For several years, we have been using “the most dangerous places for women” to describe India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, despite the fact that the 2011 Thomson Reuters Foundation poll that coined the phrase was far from flawless. Our continued use of the poll mainly satisfied our perceived need for numbers to buttress what we say about women’s experiences in these countries.
The Women, Peace and Security Index 2017-18 is a welcome, pioneering effort by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security and the Peace Research Institute of Oslo to assemble descriptive numbers that can measure and communicate the experiences of women’s lives—whether in peace or conflict situations. The genius of the index is that it captures the complexity of ‘peace’ and ‘conflict’ as categories, showing as feminists have always contended, that discrimination and violence inhabit the same spectrum. Thus, on the Index, countries at peace have high insecurity scores and countries at the bottom of the scale show decent inclusion scores.
The WPS measures women’s experiences along three dimensions: inclusion, justice and security. Inclusion is the most common measure, and this Index operationalizes it through years of schooling, access to bank accounts, cell-phone usage, share of parliamentary seats and workforce participation. Justice is assessed through laws that discriminate or limit women’s participation in society and the economy; sex ratio at birth which demonstrates male child preference and the percentage of men that believe that women may not hold paid jobs outside the home. The security dimension comprises three variables: intimate partner violence, percentage of women who report feeling safe in public spaces at night and total battle deaths per 100,000.
Beyond the numbers, the operationalization of the security dimension may be the most important contribution of the Index. By including intimate partner violence and perceptions of public space safety along with battle deaths, the Index does away with the inside-outside distinction that characterises traditional thinking about security. Intrinsically important, this allows us to correlate interpersonal violence and conflict. We know anecdotally that domestic violence, sexual assault and exploitation increase with militarisation and conflict. The juxtaposition of these variables in the security dimension gives a way to readily correlate them for advocacy purposes.
So how do India, Pakistan and Afghanistan fare on the WPS Index and what can we make of their scores?
India fares best of the three, with large parts of the country untouched by the kind of violence that Pakistanis and Afghans have lived with for decades.
On the inclusion dimension, there is not much difference between the three countries on school years. While Pakistan and Afghanistan fare poorly on financial inclusion, far more Afghan women use cell-phones. This is surprising when you remember the Pakistan WRN Community Conversations (2013), in which women spoke about creating family phone circles to keep each other updated about the security situation. But perhaps it speaks to the important role cell-phones play in empowering women whose mobility is otherwise limited, to look after their own security. UN presence in Afghanistan ensures Parliamentary inclusion, but if you look at other indicators, this seems hollow. Conversely, in India, better financial inclusion does not mean women count significantly in the workforce or polity.
Male child preference offsets better legal norms and attitudes in India, whereas in Pakistan and Afghanistan, it is reinforced by discriminatory structures and attitudes.
On the security dimension, we clearly see the gender-based violence-conflict correlation in Afghanistan and in relative terms, India. The Pakistan case points to the challenges of making this connection. Living with high levels of social and political violence, Pakistan’s intimate partner violence figures are quite low, and they point to what we know about data on gender-based violence—it depends on the willingness to report, efficient registration and accurate counting. The Index is meant to be updated every two years. Among other things, perhaps it will also help us to push for better data collection standards on these issues.
About the Author: Swarna Rajagopalan is a founding member of the Women's Regional Network and the founding trustee of The Prajnya Trust, a new centre for research and public education on security issues. She works as an independent scholar and writer on traditional and non‐traditional security topics in Chennai, India. Follow her on Twitter @swarraj.
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