The global epidemic of violence against women and their systematic exclusion from the power structures that rule us are integral to man’s violent exploitation of Earth and her resources, writes Nafeez Ahmed. The fight to save the Earth must begin with the empowerment of women – and that means ending our complicity in their oppression, and servitude.
Last Sunday was International Women’s Day, but despite the celebration and recognition of women throughout the day across the world’s media, little attention was paid to how the systemic marginalization of women is integral to what I call the ‘crisis of civilization.’
Efforts by the UN and other agencies to highlight the centrality of women to the fight against climate change are laudable, but they simply don’t go far enough in addressing the extent to which male-dominated global institutions and structures are directly responsible for the disempowerment of women.
One crisis, or many?
The global crises we face today are legion, but their disparate nature is illusory.
When we look deeper, these seemingly different crises of climate change, energy volatility, food scarcity, economic breakdown, and violent conflict, are not in fact separate issues. Rather, they are inherently interconnected symptoms of a deeper global malaise.
Fundamentally, all these crises stem from the problem that our global system is, increasingly, in breach of the natural limits of our environment.
The world’s rich, industrialized class are over-accumulating and over-consuming planetary resources and raw materials; in the process burning massive quantities of evermore expensive and dirty fossil fuels; dumping unprecedented amounts of waste and carbon into the environment in a way that is destabilizing eco-systems; and ironically, thereby escalating the costs of living and undermining our capacity to continue such vast levels of over-consumption.
This is widening global inequalities, generating more poverty and deprivation, while straining the capacity of states to continue delivering public services. This in turn aggravates civil unrest, and in some cases, fuels the outbreak of civil and international war.
Our conventional view of these crises as separate is in itself a symptom of an epistemological crisis, rooted in our fragmented view of life and nature.
Because energy, the economy and the environment are not separate. They are merely conceptual abstractions we’ve created to understand issues that are completely and utterly intertwined.
Our fragmentary and reductionist worldview plays a large role in this. Not only are our sciences so specialized that we lack holistic big picture frameworks for joining the dots between physics, biology, society, the biophysical environment, the economy, culture and so many other issues; this inability to see the whole for the parts means we are not just hampered in our understanding of the world, we are hampered in our ability to respond to the crises now accelerating.
With respect to the ‘crisis of civilization’, this fragmented reductionism means that we see ourselves not as embedded in the natural world, but as overlords of nature. So under the doctrine of neo-classical, now neoliberal economics, we have deified the empirically-refuted illusory accolade of ‘endless material growth’, despite its being, literally, physically impossible.
We have subordinated the entirety of the natural world, including virtually all living and non-living entities on the planet, to the unquestionable dictates of the ‘market.’ This has led to the commodification of everything, and the projection of a self-perpetuating culture of mass consumerism reinforcing our addiction to endless growth, as well as our blindness to the suicidal trajectory it is generating.
This divorce between human beings and the natural order is reflected in the internal dynamics of the global system: the growing disparity between rich and poor; the widening hostility between Muslim and non-Muslim; the deepening divisions between white and non-white; and of course, the persistent power inequalities between men and women.
In all these cases, we see that our relentless plunder of our own planetary life-support systems, correlates with our unnerving tendency to divide, exclude and ‘Otherize’, often in ways that are so insidious we find it difficult, even painful, to acknowledge these processes. But to this day, one of the most ever-present yet still unacknowledged processes is patriarchy.
Climate change is gendered
Natural disasters resulting from climate change are on the rise. The number of disasters between 2000 and 2009 had tripled compared to between 1980 and 1989, most of which was due to climate events. Yet most victims of such disasters are invariably women.
On average, natural disasters consistently kill more women than men, in some cases with 90% female fatalities. According to UN figures women face a risk of death from natural disasters that is 14 times higher than for men.
Women also suffer disproportionately more from the aftermath of such disasters, increasing the threat of sexual assault, preventing girls attending school, and so on. There can be many reasons for the greater vulnerability: less economic opportunities, less access to technologies like mobile phones (meaning less likelihood of receiving timely warnings), less freedom of movement due to cultural issues, and so on.
Thus, one of the main reasons that climate change disproportionately affects women is because women are already marginalized. This means that the impacts of climate change in terms of extreme weather, water scarcity, and crop failures, hits women the most.
Poverty is gendered
One of the clearest manifestations of the systemic disempowerment of women is poverty. Nearly one billion people live below the poverty line, defined by the World Bank as an income of $1.25 a day.
