Gender, Power and Human Security

At the heart of human security is freedom from the fear of harm and want, writes Diana Francis. It is something that we owe each other. Yet it is constantly denied to millions by poverty and neglect, war and famine, preventable and treatable diseases, oppression, discrimination, neglect and individual acts of physical violence.

The insecurity of women

Here in the UK, the brutal murder of Sarah Everard has reminded us that for so many women, here and around the world, security from physical violence does not exist. They are all at risk of attack by misogynistic men and sexual predators and all too many live in the constant fear of domestic violence, often accompanied by controlling behaviour. In addition, the proportion of female victims of slavery here is high and their servitude is often of a sexual nature: a violation of their bodies as well as their freedom. Meanwhile the number of reported rapes continues to rise, while the figure for convictions remains extremely low.

Men and violence

Men can also be the victims of domestic violence. They may also have suffered it in their childhood, from one parent of both. They too can suffer bullying, coercion, violence and murder, especially where there are gangs and county lines. However, most violence against men, in whatever form, comes from other males.

Why all this male violence? Clearly men’s typically greater physical size and strength may give them a greater capacity to inflict physical harm, but are they aggressive by nature? If so, why do adolescents and young men have to be brutalised by initiation processes and army training?

Nature, nurture and culture

Like most behavioural patterns in our species, male bullying is not innate. As Alice Roberts argues, since we have ‘the longest childhood of any mammal’, our brains and behavioural patterns are not genetically determined but in large part a product of what we learn as we grow up.

It has been passed on in the long-established culture of patriarchy, a hierarchical system in which power comes, by definition, from above: the power of domination over others. In the first place that is domination by men over women, who in some societies are still effectively owned by them, but it is also about domination of one man over another, whether in business or boxing ring, in the adversarial exchanges of politics or the confrontational nature of international politics. It is embodied in archetypal statues of warrior heroes that abound in European cities: the men on horses or Nelson at the top of his column.

It is this culture that makes UK political parties – still typically led by men – fear that they will lose the electorate it they suggest any ‘weakening’ of traditional ‘defence’ policy and why not even Jeremy Corbyn – seen as a desperate radical – in the time that he led the Labour Party dared to propose that the UK should get rid of its nuclear weapons – recent opinion polls notwithstanding.

It is why the few women who became political leaders in the past typically were hawks (think Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher, the ‘Iron Lady’). They succeeded by ‘manning up’. 

The impact of patriarchy

This deeply imbedded culture, passed on by modelling, teaching and imposition, damages and oppresses us all, shaping social structures as well as behaviour. It has driven the journey from loosely operating groups to cities, nation states and international alliances. It was the motor for colonialism, brought about and sustained by violence. It is still expressed in neo-colonialism and racism, in classism and the shameful extremes of wealth and poverty that are present in our country and our world. It promotes greed over need. At every level, and in every context, it denies human equality. And it drives war. The fact that rape has so often been a part of war re-presents its toxic roots in patriarchy, whose first principle is to demonstrate virility through the subjugation and abuse of women.   

In modern warfare, the devastation caused by war – of lives, communities, buildings, infrastructure, land and livelihoods – it is hard to imagine who benefits, other than the arms manufacturers. I often think of the graffiti that I read in some benighted part of what was once Yugoslavia: ‘To the victor go the spoils and the spoils are a heap of ashes.’ I think of it now when I see images of rubble in what were once thriving towns in Syria or Yemen. Even more unbearable is the sight of what those wars have done to people there: of mutilated bodies and emaciated children. And then I remember the photos that haunted me as a child, of what the first nuclear weapons to be used had accomplished in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and as the arms race continues, I think, ‘After hubris comes nemesis’.

Another route to nemesis

Nowadays, extinction through nuclear war is no longer the only option. It has been joined by the accelerating menace of climate change and species extinction. These threats too are a consequence of a hierarchical view of our planet, regarding its lands, seas and creatures as resources for humanity to own, exploit and fight over. They stem from our failure to understand that we are one species among countless others, animal and vegetable, and that all are interdependent.

It began with the move from simple gathering and hunting to fulfil daily needs to ‘having dominion over’ territory and owning creatures. Now we have big land owners and agribusiness, along with modern technology and manufacture – of weapons, cars and aeroplanes – and the economics of extraction and competition, marketing and consumerism. Gradually control is gained by ever fewer dominant companies, whose power is greater than that of many countries. They scoop up resources from land and sea with devastating effect, destroying wildlife habitat and causing species loss, pandemics, pollution and global heating.

As ever, those who suffer most are the ones already low in the social and economic pecking order. Globally, the rich nations continue to cause by far the most damage, while the poor ones pay the price. And the UK’s vision of ‘Global Britain’ is one in which it ‘projects power’ around the world by spreading its military presence further and increasing its nuclear arsenal to 40% above the limit fixed when it signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.   

Is there still time?

Maybe if all our leaders watch even the shortest version of David Attenborough’s speech to the UN; maybe if toxic masculinity can quickly fall right out of fashion; maybe if we all commit ourselves to talking about all this constantly, with everyone we can reach, and do everything in our power to hold governments to account; maybe if we make it clear to ourselves and others that it is only care and cooperation that can get us out of this crisis and that we really are all equal in dignity and rights, we just could be in with a chance.


The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.


Image Credit: Statue of King Richard I outside Houses of Parliament, via Shutterstock.

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