“Why aren’t there any women in your group?”

Excerpt from Matthieu Ricard’s book, Altruism.

Despite progress still to be made, Western countries are evolving more toward respect and increased acknowledgment of the role of women in society. With a few rare exceptions, war is planned, decided upon, and perpetrated by men, and 99.9% of soldiers who take part in combat are also men (even in countries like Israel, which recruit a large number of women, women are rarely on the front lines). Men are also the most intransigent during negotiations. Swanee Hunt, former American ambassador and activist against exploitation of women throughout the world, told me that one day she met a group of African officials engaged in peace negotiations that seemed stymied by two parties. Having noted that both delegations were made up exclusively of men, Hunt asked, “Why aren’t there any women in your group?” They replied: “Because they’d make concessions.” Swanee Hunt remembers thinking at that point: “Bingo! That’s why this negotiation, like so many others, isn’t successful!” In fact, how can a solution acceptable to the various participants be found at all without making mutual concessions?

A collection of ethnographic studies shows that every society that treats women better is less prone to war. In the Middle East especially, a survey revealed that individuals who were most in favor of equality between men and women were also the most in favor of a nonviolent resolution to the Israeli-Arab conflict. Steven Pinker concludes:

Biology and history suggest that all else being equal, a world in which women have more influence will be a world with fewer wars.

Tsutomu Yamaguchi, a survivor of the two nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (whither he fled after the explosion in Hiroshima, thinking to find refuge there) gave this ultimate piece of advice before dying at the age of ninety-three: “The only people who should be allowed to govern countries with nuclear weapons are mothers, those who are still breast-feeding their babies.” Women and children are the first victims in wars, and the more their voices can be heard in society, the lower the risk will be for conflict. It is not a question of simply giving more power to women, but of moving away from cultural models that celebrate virile strength, glorify war, and justify violence as a quick and effective way to resolve problems. In Sex and War, the biologist Malcolm Potts and his co-authors think that giving women complete control over their reproduction (by allowing free access to contraception and the choice of their spouse) is a crucial factor in fighting violence. Refusing to treat women as mere reproductive vessels is the best way to prevent an excessive portion of the population being made up of young men who often find themselves jobless and marginalized. In fact, it has been demonstrated that, in societies that grant more autonomy to women, there are fewer gangs of rootless young men who become troublemakers.

Desmond Tutu, the Gandhi activist Ela Bhatt, the former US president Jimmy Carter, and other members of the Global Elders have launched a movement called “Girls, Not Brides.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu especially militates passionately against girls being married in childhood or
puberty, a phenomenon that’s still widespread in Africa and Asia (every day, 25,000 girls are married too young and without their consent). A teenaged girl under fifteen is five times more likely to die in labor than a young woman in her twenties. This scourge could prevent the realization of six of the eight Objectives for the Millennium for Development pursued by the United Nations: reducing poverty and hunger, ensuring basic education for all, promoting the equality of the sexes and the autonomy of women, reducing infant mortality, improving maternal health, and fighting AIDS, malaria and other diseases. Only two objectives, the preservation of the environment and the establishment of a global partnership for development, are not directly linked to the problem of early marriages of girls. Compulsory education of girls could contribute to thwarting this practice.

In Malawi, 42% of girls are married before the age of 18. That’s 1 girl out of 5, in the world, today (Unicef). Memory Banda, a 24 year-old young women, dared to challenge the tradition of institutionalised rape of young girls in dedicated initiation camps. She stopped the practice nationwide, and then got Malawi’s Constitution changed to raise the legal age from 15 to 18 to protect girls from forced marriage. Her action is told in the documentary Bigger Than Us by Flore Vasseur