The Real Frontier of Peace and Security: Women and Girls in the Outlands

The evidence is growing that the situation of women and girls in rural areas is vitally important to the peace and security of their nations. My coauthors and I recently completed a four-year research project for the US Department of Defense under the auspices of its Minerva Initiative, utilizing the WomanStats Database, the largest compilation on the situation, status, and security of women worldwide, and our findings speak to this proposition.1

We began our project with the theoretical premise that the first political order is the sexual political order, that is, how the two halves of humankind—the women and mothers, the men and fathers—have ordered their relations. This first political order, we assert, is expressed in marriage arrangements between men and women and in perceptions of the personal status of men and women within the collective. If that order is based on coercion and subordination, these characteristics will become a template in the society for relationships between all who are different or who hold different views. In that sense, then, women’s disempowerment at the household level should be an excellent predictor of macrolevel nation-state outcomes. To illustrate that assertion, consider that cross-national research has found that those holding the most gender-unequal attitudes are significantly more hostile to minority groups within their own country as well as to foreigners—and more likely to become involved in acts of political violence.2 

To gauge the degree of women’s disempowerment at the household level, we developed an index comprising 11 variables: prevalence of patrilocal marriage, prevalence and legality of polygyny, prevalence and legality of girl-child marriage, prevalence and legality of cousin marriage, women’s property and inheritance rights, degree of inequity in family law favoring males, prevalence of bride price and dowry customs, degree of son preference and sex ratio alteration in favor of males, overall level of violence against women, existence of societal sanction for femicide, and legal exoneration if a rapist offers to marry his victim. Because these 11 phenomena tend to co-occur and reinforce one another in an interlocking fashion, we called this index the “Patrilineal/Fraternal Syndrome,” or Syndrome for short. The scale of the index ranges from 0 to 16, with 0 the best and 16 the worst. These variables, we believe, comprise the straitjacket of a first political order based on the subordination of women. 
We present a global mapping of the Syndrome here:

One important observation is that the situation of women and girls in rural areas is typically much worse on the Syndrome than in metropolitan areas. This is primarily due to the fact that customary and tribal law is more salient in rural areas than in cities. Law enforcement, spotty at best in metropolitan areas, can be frankly impotent in more isolated areas. Furthermore, issues of land and resource ownership are far more predominant in agricultural areas than in cities, and they are strongly gendered by the logic of patrilineality. Indeed, the correlation between the Syndrome and percentage of GDP derived from agriculture is highly significant. The Syndrome simply hits rural women and girls harder.
Given that fact, what is the relationship between the Syndrome on the one hand and peace and security on the other? Three words sum it up: strong, consistent, and significant. While in this essay it is impossible to display all of our findings, we can provide a sampling of our conclusions.
For example, if one is interested in food security, one should be interested in the disempowerment of women and girls. We found that only two variables emerged as significant predictors of food security: urbanization and the Syndrome. Thus, if one wanted to explain cross-national variations in food security, one would certainly have to integrate women’s disempowerment at the household level as a key factor. For every step higher on the Syndrome scale, there is a 48 percent higher risk of a high (or worse) score on the Global Hunger Index.

More traditional outcome measures of peace and security exhibit much the same pattern. For example, with relation to conflict and terrorism, the Syndrome emerged as a persistently significant explanatory variable. If you wish to understand the political stability of a nation, including measures of state fragility, quality and type of governance, and corruption, the Syndrome’s tracking of the subordination of women and girls at the household level provides clearer answers than any of the other variables, including ethnoreligious fractionalization, urbanization, colonial history, civilization, terrain, and geographic borders.

For every step higher on the Syndrome scale, there is a 48 percent higher risk of a high (or worse) score on the Global Hunger Index.

These modelling results bolster our assertion that the subordination of women and girls, felt most keenly in rural areas, sets the stage for a whole host of negative outcomes for a nation-state, including its peace and security. While investments in girls’ education, economic prospects, and political participation are all salutary, until and unless efforts are made to dismantle the Syndrome’s interlocking bars, we will never uncage the potential of women—or the potential of their nation-states.
We urge a three-pronged opening gambit: raising (in reality, not just in formal law) the age of marriage for girls; reducing the prevalence of polygyny; and increasing the number of women in the judiciary (including law enforcement). In rural areas just these three initiatives would constitute nothing short of a revolution. We urge the next step to be instituting a formal joint title to marital assets for wives, which will be more feasible if the first three efforts are already under way. 
In conclusion, it is possible that those who are the least powerful under the current social system—women and girls—hold the key to transformations that would bring greater levels of peace and security to their nations. And women and girls in the outlands are in a unique position to be the vanguard of this process.
1 Valerie M. Hudson, Donna Lee Bowen, and Perpetua Lynne Nielsen, “The First Political Order: Sex, Governance, and National Security” (in preparation).
2 Elin Bjarnegard, Karen Brouneus, and Erik Melander, “Honor and Political Violence: Micro-Level Findings from a Survey in Thailand,” Journal of Peace Research 546, no. 6 (2017): 748–61; Elin Bjarnegard and Erik Melander, “Pacific Men: How the Feminist Gap Explains Hostility,” The Pacific Review 30, no. 4 (2017): 478–93,