By Shawna Stich, NOW Field Intern
Today is final day of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gendered Violence Campaign. Each year this campaign begins on Nov. 25, designated as International Day Against Violence Against Women, and culminates on Dec. 10, International Human Rights Day. Started 20 years ago by Rutgers University’s Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL), these 16 days are a time to reflect on and take action against the structures which sustain gendered violence worldwide. This year’s theme is the intersection of militarism and gendered violence.
What is militarism? CWGL defines it as “an ideology that creates a culture of fear and supports the use of violence, aggression, or military interventions for settling disputes and enforcing economic and political interests.”
What is gendered violence? Building on the definition given by the U.N. Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, we can understand gendered violence as attacks on people based on their perceived gender. These include physical, sexual, psychological and economic attacks, as well as coercion and unwarranted restrictions on freedom and autonomy.
The mindset of militarism facilitates and interacts with gendered violence, resulting in even more insidious offenses. Sexual violence against women, at frightening levels even in times of peace, increases to unthinkable heights in areas of armed conflict. Rape becomes a weapon of war, with combatants executing horrifying, systematic sexual assaults against women and girls in an attempt to humiliate and demoralize both the individuals and their entire communities. These assaults are set apart from attacks in the civilian world by higher rates of gang rapes and rape with objects such as rifle butts, bayonets, batons and sticks. This is happening today, right now.
Over the past few years, soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo have raped and abused tens of thousands of women and girls. In June 2010, a Human Rights Watch report documented the continued rapes and assaults against Somali refugee women in Kenya by other refugees, the Kenyan police and Kenyan citizens. In September of 2009, members of the Guinean government’s security force brutally raped and murdered women who were part of a peaceful gathering of opposition supporters.
The U.S. military is no exception to this culture of male domination. Female soldiers have reason to be more afraid of attack by their male comrades than enemy fire. The Pentagon’s annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military for FY 2009 documented 3,230 reported sexual assaults. However, as attested to by the Department of Defense, no more than 20 percent of assaults are reported. That means the actual occurrence of rape and sexual assault in the United States military, over the course of just one year, was likely more than 16,000. That is nearly three times the number of U.S. troops who have died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.
Militarism fosters another form of gendered violence — skewed national priorities that reward militarism at the cost of a growing gap between rich and poor. It justifies huge budgets for defense and military spending, while social services and education receive increasingly diminished funds. It demands supporting foreign militaries rather than international development aid. Troops are sent around the world to handle conflicts rather than deploying peacekeepers and humanitarian workers.
Caring for children and family, particularly when society fails, is a responsibility that falls disproportionately on women. Thus, the economic disparities and skewed national priorities created by militarism force women into poverty. Armed conflicts also impose a tremendous physical cost on women and children — often as the loss of life or limb — in countries where battles are waged.
Imagine a world led by a pacifist mindset and the fundamental differences that would create. Imagine if the federal budget for education and human services was the size of the current defense budget. Imagine an army of peacekeepers, social workers, educators and health care personnel. Imagine a society with superior judicial, ethical and mental health systems — rather than advanced nuclear warfare technology.
That sounds crazy, right? Why? What presumptions and frameworks have gone unchallenged to make a world without weapons and jails unthinkable? Take some time to consider this. Expand your thinking and question the unquestioned, for this is how progress and change are accomplished.
Militarism perpetuates a chronic state of insecurity. As long as we accept that there will always be an enemy and something to fear, we will not be able to find genuine security, and women will continue to be attacked and disadvantaged. Conservatives and their media echo chamber cultivate this state of fear in order to maintain the status quo in favor of militarism and violence. And moderates and liberals find it difficult to break with this deeply ingrained mindset.
As this year’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gendered Violence Campaign comes to an end, do not let your outrage and activism end. Join NOW in speaking out against the terror and violence that militarism perpetuates against women and girls. Start a campaign in your community, educate your friends and family, or write your own blog post. Through solidarity in our commitment to a world guided by peace and the inclusion and empowerment of all populations, we can bring change.