World

The World's 5 Worst Places For Women -- And How U.S. Policy Helped Make Them That Way

The plight of women in Afghanistan, Congo and other difficult places owes much to the machinations of Washington politicians.

When checking the nuclear ambitions of dictators or building “democracy” in Baghdad, politicians tend to justify foreign policy by touting America as an international “beacon” of freedom and equality. A new report on the world's five most dangerous countries for women is a predictable listing of places not yet reached by the light of America's democratic promise. Beneath the surface, though, many of the misfortunes that plague women in places like Afghanistan can be traced back to a cruel political consensus in Washington.

According to a report by Thomson Reuters Foundation,  the most dangerous countries for women are Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan, India and Somalia. The ranking, based on a poll of gender experts (with a statistically based methodology), measures major threats to the welfare of women and girls: “sexual violence; non-sexual violence; cultural or religious factors; discrimination and lack of access to resources; and trafficking.” Some of the more dismal points:

  • About nine in 10 Afghan women are illiterate.
  • In Somalia, where maternal mortality remains extraordinarily high, fewer than 10 percent of women give birth in a standard health facility.
  • Some 100 million people in India, mostly girls and women, fall victim to trafficking. Female infanticide and “feticide” (referring to sex-selective abortion) are also widespread.
  • One study estimated that 420,000 rapes occur over the course of a year in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
  • Women in Pakistan earn about 80 percent less than men, and 90 percent of them experience domestic violence in their lifetimes.

Siphoning these injustices into categories is a bit misleading: poverty, inadequate health care, sexual exploitation and violence are all links in a chain of gender oppression, roping women into a cycle of political and economic disempowerment.

And these problems share another connection, to Washington's foreign policy.

Since the invasion of Afghanistan, the human rights situation has in many ways actually deteriorated amid constant war, a weak and corrupt puppet government, and the ascendance of reactionary forces aligned with warlords and the Taliban. The collapse of accountability falls hard on women, as the breakdown of the education, health care and legal systems further degrade women's access to justice and social opportunity. And so, while the “liberation” of Afghan women has been held up as a chief goal of Western military intervention, following the Taliban's decline, the U.S. occupation has ushered in another wave of oppression.

Both Washington and Kabul have exposed the bankruptcy of promises of gender equity by ignoring and abetting the systematic abuse of women. It is appalling that young girls are attacked for attending school, but it's unconscionable for Western powers to wield the tragedy as a cudgel to defend imperial warfare.

Washington's military aid to Pakistan has been fueled by a similar approach toward “stabilizing” the region through war and “counter-terrorism.” Raining bombs on Pakistan won't relieve the country's deep poverty, now exacerbated by last year's catastrophic flooding. Nor do the Pentagon's drone attacks win hearts and minds when they kill and injure civilian families and stoke even more local resentment.

Though the U.S. has relatively friendly relations with India, rights advocates have called for both governments to end "war on terror" crackdowns that lead to human rights abuses. The U.S. has encouraged political impunity by fostering the militarization of India. Meanwhile Western-style globalization has driven neoliberal rural development policies that erode public resources and disenfranchise women. The structural violence embedded in this type of “modernization” is at odds with even Washington's own aid programs for Indian women's health and civil rights.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the injustices women endure daily stem from years of regional and civil conflict. But the rape and carnage also represent the fallout of controversial U.S. policies, which have long been tied to the arming of military regimes and patterns of socioeconomic instability that kill democratic development.

Despite some reform measures to combat sexual crimes, the brutalization of women continues, abetted by twisted U.S. posturing. While Washington has poured aid into the D.R.C., its political machinations in the region have failed to comprehensively address military involvement by neighboring Rwanda and Uganda. Activists have called on the U.S. to ramp up support for peacekeeping and civil society institutions, international diplomatic efforts, and the inquiry of the International Criminal Court. Michael Poffenberger, executive director of Resolve, criticized the Obama administration's position on the Lord's Resistance Army:

"Congress gave the Obama administration an unprecedented mandate to end LRA atrocities and help affected communities recover... The administration has improved some of its efforts, but, by and large, has failed to strengthen civilian protection or apprehend the LRA's top leaders."

Similarly warped U.S. policies toward Somalia, as well as skewed Western media coverage, have fixated on terrorism and piracy, but left issues of women's rights in the shadows. Following a long, chaotic legacy of failed foreign interventionism, the U.S. and the international community have lagged in launching an investigation into possible war crimes in Mogadishu. Fighting between insurgents and government and “peacekeeping” forces,according to Human Rights Watch, has shattered communities, not just through civilian killings but the coerced use of child soldiers.

From more privileged corners of the globe, we're tempted to respond to reports about all the forsaken women out there by sadly shaking our heads at those intractable, faraway crises. But these women are closer to us than we think. And hope for them begins with justice here at home, by demanding that our government take responsibility for its complicity in making the world unsafe for women everywhere.

Michelle Chen has written for the South China Morning Post, Clamor, INTHEFRAY.COM and her own zine, cain.