the U.S. military is becoming more family friendly loses traction when we remember that it is an all-volunteer force, and that the U.S. has been at war for most of this century. Carter’s policies are meant in part to recruit and retain service personnel in a time when enlisting likely will result in deployment. About 60 percent of current troops have been deployed at least once since Sept. 11, 2001. Less than one percent of the U.S. population presently serves in the military, so without a draft, the military must get creative in its efforts to convince young men and women to sign up for a job that could prevent them from having families later on. Conscription would make more Americans –and their reproductive organs – shoulder the weight of U.S. military commitments. That may be the only way to convince the public at large to scrutinize armed interventions and put pressure on elected officials to ponder more carefully the costs and benefits of war. As critics have already pointed out, freezing sperm and eggs will not guarantee that they will result in pregnancy later, so Carter’s program may create false hope in those men and women who have agreed to bear the burden of conflict. The draft has been a topic of conversation since the Pentagon announced in December the opening of combat positions to women, and it is also relevant to the conversation about the military’s use of reproduction as a recruitment tool. Reinstating the draft would either mobilize Americans to hold politicians more accountable for war-making policies or provide the personnel that the military’s long global reach requires. Then the military could leave the baby-making business to the future parents.

[1] Kara Dixon Vuic, “I’m afraid we’re going to have to just change our ways”: Marriage, Motherhood, and Pregnancy in the Army Nurse Corps during the Vietnam War,” Signs, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Summer 2007), pp. 997-1022.



July 2, 2015
U.S. Army Major Rhonda Newsome from the CJTF 76 Surgeon Cell treats an Afghan women during a village medical outreach at Kandahar City, Afghanistan, January 28, 2006. U.S. Army Photo by Spc. Leslie Angulo. National Archives and Records Administration.

U.S. Army Major Rhonda Newsome from the CJTF 76 Surgeon Cell treats an Afghan women during a village medical outreach at Kandahar City, Afghanistan, January 28, 2006. U.S. Army Photo by Spc. Leslie Angulo. National Archives and Records Administration.

The first week of June was “Gender Week” at NATO Headquarters in Brussels. More than 120 participants representing NATO nations, military and civilian organizations, and NATO partners examined and discussed the findings of a report called “UNSCR 1325 Reload.” The report details efforts by NATO nations to implement the recommendations of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which calls for increased involvement of women in conflict prevention, peace talks, and initiatives to prevent gender violence during wars. UNSCR 1325 was spearheaded by Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah, Namibia’s Minister of Women’s Affairs, and UN members adopted it in October 2000. Unfortunately, the UN has no authority to enforce the resolution. It is up to individual nations to make Resolution 1325 a priority.

“UNSCR 1325 Reload” noted that as of 2013, the final year of the study:

* Women made up approximately 10 percent of the militaries of NATO nations

* 93 percent of NATO nations had equal enlistment processes for men and women

* About half of NATO members had departments or positions dedicated to facilitating gender integration

* 43 percent of NATO nations have gender advisers in their militaries

* Countries with highest representations of women in their militaries are Hungary at 20.3 percent, the U.S. at 18 percent, and Latvia at 16.5 percent.

Due to a lack of available data, the report does not offer findings on sexual assault prevention.

That so many NATO nations appear to be taking 1325 to heart is encouraging, but will increasing the numbers of women in NATO armed forces transform the military and wartime cultures that inspire violence against women? Even when servicewomen are trained in combat tactics and weapons handling like their male counterparts, observers sometimes still emphasize the importance of the “feminine” qualities that women soldiers bring to a war zone. In a discussion about UN women peacekeepers in Liberia, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf stated, “What a woman brings to the task is extra sensitivity, more caring. I think that these are the characteristics that come from being a mother, taking care of a family, being concerned about children, managing the home.”[1] Gerard J. DeGroot, a history professor at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and an expert on women in the military, said, “Any conflict where you have an all-male army, it’s like a holiday from reality. If you inject women into that situation, they do have a civilizing effect.”[2]

Meant to affirm women’s peacekeeping roles, DeGroot and Sirleaf’s comments actually enforce the gender divisions that make war zones and post-conflict situations particularly dangerous spaces for women. Afghanistan offers a disturbing case study: Efforts to increase the numbers of Afghan women in security forces have led to the murders of policewomen because of a cultural opposition to women working outside the home, especially in the police and security fields. If we are talking about gender, we need to consider men, sexuality, and culture, not just women’s roles.

[1] Doreen Carvajal, “A Female Approach to Peacekeeping,” New York Times, Mar. 5, 2010,

[2] Ibid.


June 14, 2015

This post was originally published on “Reflections on War & Society.” *

Three Afghan girls pose for the camera in the Khowst province of Afghanistan on December 1, 2004, during Operation Enduring Freedom.  (U.S. Marine Corps official photo by Corporal Justin L. Schaeffer, National Archives and Records Administration.)

Three Afghan girls pose for the camera in the Khowst province of Afghanistan on December 1, 2004, during Operation Enduring Freedom.
(U.S. Marine Corps official photo by Corporal Justin L. Schaeffer, National Archives and Records Administration.)