By this standard, the annual income of the world’s richest 50 people is around the same as the total income of the bottom one billion. Of the poorest one billion, according to the UN Development Program (1995), 70% are women.
Due to limited data sets and paucity of ongoing research, it’s not entirely clear how far that percentage stacks up more recently. But it is indisputable that women are largely far worse off economically than men in the less developed world.
The truth is that poverty levels are much higher than conventionally estimated. In his 2013 report to the secretary general of the OECD, for instance, University of Gottingen economist Stephen Klasen found that the dollar a day standard was “reaching the limits of its usefulness and relevance.
This is partly because of the increasing number of poor people in middle-income countries – where per capita consumption and national poverty lines are substantially above USD 1.25 per day.”
In a recent oped, World Bank chief economist Kaushik Basu conceded that “many criticize as shockingly low” the Bank’s definition of poverty. Yet the Bank has done nothing to amend its dubious definition. This omission allows the Bank to trumpet claims that millions of people, moving above the $1.25 standard, can now be defined as having escaped poverty, even though in reality they remain impoverished.
Basu also condemns the persistence of poverty as a “collective failure”. These appear to be strong words, but they obscure the fact that by blaming ‘everyone’, he in the end blames no one. In reality, this ‘failure’ can be attributed very specifically to the staunchly neoliberal policies of the Bank itself.
Neoliberal policies have involved slashing state spending on health, education and other public services; opening up countries to rapid privatization and foreign investment; and consequently, accelerating government and public debt. Invariably, the impact has been to retard real growth, according to a UN report, and “reduce progress for almost all the social indicators that are available to measure health and educational outcomes.”
Valentine Moghadam, gender equality chief in UNESCO’s human rights division, argues that “the poverty-inducing nature of neoliberal restructuring has been especially severe on women.” It is “incontestable” that women face a “disadvantaged position” in which “women among the poor suffer doubly from the denial of their human rights – first on account of gender inequality, second on account of poverty.”
Indeed, despite working harder than men – making up 70% of the world’s working hours – women only earn 10% of the world’s income, and approximately half of what men earn.
Women’s economic disadvantage often means they are socially more vulnerable, and therefore more easily subject to exploitative working conditions, and other gender-based forms of violence. All this means that as climate change exacerbates the conditions conducive to poverty, women are most on the receiving end.
Food and water is gendered
Far from being mere passive victims, though, women remain utterly pivotal to the possibilities of positive social change in such circumstances, due to their critical role in natural resource management.
As primary collectors of fuel and water for their families, and primary carers in terms of using energy to prepare food, rear their children and care for the ill, women are at the forefront of sustaining the health, prosperity and well-being of communities.
Numerous studies show that climate change will lead to increased droughts, erosion of coastal systems, ocean acidification, destruction of biodiversity, sea level rise, and shifting seasons in coming decades. As a consequence, global warming will intensify water stress and undermine food systems for billions of people, mostly in less developed countries.
This means that women, who play such a key role in food and water provision, are being affected the most by the food and water crises that are worsening due to climate change.
Overall, women earn between 30 and 80% of what men earn annually. Of the world’s 743 million illiterate adults, two thirds are women. Women comprise about half of the agricultural labor force in less developed countries, but only own about 10 to 20% of the land. It’s also usually women who travel long distances everday, frequently alone, to fetch water. In doing so, they are also more vulnerable to health problems and being attacked.
All in all, climate change is making women poorer, eroding their economic opportunities, debilitating their access to food and water, and making them more vulnerable to exploitation. This inevitably erodes the integrity, cohesion and sustainability of families and communities.
Violence is gendered
One of the other major impacts of climate change, of course, is its capacity to accelerate instability and conflict as governments, hell-bent on business-as-usual, face growing resources stresses that they are unable to cope with.
Many studies prove a definite correlation between the acceleration of recent climate change, and the frequency of violent conflict.
But the biggest victims of conflict are women and children, whether in terms of the systematic use of sexual violence as a tactic of war, or by being targeted in indiscriminate attacks on civilians. Violence against women tends to spike during conflicts and civil unrest. “It is now more dangerous to be a woman than to be a soldier in conflict”, said Major General Patrick Carnmaert, a former UN Peacekeeping Operation commander.
