From the war on terror to austerity: a lost decade for women and human rights

Patriarchy, militarism and neoliberalism have created a matrix in which women and women’s rights can never flourish because none of them place human values and human dignity at their core. Heather McRobie reflects on the conversations at the Nobel Women's Initiative conference in Belfast.

Heather McRobie
31 May 2013
Six women seated on a panel, one standing at a podium.

The Nobel Laureates sharing the stage at the 2013 Nobel Women's Initiative conference. Photo (c) Judy Rand.

A recurring theme at the Nobel Women’s Initiative conference in Belfast has been a reflection on the last decade in terms of its global impact on women and human rights.  A picture emerged of a period wherein the excuse of ‘war on terror’ as a justificatory narrative for exclusivist identities, state violence and violence against women gave way to official austerity narratives that, in their own way, entrench inequalities and disempower women.  Central to the decade was the elevation of the sanctity of the nation state’s security or perceived security, often – paradoxically – at the expense of both its citizens and those outside its borders. 

Several speakers reflected on the ‘war on terror’ period in terms of its interrelated assault on human rights and women.  The human rights violations and mass violation of human dignity enacted under the guise of the ‘war on terror’ runs from arbitrary detention to drone-strikes, from Guantanamo to Yemen to the encroachment of the rights of ‘citizens’ in the homelands that those who instigated the ‘war on terror’ were claiming to ‘protect’.  The attack on women was similarly wide-sweeping: from the neo-colonial appropriation of the discourse of ‘women’s rights’ –  toothless and sanitised in its neo-con costume – as an empty vessel to further the cause of militarism in Afghanistan and Iraq, to the ossification of rigid binary gender roles in the ‘homeland’ of America; rapes were committed by occupying soldiers at sites of invasion while in countries such as Yemen and Pakistan women’s lives were eroded by the chaos in their lives caused by the ‘war on terror’.

Amina Mama, Director of the Women and Gender Studies programme at UC Davis, spoke at the conference about how the process of militarisation works in tandem with the construction and reinforcement of rigid, exclusivist gender roles, creating matrixes of power-structures in favour of the nation state and military and against alternative, non-hierarchical ways of being.  The epidemic levels of sexual assault within the US military itself – while due to its own complex set of causes – in some sense plays out this dynamic in microcosm, in the interlocking of patriarchy and militarism that is central to the dominant conception of Western statecraft.

Similarly, there is a parallel between ‘us and them’ narratives constructed in the racist discourse of official ‘war on terror’ framings and the ossification of rigid and regressive gender roles that characterised the ‘war on terror’, from the neo-colonial justifications for military invasion under the guise of ‘protecting women’ to the rigidity of gender roles in the ‘homeland’ espoused by the same Republican-Party-mind-set that so enthusiastically rallied for overseas wars.  As Susan Faludi and others have outlined, just as the ‘war on terror’ drew on imperial tropes to enact its overseas wars, women at home were further marginalised from power under the logic of the emergency-state of a country at war.

Madeleine Rees of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom mentioned the levels of military spending in the last decade, and the dynamics of arms sales worldwide as a human rights and feminist concern.  The cost of the ‘war on terror’ was an estimated $3.2 billion to $4 billion for Americans, a figure that excludes both the economic cost on the invaded countries and the human toll of (by a very conservative estimate) 137,000 civilians killed and 7.8 million refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.   The toll of a decade’s worth of wars, and the debts incurred as a result, were a significant factor in the economic crisis that dominated the later part of this lost decade.

The ‘lost decade’ was lost in many fronts, and these losses continue.  It is worth noting here that, while the ‘war on terror’ may have been a construct of the Bush-Blair era its legacies are potent and alive in our current realities well into the second term of the Obama administration, from drone strikes to the 2012 National Defense Authorisation Act which stitched Bush-era indefinite detention into American domestic law.  Meanwhile Guantanamo, one of the icons of Bush-Blair ‘war on terror’, remains open so many Obama-promises later.

Yet if the high years of the ‘war on terror’ played out as a Rubik’s cube of militarism, militaristic gender roles and the corrosion of human rights and dignity, the segue from the ‘war on terror’ era to what could be characterised as the post-2008 ‘austerity’ era did little to loosen this knot, whilst layering upon it its own injustices. Madeleine Rees made the point, during the conference, that austerity should be conceptualised as a ‘war on the poor’.  Under the guise of saving the nation state, measures are brought in that entrench inequalities – this has played out in the removal of citizens’ rights to access vital services as social safety-nets are corroded, compounding the difficulties caused by mass employment and underemployment.

