Women’s Bodies: Violence, Security, Capabilities - Part III
Note: This is the third 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.
Violence and women’s capabilities
Let us now consider the impact of these varied forms of violence, and the threat of them, on women’s capabilities. Since I have defended a particular list of capabilities as the basis for an account of fundamental human entitlements or rights that should, I argue, be adopted in the constitutions of all nations (Nussbaum, 2000, pp. 78–80), let us look at what violence does to the items on the list. Life is easy enough: many women are murdered in the course of sexual violence. In wartime and communal conflict this happens in large numbers. It has been estimated, for example, that about one-half of the 2000 Muslims murdered in Gujarat, India, were women who were raped and tortured, then set on fire (Nussbaum, 2004a). Similar things have happened recently on a large scale in many nations, including Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, and Columbia. Women also lose their lives through violence at the hands of spouses or partners: in the United States in 2000, 1247 women were killed by an intimate partner (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1993–2001). The transmission of HIV during intercourse with a partner, often without full disclosure and consent, is another form of lethal violence, extremely widespread in Africa. Trafficking and forced prostitution frequently lead to death, often through HIV/AIDS. And of course, sex-selective abortion and infanticide, together with the undernutrition of girls, are major causes of female death around the world. Honor killings and killings in connection with dowry are also still in some places a depressing reality.
Moving from life to health, we can mention these same forms of violence, which have a tremendous impact on health even when they are not lethal. Rape, as is well known, takes a tremendous toll on the whole subsequent course of a woman’s physical and emotional health — even when the woman herself is not blamed for the rape and receives all the support a good health-care system can give — as is usually not the case, of course. Far more common, even now, is the case where the woman either conceals the rape or is made to feel a crushing burden of guilt and selfblame if she comes forward. Child sexual abuse mars the adult health of a woman, both physical and psychological, in ways that are only beginning to be adequately documented. To see the devastating impact of not fully informed or consensual marital intercourse on health, we need only consider the huge proportion of women among people living with HIV/ AIDS. Domestic violence, depressingly common in every country, takes its own toll. The lives of young sex workers are short and miserable. Female genital mutilation is often ruinous to reproductive health (see World Health Organization, 2002).
The capability of bodily integrity is so directly involved here that there would seem little point in further detail. But in my version it is worth mentioning that bodily integrity includes “being able to move freely from place to place”, and that almost no woman really has this capability to the same extent that men have it, as my Finland story illustrates. Here the persistent threat of violence acts, as surely as the reality of violence, to diminish human capabilities. Bodily integrity also requires “having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction”; here my view echoes the conclusion of the Cairo Social Summit of 1995, that “all human beings have the right to a safe and satisfying sex life.” Many of the forms of sexual violence annul this capability.
As for senses, imagination, and thought, we could spend volumes describing the ways in which sexual violence and the fear of it cripple imagination, thought, and the enjoyment of the senses, as well as hindering access to education, to the freedom of speech, and to artistic creation, all parts of this capability in my formulation. The threat of bodily violence is a way in which women have for centuries been silenced, prevented from using their thought and imagination to stake out a place in the world. Speaking critically of Carol Gilligan’s concept of the ‘different voice’ of women, Catharine MacKinnon once wrote “Take your foot off our necks, then you will hear in what tongue women speak” (1987, p. 45).
I have spoken of emotions from the start of this lecture, but there is more to be said. First, it is crucial to take the full measure of the fear that cripples female lives. “Not having one’s emotional development blighted by fear and anxiety”, I wrote on the list (Nussbaum, 2000, p. 79), and I was thinking of a song I heard a women’s collective sing in Andhra Pradesh, which began ‘In every house there is fear. Let’s do away with this fear. Let’s build a woman’s organization’. To that constructive recommendation I shall later turn. But I want to add to these remarks about fear the crucial importance of anger as a constructive force in women’s lives. Frequently, one of the worst damages violence does to women is to enlist them as its accomplices. Instead of anger and rebellion, women feel guilt and fatalism. One of the key roles of the women’s movement is often to engender constructive anger.
As for practical reason: a woman who is used violently, or who fears violence, will not be very good at “form[ing] a conception of the good and engag[ing] in critical reflection about the planning of one’s life” (Nussbaum, 2000, p. 79). Even to the extent that she does so, she will have to think about how to get protection. A shopkeeper who has to pay the mob for protection is not exactly free to run his business as he wants. Women in most of the world, most of the time, are like that shopkeeper: they have to pay the great organized syndicate of men for protection, meaning granting sexual favors, doing domestic and child-rearing labor, in order to have a strong male body there to keep them safe from marauders (and possibly not so safe from the man himself). Even when the police try hard to protect women, as often they do not, it is still quite reassuring to think that one is accompanied by someone who can beat up an assailant. But it would be more reassuring still, and more free, not to have to rely on this protection, which is sometimes given without a price, but not always.
The affiliations that women are able to form are obviously limited by the ubiquitous threat of violence. In the family, actual violence deforms marital love and/or the relationship of female children to their parents and their surrounding world. The threat of such violence skews affiliations in many ways, large and small. In the larger society, violence and the threat of violence affects many women’s ability to participate actively in many forms of social and political relationship, to speak in public, to be recognized as dignified beings whose worth is equal to that of others. Sexual harassment, for example, has been recognized under US law as a crime of sex discrimination, involving unequal power relations. In other nations, for example India and Japan, the crime of sexual harassment has been understood as conceptually connected to the ideas of human dignity and equality. India has also understood rape as a violation of the fundamental right to a life with human dignity, citing both its own Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (see Chairman, Railway Board v. Mrs. Chandrima Das, AIR 2000 S. Ct. 988).
Violence and the threat of violence, by affecting mobility and independence, obviously affect women’s ability to have a meaningful relationship to the world of nature. The also, importantly, affects a woman’s ability to enjoy leisure, laughter, and play. Although this capability, number nine on my list (Nussbaum, 2000, p. 79), might be thought frivolous, there is nothing sadder than to see the removal of laughter from the eyes of a girl or woman, through repeated sexual or physical abuse, or through persistent fear.
Finally, control over environment (Nussbaum, 2000, p. 80): violence and the threat of violence greatly influence a woman’s ability to participate in politics, to seek employment and to enjoy a rewarding work life, and to control both land and movable property. In many nations of the world, women are not allowed by law to exercise these some of these functions without a male guardian, and this state of affairs is maintained by an ongoing threat of violence. Even where women enjoy legal equality, threats of violence from their relatives, sexual harassment, and actual violence often impede them from effective participation.
In short, there would seem to be no major area relevant to a woman’s freedom to realize her human potential that is not affected by violence and the threat of violence.
I have focused on the capabilities of women who are victims of violence, or fear that they may be. But there is another aspect to the problem: the affect of lethal violence against women on the capabilities of males, especially low-status males, in societies where infanticide, sexselective abortion, and other lethal techniques have created a significant sex imbalance. In their recent book, Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia’s Surplus Male Population, Valerie Hudson and Andrew den Boer argue that such sex imbalances imperil domestic and international security by creating rootless low-status adult males, called ‘bare branches’ in China, who lack stable social bonds and can easily be recruited for the cause of violence. Although this issue is not my focus, it is one that is highly relevant to our overall theme of ‘capabilities and security’ (Hudson and den Boer, 2004).