Look closely at the way women are treated, says Valerie Hudson. Look at the nonchalance with which a nation's men beat their wives, or the dismissive way a country condones genital mutilation. These are clues, she says, about that nation's likelihood of waging war.
Hudson, professor of political science at Brigham Young University, is lead researcher of a seven-year study looking at the connection between the treatment of women and the peacefulness of nations.
The project is called WomanStats, and although the name suggests an arid landscape of demographics, the project reveals vivid layers of pain and injustice — marital rape and the infanticide of baby girls, sex trafficking and prohibitions about owning land, government exploitation of women and the cultural belief that a wife can be "inherited" as if she were property.
It has been widely assumed that other factors are more predictive of whether a nation might be unstable or aggressive. The three most likely candidates were poverty levels, lack of democracy, and the nation's adherence to Islamic values.
But the WomanStats project offers a fourth predictor of a nation's instability. Violence against women (VAW, in the shorthand of WomanStats) trumps the other explanations, proving to be three times more predictive of a nation's instability than whether a country is Islamic, and one-and-a-half times more predictive than whether a country is undemocratic, Hudson says.
Hudson is a gentle, energetic woman, a feminist in a culture that has often felt uneasy about feminism. She is a groundbreaking researcher, and a mother who has seen her share of heartbreak.
One morning earlier this spring, having just returned the night before with her husband and children after a three-month research stint in Australia and a two-day plane delay, Hudson sat on the sofa in her living room in Orem and talked about WomanStats, stifling an occasional yawn as she tried to overcome a serious case of jet lag. Two large suitcases and several backpacks sat in the middle of the floor. Her six children slept soundly upstairs.
Hudson made headlines in 2001 when a peer-reviewed medical journal published her research into the use of glutathione in the treatment of cystic fibrosis. Hudson's expertise is international relations, but in her usual dogged fashion she set about trying to find a treatment for the genetic lung disease, motivated by the fact that two of her young sons were born with cystic fibrosis. Since then, there have been a half-dozen more peer-reviewed publications, and a formal clinical trial is now beginning in Italy.
Her two sons, who have been treated with glutathione, are now "healthy as horses," Hudson reports. But in 2005, her 18-year-old daughter, Ariel Singer, was one of four hikers who drowned in a cave on "Y" mountain in Provo.
Hudson made international headlines again with her 2004 book, "Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia's Surplus Male Population," co-written with Andrea den Boer. Their thesis: sex-selection in China and India — the abortion of female fetuses as a result of one-child policies and a cultural favoritism toward boys — has resulted in a lopsided ratio of boys to girls (an average of 116 to 120 boys per every 100 girls). And that, they argued, is already resulting in higher levels of violence and instability.
WomanStats is an extension of that thesis, expanded to include all mistreatment of women on a global scale. Sometimes it's a country's laws that keep women oppressed; but sometimes it's the more insidious way that officials turn their back on injustice. In sub-Saharan Africa, domestic violence is illegal, but if a woman shows up at a police station complaining that her husband beat her, the police will simply laugh at her, Hudson says.
The real roots of violence on a national level "may be found in the mundane situations of the household," Hudson says.
With the help of dozens of BYU undergraduate students, Hudson and her colleagues sifted through thousands of statistics, laws, practices, anecdotes and interpretations, in 174 countries with populations exceeding 200,000, looking at 260 variables. To date there are nearly 100,000 data points, some of them contradictory; but, taken as a whole, they provide a deeper look at how women are treated.
It's now "the largest aggregation of data about women that exists in the world," Hudson says. The data is available, free, at www.womanstats.org.
"You can look at numbers all day long, and compare them, and numbers are important," says WomanStats student coder Caitlin Carroll, a BYU senior who has worked on the project for two years. But when you add laws, practices, personal interviews from country experts and NGOs, and stories from women themselves, "it all comes together to form a bigger picture."
Often gender is overlooked by countries, even though it's crucial, says Afton Beutler, vice president of international affairs at the Worldwide Organization for Women, who describes Hudson as a "very careful social scientist, who doesn't jump to conclusions."
When Hudson first proposed her women's security/nation's security thesis at a BYU meeting with colleagues five years ago, it was dismissed outright. Later, Hudson enlisted Mary Caprioli of the University of Minnesota-Duluth (whose earlier research showed a correlation between gender inequality and war-making); Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, professor of psychology at BYU and director of the school's Women's Research Institute; BYU geography professor Chad F. Emmett; and Rose McDermott, political science professor at Brown University.
After collecting data on women's security, the researchers then correlated this data with data from several measurements of national security, including the Global Peace Index (which measures external conflicts, civil conflicts and military expenditures of nations).
The findings were published earlier this year in the Harvard University-based journal International Security, under the title "The Heart of the Matter: The Security of Women and the Security of States."
Worldwide, 185 countries have ratified a United Nations' treaty supporting the rights of women (CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women). But violence against women continues, producing yet another generation of children "who believe violence against women is justified," Hudson notes.
Not surprisingly, a WomanStats map reveals highest levels of women's physical insecurity in the Middle East, India, much of Africa, Brazil and Mexico. On a Violence Against Women scale, the United States sits smack dab in the middle, at a level 3 on a 5-point scale, with moderate levels of domestic violence and rape. (The U.S. is the only industrialized nation that has not ratified the CEDAW bill of rights for women.)
Hudson acknowledges that much further research is necessary before her results can be considered authoritative. "We're hoping for a spirited investigation of this thesis," she says.
The "Heart of the Matter" study includes an arresting tally of 20th century deaths due to war compared with the number of female deaths from such practices as female infanticide, sex-selective abortions and "honor killings." Hudson estimates that an entire century's worth of war, civil war and genocide resulted in about 10 million fewer lives lost than the number of missing women just in the year 2005.
The causes of violence against females "are lost in the mist of evolution," says Hudson, but the violence persists, most especially among humans and chimpanzees. Still, "evolution is not destiny," she insists.
"It's entirely possible to create societies that can suppress those parts of our evolution that are no longer necessary," she says. But that requires an understanding that peace within and among nations literally begins at home.
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