In addition to this strain, austerity has been gendered.  Governments such as the British government have utilised the emergency-mode of ‘austerity’ to focus its cuts on those who are least invested in by their ideology.  The strain of the recession means there has been an increase in domestic violence from Britain to Spain to Greece, just as domestic violence shelters are closing – those who are caught in dangerous and abusive situations are now less likely to have the financial means to leave their partners.  Layered on top of this, the re-emergence of right-wing and conservative national governments since 2008 have furthered blocked women’s interests, as cuts have fallen disproportionately on services and benefits vital for women’s safety and development.  A report by the European Women’s Lobby found women’s organisations are struggling throughout the region as a direct result of the recession and austerity.  This increase of domestic violence, loss of services and benefits for women, and the curtailing of women’s organisations comes in addition to the general impact of the post-2008 recession: deterioration of working conditions and employment, underemployment for women as temping agencies capitalise on their diminished opportunities, and public sector cuts, a sector in which women were the majority of workers.  Globally, the impact of austerity has been gendered just as poverty is gendered – this is the intersection of the austerity as a ‘war on the poor’ and austerity as a ‘war on women’.  The ‘feminisation of poverty’, which was a pressing concern before 2008, has been deepened by the ‘austerity’ era, firstly through the economic crisis itself and secondly as governments and international organisations have structured their cuts in ways that disproportionately hurt women and other structurally disadvantaged groups. 

Yet in these austere times, as women and the poor shoulder the weight of the economic crisis, one sector, at least, seems safe -- military spending in the western world continues at its ‘war on terror’ scale while spending on vital services and benefits is decimated, blind to the fact that ‘war on terror’ military spending was a key factor in triggering the 2008 economic crisis.  Military spending has barely been encroached upon by austerity measures in the United States and Europe, when compared to the impact of the economic crisis and austerity on citizens’ quality of life. Yet the argument deployed that military and arms are –  for all their other faults –  at least good job creators in times of high unemployment, has been debunked by a University of Massachusetts study showing that defence spending creates the proportionally smallest number of jobs.  Governments continue to militarise, and militarise societies, as citizens at home and abroad suffer the economic hardship brought about by the crisis.  The disconnect between military spending and the impact of austerity on citizens is often jarring: Greece, whose crippling economic crisis has taken a painful toll on its citizens, in 2012 spent the most on arms in the EU as a percentage of GDP.  This is the combined heritage of the last decade: austerity-crippled citizens, a series of devastating wars, attacks and drone strikes, with increased homelessness and unemployment as governments focus their spending on new weapons.  It is a toxic environment for human rights, women’s rights, and social justice.

The thread that follows from the ‘war on terror’ through to ‘austerity’ is the lack of value placed on human life and dignity. Neither militarism nor neo-liberalism place human life and dignity at their centre, yet both work with ease with the modalities of patriarchy.  If this ‘lost decade’ can be divided into the ‘war on terror’ (militarism) and the ‘economic crisis’ (neo-liberalism), we can see how both encroached on women and human rights within their frameworks by working in tandem with patriarchal structures: the ‘war on terror’s militarised masculinity and assault on human rights abroad combined with its corrosion of the gains of feminism in the ‘homelands’, and the economic crisis and austerity through its privileging of the market over human values, in a climate where services from health to education to domestic violence provisions are cut but military budgets remain almost untouched.

Speaking at the Nobel Women’s Initiative, academic Valerie Hudson made the point that ‘there is a ‘war on women’ underneath all other wars’, a line of argument that encompasses the much of the misguided and violent nature of the ‘war on terror’ to ‘austerity’ eras.  The phrase ‘war on women’ gained widespread media currency during the last Presidential election in the USA, primarily as a way to characterise US Republicans’ attacks on women’s rights, particularly their reproductive rights. In this wider context of this ‘lost decade’ analysis, from the ‘war on terror’ to ‘austerity’, it highlights how the thread of gender inequality, as well as the assault on human rights and social justice, links the two poles of the era. 

The ‘lost decade’ was not only ‘lost’ in terms of the lives and potential of those caught in the wars, militarism, state-sponsored xenophobia, encroachment on human rights and loss of the gains of women’s movements.  This grim marriage of patriarchy, militarism and neo-liberalism also prevented an adequate response to the urgent and complex global crises of our time, most notably climate change.  The urgent need to address climate change has suffered neglect at the hands of the bodies who are doing most of contribute to this global disaster, whilst narratives of ‘war on terror’ and militarism distract from this core global concern.  That tackling climate change has fallen by the wayside during the ‘lost decade’ is a global disaster in its own right; it also has gendered dimensions. Women are the primary food producers who are being pushed to work on more barren land as climate change ravages landscapes, while women and children face additional difficulties as refugees as a result of climate change.

If this has been a lost decade for women and human rights, the urgent question now is how we prevent another ‘lost decade’ whilst mitigating against the worst of the impacts of this matrix of militarism, patriarchy and neo-liberalism that mushroomed in the 2000s.  Amina Mama spoke at the Nobel Women’s Initiative of practicalities of the moment, of placing women’s security at the heart of human security, moving ‘security’ from a militaristic conception to a feminist conception that centralises human values.  More broadly, the task ahead to prevent another ‘lost decade’ is to resist the matrix of militarism, unfettered neo-liberalism and patriarchy as it manifests in the current realities of our ‘austerity’ era.

Heather McRobie was reporting for openDemocracy 5050  from the Nobel Women's Initiative conference  Moving Beyond Militarism and War: Women-Driven Solutions for a Nonviolent World.  Read 50.50's full coverage of the conference in articles written by Peace laureates, participants and speakers.

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