A couple of articles I read recently got me thinking about the long reach of war and how we define casualties. The first is a New York Times article about disabled Afghan veterans struggling against corruption and red tape to get pensions and other government assistance. Some of the men featured in the article needed prosthetic limbs and costly physical therapy that they could not afford without disability payments. One such veteran was Saheb, who lost his left leg to a Taliban land mine and could not pay for a prosthesis on his own. Desperate after learning he did not qualify for a pension because he had served in the Afghan Local Police rather than the national police or army, Saheb sold his 11-year-old daughter, Noor Bibi, into a marriage for the $3,000 he needed to pay for a leg.[1]

The second piece, a commentary on, addresses the debate over whether the world has become more peaceful since the end of World War II. The dispute dates back to the 2011, when psychologist Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, was published. Pinker argues that the period since 1945 has been the most peaceful era in human history, and he focuses on statistics indicating that the number of deaths from war has reach a record low. Pinker’s critics have countered that looking solely at recorded casualty numbers is misleading. There are consequences of war that we cannot measure with “big-picture numbers,” as Zack Beauchamp, the author of the Vox piece, notes.[2]

A close up of an Afghan girl from the Pashtun tribe in Kabul, Afghanistan. (National Archives and Records Administration.)

A close up of an Afghan girl from the Pashtun tribe in Kabul, Afghanistan. (National Archives and Records Administration.)

Big-picture statistics don’t count victims like child bride Noor Bibi, a casualty of a long-running civil war in a country where the sale of a prepubescent girl into marriage is an option for a wounded veteran who needs money to pay for a prosthesis because his government won’t help him. Her father, Saheb, might be counted in a casualty list that includes the dead and the wounded, but such statistics fail to recognize the other ways in which war wounds people by transforming life options and paths and forcing families to make decisions that could inflict emotional or physical harm to some members. We don’t hear Noor Bibi’s voice in the New York Times article, but Saheb said she didn’t want to be sold into marriage. She had no choice, Saheb explained, because “in Pashtun society, when the father wants something, the daughter has to give it, even if she is not happy.”[3] The story of Noor Bibi reflects the long reach of war – how it upended the life of an 11-year-old girl who was neither a soldier nor a civilian casualty in the usual sense of the word. Body counts don’t reveal all the indirect casualties of war.

Such casualties take many forms. Last month, I ended my “World Civilizations Since 1500” course with a slide juxtaposing a photograph of ISIS militants with an image of Syrian refugee children. I asked my students to ponder whether the children, hamming it up for the photographer who took their picture, would end up being the next generation of angry, disillusioned, impoverished recruits for ISIS or a similar group. Like Noor Bibi, refugees are casualties of war, and neglected refugee crises can feed back into a conflict, perpetuating a cycle of violence and fighting. Envisioning a world where parts of it are continually at war, where war’s long reach keeps producing casualties of all sorts, makes it difficult to buy Pinker’s argument that we are living in a time of unprecedented peace.

[1] Rod Nordland, “Maimed Defending Afghanistan, Then Neglected,” New York Times, May 2, 2015,

[2] Zack Beauchamp, “This fascinating academic debate has huge implications for the future of world peace,”, May 21, 2015,

[3] “Maimed Defending Afghanistan, Then Neglected.”


March 30, 2015
Afghan women at the market in downtown Kabul, July 16, 2002. National Archives and Records Administration.

Afghan women and a little boy at the market in downtown Kabul, July 16, 2002. National Archives and Records Administration.

Earlier this month, the New York Times published an article about the dangers Afghan policewomen face, not from suspected criminals, but from Afghan men who put policewomen and prostitutes in the same category and believe both dishonor their families. The article opens with the story of Parveena, who was shot 11 times at close range by a member the Taliban and killed for being a policewoman. A relative who was either in the Taliban or had Taliban sympathies had informed on her. The broader point the article emphasizes is the problematic nature of Western aid organizations’ requirements that Afghan women hold certain jobs, such as positions on local police forces, in order for Afghanistan to receive aid. As Parveena’s death sadly demonstrates, Western demands for gender equality in places where a violent patriarchal culture is deeply rooted can be dangerous, even life-threatening, to the women international humanitarian organizations want to help.

In this story and others like it that highlight women’s attempts to resist local conservatism, the emphasis is almost always on women — their lives, their bravery, the discrimination and violence they face. Getting their stories out to the world is a crucial step toward stimulating international efforts to support women, but absent from most of the conversations is an equally crucial question: where are the men? This is a play on distinguished international relations scholar Cynthia Enloe’s question to IR practitioners: where are the women? Enloe has built her career (and inspired a subsequent generation of scholars, myself included) on a commitment to incorporating the voices and perspectives of women into her examinations of war, militarization, and global affairs, issues that previous scholars had treated as men’s business. But what Enloe understands is that it is not enough to just talk about women — we also have to talk about gender. How does a gender ideology that infantilizes grown women and criminalizes women’s behavior outside a closely-monitored domestic sphere take hold in young men who, as boys, spent much of their time at their mothers’ sides? How can journalists, humanitarian aid workers, and others on the ground in Afghanistan and elsewhere give voice to the men who oppose violence and discrimination against women? If Western aid organizations expect Afghan women to have access to certain careers as a measure of “progress” toward gender equality, should foreign governments advising Afghan political leaders demand that those men be clearly committed to ending gender violence? Do foreigners have the right or responsibility to make such demands? Are they possible to enforce?

Addressing such questions is controversial. India banned the BBC documentary “India’s Daughter,” about the 2012 gang rape and murder of a woman medical student on a bus in Delhi, after an Indian court ruled that the film could “encourage and incite violence against women.” Filmmaker Leslee Udwin explains that the documentary is not just about the men who brutally raped and murdered 23-year-old Jyoti Singh; it is meant to force discussions about a broader, global culture that renders women’s bodies objects on which men vent their social anxieties and perform violent acts of dominance. Varying degrees of this culture range from sexual assault on college campuses to the murders of women like Parveena and Jyoti Singh. In banning “India’s Daughter,” Indian officials argued that Udwin’s interviews with the rapists and other Indian men who attempted to justify the gender hierarchy could spark more violence against women, but Udwin’s film is important precisely because it pays attention to men and seeks to understand the roots of India’s rape culture.

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