I have a vintage 1960’s poster on my wall that says, “War is not good for children and other living things.” Those sentiments were true then, have always been true and and are certainly still true today. As the Feminist Peace Network website has noted since it began in 2001, military actions of all kinds also perpetrate specific forms of violence against women, including:
- Mass rape, military sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced “marriages” and forced pregnancies.
- Multiple rapes and gang rape (with multiple perpetrators) and the rape of young girls.
- Sexual assault associated with violent physical assault.
- Resurgence of female genital mutilation, within the community under attack, as a way to reinforce cultural identity.
- Women forced to offer sex for survival, or in exchange for food, shelter, or “protection.”
But the devastation experienced by women during conflict goes beyond that. War today is not fought on some obscure battlefield. It is fought in cities and towns where people live. When hospitals and homes and fields and schools are destroyed, there is no place for women to obtain medical care, or a warm shelter to call home, food to put on the table or a way to educate themselves or their children. As the human rights organization Madre notes, the impact of U.S. military action in Afghanistan has had truly horrific implications for Afghan women:
The US and NATO did manage to oust the Taliban in 2001. Afghan women then gained some relief from a regime that publicly beat and executed women, and denied them education, healthcare, employment, participation in public life and any recourse from widespread domestic abuse. But that relief was short-lived. Today, a resurgent Taliban controls most of Afghanistan’s southern provinces and is encroaching on Kabul, the capital. In 2007, the number of US/NATO troops was increased by 45 percent. During that surge, more civilians were killed than in the previous four years combined. Each year that the occupation drags on, more Afghan civilians are killed. In 2008 alone, more than 2100 civilians were killed, a 40 percent jump over 2007.
The Bush Administration justified the invasion of Afghanistan by pointing to the Taliban’s systematic abuse of women. But subsequent US policies in Afghanistan did not uphold women’s human rights. As a result: 1. One in every three women experience physical, psychological or sexual violence 2. 70 to 80 percent of women face forced marriages 3. Every 30 minutes, a woman dies in childbirth 4. 87 percent of women are illiterate 5. 70 percent of girls have no access to education 6. 44 years is the average life expectancy rate for women
Madre also notes that, “According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “The mere presence of foreign soldiers fighting a war in Afghanistan is probably the single most important factor in the resurgence of the Taliban.” All of which makes it baffling and quite discouraging that the Feminist Majority’s Eleanor Smeal would state that FMF supports the continued U.S. military presence in Afghanistan:
Though we’d prefer that all U.S. funding be spent on development aid, we cannot in good conscience advocate the immediate military pullout that some are suggesting. The 2009 UN Humanitarian Action Plan noted that in 2008, “Approximately 40% of the country, including much of the South, remains inaccessible for most humanitarian organizations.” Last year, 92 aid workers were abducted and 36 were killed, double the number from 2007. In recent public opinion polls, Afghans put security in their top three concerns right after food. Without stabilizing the country, there can be no significant redevelopment effort.
Smeal feels that,
If the U.S. were to pull out of Afghanistan, the United States would be once again breaking our promise to the Afghan people, and the country would likely fall under Taliban control.
This statement is naive at best. Our promises to the Afghan people were never more than window dressing to make our actions more palatable both here and in Afghanistan. Our mission there has never been for the sake of Afghanis, it is to further our own perceived interests and to fight that ever elusive enemy called “terrorism”. Smeal also expresses gratitude for what she terms “substantial U.S. funding for women and girls programs in Afghanistan — $367 million to date.” Is she kidding? That is a mere drop in the war funding bucket. As Tom Hayden points out,
it’s still hard to believe that they (FMF) think Afghan women can be liberated by an invading, bombing, imprisoning American army. It’s hard to believe that Predators, drones, Special Forces, detention camps and foreign occupiers are solutions to Taliban fundamentalism. Even the US-supported Kabul government showed its real character this year by passing a law requiring women to obey their husbands in sexual matters, in violation of the country’s own constitution and international norms. A top United Nations official this month told a Kabul audience “that violence against women is not being challenged or condemned.” This was eight years following the Bonn Agreement which included human rights at its core. In northern areas under Western occupation, the UN report found that in 39 percent of rapes “that perpetrators were directly linked to power brokers who are, effectively, above the law and enjoy immunity from arrest as well as immunity from social condemnation.”
At the end of the day, militarism is not about upholding human rights, it is about asserting control and the cost of that is always the loss of life and liberty for those who have the misfortune to be in the line of fire. The U.S. is not waging war in Afghanistan for the benefit of Afghanis and their welfare is purely incidental to that mission. As FPN noted in April, the AP reported that President Obama has stated that,
(W)hile improving conditions in Afghanistan is a commendable goal, people need to remember that the primary reason that U.S. troops are fighting there is to protect Americans from terrorist attacks.
Our continued military presence will not benefit the Afghan people, only make their lives more precarious, and is doomed to failure as Sonali Kolhatkar makes clear.
The likelihood of American success in Afghanistan is at best dim and, at worst, heading inevitably toward a lose-lose situation. Given the impossibility of surgically identifying and killing a moving and elusive target, there are only two possible outcomes: killing a lot of civilians, or pushing the insurgency to the rest of the country, or both. After the Iraq debacle, are Americans ready for yet another unpopular occupation, protracted war and thousands of U.S. casualties?
However we do need to re-frame what is indeed a human rights disaster for women in Afghanistan and ask what is to be done. Hayden offers this,
Ending a military occupation through a negotiated settlement among countries in the region, and parties in Afghanistan, is the only way out of this latest adventure in The Long War. Making any future economic or diplomatic assistance contingent upon women’s rights to health care, child care, education and dignity should be among the terms for a US and NATO withdrawal. In all seriousness, top US officials in a future Kabul embassy could be feminists linked to Afghan women’s groups. Hillary Clinton knows how to be relentless if she chooses. The struggle will be long and bitter, won in civil society, not on battlefields. Even if all the Taliban are killed, Afghanistan will be a deeply patriarchal Muslim country where change will emerge from outside and inside pressures.
It is also important to note that women in the U.S. military are also grievously harmed. There is an epidemic of sexual assault and rape within the ranks which has been the subject of countless hearings and reports and recent hearings and reports also shed light on the difficulties being faced by women veterans. Those harms are a result of the culture of impunity that is a de facto part of military ethos and are not resolvable within the mindset that issues can be resolved by the usurpation of power. Moreover, they are intimately linked to the harms experienced by those that we fight against. We are naive to think that they can be addressed separately or as problems that can be resolved without addressing their root cause.
And finally, it needs to be said that while we prioritize our spending on military destruction, funding for services that protect women’s lives are woefully lacking. There is not funding for shelters in our own country or for fighting maternal mortality (which kills more than 500,000 every year), an entirely solvable problem that would require far less money than we spend saving ourselves from ‘terrorism’.
Smeal’s statement is damaging and unfortunate. It displays a woeful lack of understanding of American politics, militarism and global realities. For a major feminist organization not to understand the truly damaging impact that militarism has on women’s lives is unacceptable and does not represent the truly feminist thinking, nor should it be taken to speak for the feminist body politic.