AAFTER AMERICA and its allies overthrew the Taliban in 2001, the enrollment rate of Afghan girls in primary school has risen from 0% to over 80%. Infant mortality has halved. Forced marriage has been made illegal. Many of these schools were broken and many families ignored the law. But no one seriously doubts that Afghan women and girls have made great strides in the past 20 years, or that those gains are now under threat.
The United States is “committed to advancing gender equality” through its foreign policy, according to the State Department. To bequeath billions of dollars in arms and a medium-sized country to a bunch of violent misogynists is a strange way to put it. Of course, foreign policy involves difficult compromises. But there is growing evidence that Hillary Clinton was on to something when she said ten years ago that “the subjugation of women is … a threat to the common security of our world.” Societies that oppress women are much more likely to be violent and unstable.
There are several possible reasons for this. In many places, girls are selectively aborted or fatally neglected. This has led to skewed sex ratios, meaning millions of young men are doomed to remain single. Frustrated young men are more likely to commit violent crimes or join rebel groups. Boko Haram and Islamic State recruiters know this and promise them “wives” as the spoils of war. Polygamy also creates a surplus of young single men. Multiple wives for men above mean celibacy for those below.
All conflicts have complex causes. But it may not be a coincidence that Kashmir has one of India’s most unbalanced sex ratios, or that the 20 most turbulent countries in the Fragile States Index compiled by the peace in Washington practice polygamy. In Guinea, where a coup d’état took place on September 5, 42% of married women aged 15 to 49 are in a polygamous union. The Chinese police state is staying the course on its many redundant men, but its neighbors sometimes wonder if their aggression could one day find an outlet.
Outside of wealthy democracies, the male family group remains the basic unit of many societies. Such groups emerged largely for self-defense: male cousins would unite to fend off foreigners. Today, they mostly cause problems. Blow-by-blow clan feuds spill blood across the Middle East and the Sahel. Tribes compete for control of the state, often violently, so that they can share jobs and loot loved ones. These states are becoming corrupt and dysfunctional, alienating citizens and bolstering support for jihadists who promise to rule more just.
Societies based on the male bond tend to subjugate women. Fathers choose who their daughters will marry. Often there is a bride price – the groom’s family pays sometimes considerable sums to the bride’s family. This prompts fathers to marry their daughters early. This is no small problem. Dowries or bride prices are common in half the countries of the world. One-fifth of young women in the world were married before the age of 18; a twentieth before 15 years. Married children are more likely to drop out of school, less able to resist violent husbands, and less likely to raise healthy, well-educated children.
Texas researchers A&M and Brigham Young Universities compiled a global index of pre-modern attitudes towards women, including sexist family laws, unequal property rights, girl’s early marriage, patrilocal marriage, polygamy, bride price , preference for sons, violence against women and its legal indulgence (for example, can a rapist escape punishment by marrying his victim?). It turned out to be strongly correlated with the violent instability of a country.
Various lessons can be drawn from this. In addition to their usual analytical tools, policymakers should study geopolitics through the lens of gender. This clue of sexist customs, if it had existed 20 years ago, would have warned them about how difficult nation-building would be in Afghanistan and Iraq. Today, this suggests that stability cannot be taken for granted in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, or even India.
Peace talks should include women. Between 1992 and 2019, only 13% of negotiators and 6% of signatories to peace agreements were women. Yet peace tends to last longer when women are at the table. This may be because they are more inclined to compromise; or maybe because a play without women involves a prick between the men with guns without the input of non-combatants. Liberia was right and ended a horrific civil war; The new Afghan leadership did not.
More broadly, governments should think so when they say they want to liberate half of humanity. Educate girls, many of whom have left school to work or marry since covid-19 impoverished their families. Enforce bans on child marriage and female genital mutilation, even if this is difficult in remote villages. I do not recognize polygamy. Equalize inheritance rights. Teach boys not to hit women. Introduce public pensions, which undermine the tradition that couples are supposed to live with the parents of men, because the elderly have no other means of support.
Most of these tasks fall to national governments, but foreigners have some influence. Since Western donors began emphasizing girls’ education, more girls have gone to school (primary school enrollment has risen from 64% in 1970 to almost 90% today). Activists against early marriage have urged more than 50 countries to raise the minimum age since 2000. Boys should learn about nonviolence from local mentors, but ideas on how to design such programs are shared via a global network of charities and think tanks. . Donors such as YOU SAID and the World Bank have done a good job of promoting property rights for women, even though their Afghan efforts are about to go up in smoke.
The radical notion
Foreign policy should not be naive. Countries have vital interests and must deter their enemies. Geopolitics should not be viewed solely through a feminist lens, nor should it be viewed solely in terms of economics or nuclear non-proliferation. But policy makers who ignore the interests of half the population cannot hope to understand the world. ■
This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “Why Nations That Fail Women Fail”