Yet climate change does not exacerbate conflict by itself. In 2010, a study of conflict in Africa by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) pointed out that the way climate change impacts society depends on local politics, economy, and culture.
The primary reason that African countries are so deeply vulnerable to civil unrest and violent conflict, the PNAS study shows, is the extent to which their social fabrics have been unravelling under the impact of neoliberal capitalist reforms imposed by the IMF and World Bank, among other factors.
Far from leading to ‘development’, efforts to integrate Africa into the circuits of predatory global finance have largely devastated their societies, ramping up infant mortality rates, widening inequalities, and entrenching regional states with unsustainable debt.
Neoliberal restructuring has created a new economy of war in the less developed world, dislocating communities, and fueling ethnic and tribal antagonisms. The resulting social breakdown permits a resurgence of extremisms as people latch on to custom, identities and myth in the search for certainty.
That in turn, once again, tends to hit the most vulnerable first, especially women and children, in the form of culturally-sanctioned crimes such as honor killings, female genital mutilation, forced marriages, and so on.
Secret World Bank documents leaked some years ago show that financial institutions are fully aware of this largely destabilizing impact of neoliberal restructuring. A Bank country assistance strategy for Ecuador from 2000, for instance, correctly predicted that proposed reforms would spark “social unrest”.
This was part of a wider pattern. As Joseph Stiglitz, former chief economist of the World Bank, put it, the neoliberal package of privatization and liberalization led all too frequently to what he called “the IMF riot”.
Unchecked global capitalism is thus deepening the very impoverishment and social dislocation that fuels the conflict and disorder from which women suffer the most.
Rape is good for business
Into this mix, the role of the global small arms trade is pivotal. Sarah Masters, women’s network coordinator of the International Action Network on Small Arms, points out that without the massive proliferation of light weapons and small arms, the abuse and rape of women “on such a large scale in much of the world’s conflicts” would simply not be possible.
Small arms enable not just rape and other forms of sexual abuse, but also abductions, forced slavery, and forced prostitution.
But the arms trade offers rich pickings for the Western-dominated military-industrial complex. The world’s top small arms exporters include the United States, Italy, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Russia, France, Belgium, Spain, among others. The value of the small arms trade totals around $8.5 billion annually.
This is a mere fraction of the arms trade more generally, where the top companies generate about $395 billion a year. Major interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan significantly boosted such defense contractor profits.
Overall, US firms account for nearly 60% of all sales by the top 100 companies, with Lockheed Martin and Boeing in first and second place, followed in third place by Britain’s BAE Systems.
But while defense firms rake in cash, the impact on the ground has been devastating: this is the vicious cycle of neoliberal capitalism. World Bank and IMF reforms dislocate societies and accelerate conflict while opening up countries to foreign investors, while arms companies swoop in to make a killing selling weapons to all sides in the maelstrom. Meanwhile, rape and abuse of women becomes endemic.
From countries subjected to Western intervention and occupation like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine, to less developed regions like Africa, violence against women has become entrenched and endemic throughout all spheres of life.
Under the US-backed regime in Iraq, for instance, women bear the brunt of increasing gender-based violence, inadequate infrastructure, political exclusion, and poverty. But against all odds, it is Iraqi women who are at the forefront of rights activism through civil society organisations and social movements.
What makes this worse is that violence against women is also endemic outside of conflict. The World Health Organization (WHO) found in 2013 that 35% of women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence from either someone they know, or a stranger. One in three women worldwide who have been in a relationship have been subjected to physical or sexual violence from their own partner.
Lest one assume this is predominantly a backward ‘third world’ phenomenon, a recent EU-wide study showed that one in three women over the age of 15 across Europe had suffered some form of physical or sexual abuse. The figures are similar for the United States, with one in three women having experienced domestic violence, and one in five having been raped.
Power is gendered
Given this overwhelming asymmetrical violence perpetrated by men against women, it is no surprise that women worldwide are also overrepresented in several key mental health issues. Depression, for instance, is twice as common among women than men.
Generally, more women appear to suffer from other common disorders such as anxiety and ‘somatic complaints’ – physical symptoms with no medical explanation. Men, on the other hand, are three times more likely to have antisocial personality disorder.
Epidemiological studies from across the English-speaking West show that this pattern is more exacerbated in the leading ‘selfish capitalist’ states. Not only are rates of mental illness at record levels in these countries compared to elsewhere, but women, once again, are suffering in greater numbers.
