Note: This is the first in a series of posts, the whole of which is an article by Martha Nussbaum. The article, entitled "Women’s Bodies: Violence, Security, Capabilities," appeared in the Journal of Human Development (Vol. 6, No. 2, July 2005). Comments are encouraged on parts or on the whole.
Women’s Bodies: Violence, Security, Capabilities
by Martha C. Nussbaum
Violence and the threat of violence
No woman in the world is secure against violence. Throughout the world, women’s bodies are vulnerable to a range of violent assaults that include domestic violence, rape within marriage, rape by acquaintances or dates, rape by strangers, rape in wars and communal conflicts, honor killing, trafficking and forced prostitution, child sexual abuse, female infanticide, female genital mutilation, and sex-selective abortion. Other practices that are not as obviously violent also contribute to the atmosphere of threat in which all women live the entirety of their lives: sexual harassment, stalking, threats of violence, deprivation of bodily liberty, the undernutrition of girls. The United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (1994) defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life.” Consequently, many apparently nonviolent practices count as forms of violence — and they should so count, because they have the same crippling effects on women’s capabilities as actual bodily violence.
While it is true that some women are more vulnerable to violence than others — differences of nation, region, culture, class, and circumstance do make a difference—the fact is that no woman who is rational is ever utterly free of the fear of such violence, whether she has ever experienced violence herself or not. This fear, itself a form of psychological violence, takes its toll on women’s lives. If our topic is ‘human security,’ we should begin by admitting that no woman, from pre-birth to advanced old age, has it.
There is a norm in feminist scholarship that the speaker or writer should begin by making clear her own relation to the topic, so that any possible biases might be evident. To follow this norm: I am a privileged woman, and one might think that I am protected about as well as any woman is protected. I had prosperous and loving parents who protected me, nourished me, and educated me for self-sufficiency, so that I do not have to earn a living in a physically degrading or dangerous occupation. I am pretty strong and fit physically; although not trained in self-defense, I can ward off some types of attack, and I have done so. I have also been hooked up, at various times, with three men of robust physical strength who would certainly be capable of warding off potential attackers. I live in a building with a 24-hour security guard. I live in a country that, at least in recent years, treats rape as a serious crime, campaigns against trafficking, and at least tries to do something about sexual harassment. So I view myself as a kind of a fortiori argument: if violence happens to me, it happens or can happen in spades to women who lack such
Nonetheless, like depressingly many women in my prosperous country, I have suffered quite a few forms of violence: one instance of date rape, one instance of violent and damaging sexual assault, and numerous instances of sexual harassment, one of which included an instance of attempted rape (see Nussbaum, 2003a). (Never did I file charges, since I knew, in those days, that the police would have laughed at me.) Those are the main things I have suffered, but the awareness of all that I have not suffered but might possibly suffer also takes its toll. One night in Finland, while working at World Institute for Development Economics Research (WIDER), I decided to go out walking in the woods at one a.m., because I had never been able to enjoy that freedom before, and, I reasoned, where but in Finland might it be possible to enjoy it? I had walked for only about 10 minutes in a lovely forest, when I concluded that the fear would not go away, and I would never be able to enjoy such a midnight stroll, not ever in my life. Many if not most women have worse tales to tell; what I want to stress is that even those who do not suffer from violence directly suffer from the threat of it, which greatly diminishes numerous valuable capabilities.
But now let me move to my theoretical claims. After laying out some sample data on violence against women, I will argue that this violence, and its ongoing threat, interferes with every major capability on my list. Next, I shall argue that it is the capabilities approach we need, if we are to describe the damage done by such violence in the most perspicuous way and make the most helpful recommendations for dealing with it. I shall argue, further, raising some perennial philosophical issues, that the capabilities approach will be helpful in this area only if it develops in certain specific ways, which I shall then attempt to describe. Finally, I will sketch some possible implementations of the capability approach in this area.