The Intersection Between Gender Equality and State Security in Global Health Crises

Alessandra Perez, September 27, 2021

The greatest security dilemma states face is the systemic insecurity of women. Although often overlooked, sex and gender play a pivotal role in global affairs, and the correlation between investment in women and the overall peace and security of a state is no coincidence. As former Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan stated, “there is no policy more effective in promoting development, health, and education than the empowerment of women and girls.” Such effects also play a pivotal role in conflict prevention and resolution, making gender equality an optimal catalyst for effective global cooperation. Indeed, Annan further argued that “no policy is more important in preventing conflict or in achieving reconciliation after a conflict has ended.” Extensive research in fact suggests that states that legislatively foster and enforce gender equality are significantly less corrupt, more democratic, wealthier, healthier, and more powerful in the twenty-first century than those that do not. These findings are especially evident in the midst of a global health crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic where state leaders must reveal their inclinations towards individual versus collective remedies and vice versa. 

Rectifying gender inequality, however, is no small feat, and added difficulty stems from the incessant and unnoticeable acts against women that we today regard as commonplace. Such seemingly inconsequential acts, referred to as microaggressions, occur daily and become so ingrained in society that they are unrecognizable and even natural. These acts tend to manifest in subtle and indirect slights, including assumptions of inferiority, sexist language or “jokes,” sexual objectification, and restrictive (and arbitrary) gender roles. Despite the intentionality (or lack thereof) of the enactor, these constant attacks on women inflict three key wounds against them in society: (1) a lack of bodily integrity and physical security; (2) a lack of equity in family law; and (3) a lack of parity in the councils of human decision-making. Each wound not only thwarts women’s progress and opportunities as individuals but also a state’s prospective development. These unquestioned norms affect women’s education, work, and relationships and distort a state’s priorities, which results in, among other things, a virtual absence of women’s voices in the councils of human decision-making and, consequently, worse outcomes for a state vis-à-vis peacefulness and stability. 

The idea that patriarchal tendencies of dominance and control are conducive to peace and security is deeply flawed and outdated, yet still permeates much of society. Given our largely male-driven evolutionary legacy, many assume that competitive, aggressive, and risky behavior by men is optimal in policymaking; however, these predispositions often backfire, causing reckless decision-making that disregards rationality and imperils all. Ironically, the characteristics that women have developed as a direct result of male-dominated history, including being less aggressive and competitive and more risk-averse, empathetic, and interested in consensual decision-making than men, are optimal for economic prosperity and system stability. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, this theory has proven especially true. 

Despite being Heads of State and Government in only 21 countries, women from Denmark to Ethiopia are being lauded for their rapid responses to the virus and their collective and collaborative (rather than individual and competitive) approaches to the health crisis. By prioritizing confinement, social distancing, and frequent widespread testing, women leaders quickly and effectively set out to “flatten the curve” and communicate fact-based public health information to their constituents. For example, New Zealand, led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, was rated by the Economist Intelligence Unit as having the strongest response (a score of 3.67 out of 4) to the coronavirus crisis due to its “go hard, go early” lockdown strategy. As a result, the country, with a population of nearly 5 million, reported zero new cases within two months of its initial lockdown. Alternatively, the United Kingdom, led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, was given a “poor” assessment and a rating of 2.22 out of 4. 

Notably, prior to the pandemic, 47 percent of the world’s population believed that men made better political leaders than women. Today, lower mortality rates and effective containment policies have revealed a shift in ideology, disproving the discriminatory norms that fueled these beliefs and supporting the already-existing research that suggests that when both women and men make decisions together, all participants are more satisfied with the outcome than when they are made by all-male groups. Because of women’s naturally gendered perspectives on community issues and conflict-management and their tendency towards collaboration over competition, their involvement in a state’s peace process statistically results in a 20 percent increase in the probability of an agreement lasting at least two years and a 35 percent increase in one lasting fifteen years. Additionally, states that actively counter repressive gender inequality and enforce laws that ensure women are included and heard in positions of power consistently enjoy economic growth and investment and are less likely to threaten, display or use force, or go to war in interstate and international disputes. As such, gender inequality affects states in every aspect but begins on the local, micro level. Because studies show that domestic norms of inequality and violence are replicated at the national and international level and a state that does not value its women tends not to value the international commitments it has made, it is imperative that gender equality is viewed as more than just a social justice issue, but one of international health and security. 

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