Women in these countries are 75% more likely to experience depression, and 60% more likely to experience an anxiety disorder than men; while men experience substance abuse disorders two and a half times more frequently than women.
According to clinical psychologist Prof. Daniel Freeman of Oxford University, “There is a pattern within – women tend to suffer more from what we call ‘internal’ problems like depression or sleep problems. They take out problems on themselves, as it were, where men have externalising problems, where they take things out on their environment, such as alcohol and anger problems.”
It is often women who stand in the firing line of such distinctively male mental health problems.
This gender differentiation in mental health is clearly reflective of the fundamental power disparity between men and women, aggravated along ethnic and class lines. Whichever facet of the crisis of civilization we inspect, women are overwhelmingly on the receiving end of the worst impacts.
This suggests that patriarchy itself is a function of a deep-seated and self-reinforcing psychological malaise that, like a cancer, has infected the totality of industrial civilization.
Calls for greater gender equality to address this are all well and good. But for the most part, the initiatives they lead to, while perhaps well-intentioned, often fail to acknowledge the systemic roots of this inequality in global – not just local -political, economic and cultural structures of patriarchy.
Women are systematically marginalized from key positions of power and decision-making processes across every spectrum of society, in every part of the world, rich or poor. They are discriminated against, institutionally and directly, in politics, in employment, in the arts, in media and in culture.
This is not merely to the detriment of women: the economic marginalization of women costs the global economy trillions of dollars a year, a massive blow to the integrity of all those structures.
Yet the vast majority of the world’s resources are owned and controlled by a tiny minority of the world’s population, in the form of an interlocking ‘revolving door’ nexus of corporate, banking, government, defense, industrial, media and other sectors.
It is that nexus, this top 90 group of transnational corporate monoliths – including among them the world’s most powerful oil, gas and coal companies – that bears responsibility for two-thirds of the human-induced greenhouse gas emissions.
And who runs those corporations? For the last decade, the number of women on US corporate boards has remained static at around 17%. Even where countries are doing better, it is not by much. Sweden and Finland, for instance, are at around 27%.
Overall, decades of diversification have pretty much got us nowhere with corporate boards being 88% white and 85% male. Looking closer at the top Fortune 500 companies, only 4% of CEOs are women, and all of those are white.
As these giant companies attempt to maximize their profits at any human or environmental cost, they are exploiting intensifying resource stress to accelerate investments in lucrative land grabs for farming, mineral commodities, and fraudulent carbon-offset schemes.
In less developed regions like Africa, as Oxfam reports, this is “having an immediate impact on women’s land-use options, on their livelihoods, on food availability and the cost of living, and, ultimately, on women’s access to land for food production. These are only the economic impacts. Women’s knowledge, socio-cultural relationship with the land, and stewardship of nature are also under threat.”
Confronting planetary misogyny
The systemic marginalization and repression of women is not an accidental feature of our civilizational crisis. It is an integral and fundamental pillar of the pervasive injustice of the global system. The global epidemic of violence toward women is inherently bound up with our male-dominated system of violence toward the natural world as a whole.
The rapist, the abuser, is no different from an insatiable tyrant, a slave to his sadistic appetites, unconcerned by the pain inflicted in the process of satiating them.
Just as violence against women is about power, self-gratification through dominance and control, extreme egoism and narcissism, and ultimately a lack of empathy bordering on psychopathology, so ultimately is our systemic violence against nature.
Throughout the course of our exploitative plundering of planetary resources in the pursuit of endless material growth, the global system continues its asymmetric war on women, just as it annihilates species, destroys eco-systems, and exhausts resources for the profit and power of a tiny minority.
The gender divide is not just a mirror image of humanity’s external dislocation from nature: it is both a symptom and driver of that dislocation.
But it is not working. Contemporary global capitalism might be making some people richer, but it is making more people poorer and unhappier, in a context of accelerating uncertainty and conflict. And by the end of this century at least, we face the prospect, according to the consensus of our best scientific minds, of a largely uninhabitable planet if we continue business-as-usual.
The global system is failing, and the mass murder, abuse and murder of women by men is central to that failure: misogyny is an integral function of planetary destruction.
If we want to save the planet, patriarchy must die. That means recognizing and taking responsibility for the fact that patriarchy is integral to the structures of power we take for granted, across East and West.
There’s no time to waste. If misogyny wins, the planet dies.
By Dr. Nafeez Ahmed. Source: The Ecologist