Threats to women’s security are felt at every level of government and in every nation. According to the UN, one in three women worldwide will experience some form of physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime—in some countries the number is as high as seven in ten. More than 700 million women worldwide were married as children, 250 million of those before the age of fifteen. These are just some of the alarming realities that highlight the threat to women worldwide. The effects of these conditions are far reaching, lasting generations and undermining not only the lives of women but the security of the nations they live in.
For nearly fifteen years, researchers have sought to highlight the effects of women’s security issues through the WomanStats Project helmed by Dr. Valerie Hudson, professor and George H. W. Bush Chair at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. Because the fate of nations is integrally tied to the status of women in society, the WomanStats Project has the potential to profoundly affect every society’s understanding of itself and the most important determinants of national and international security and its current and future transformation.
“We are trying to make visible and demonstrable the link between women’s security and national security,” said Hudson. “You can’t legislate on the basis of anecdotes. You can’t make policy on the basis of stories people are telling. What you need is data and some statistical analysis to show that countries that make efforts on behalf of women see those efforts repaid in greater stability and security for their nation. And that’s been our niche—to provide an evidentiary base for policy action.”
WomanStats began in 2001 by Hudson and Dr. Chad Emmett, a geography professor at Brigham Young University. The project has grown in the past several years to include more than a dozen researchers around the world, including in the UK, Turkey, Germany, and Columbia. The database began with only 27 variables using Excel; and now, having exceeded the limits of Excel in 2007, the database—now online—contains more than 180,000 data points covering more than 350 variables and 176 countries.
The work of Dr. Hudson and the WomanStats project has caught the attention of the international security community. Hudson’s research has been vetted at the United Nations, the US Department of Defense, the CIA, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Hudson has also presented her research at USAID, the US State Department, UN Women, and the Department of Foreign Assistance and Trade in Australia.
In addition to scholars and government officials, Hudson’s work has gained traction among the broader public as well. In a recent New York Times interview, Gloria Steinem named Sex and World Peace as the book she would require the president of the United States to read if she could only choose one book. Hudson’s work has also been covered in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Financial Times, Washington Post, BBC, CNN, and numerous other outlets.
While her work has helped raise global awareness of the links between women’s security and national security, Hudson says increased awareness is simply the first step.
“Without awareness, there can’t be policies; and policies don’t matter if they’re not enforced,” said Hudson. “Not that any policy by itself will ever make a difference. For example, India has laws on the books banning dowries, banning selective abortions; but these things are still extremely prevalent in the society. Whatever is top down has to be matched by bottom up changing of norms, changing of values, changing of priorities. And I hope to be a part of that conversation.”
Having gained the attention of prominent thinkers in the international community, Hudson’s work has had an influence on policy. WomanStats data figured significantly in a recent Supreme Court of British Columbia case, which upheld Canada’s ban on polygamy. Hudson says she believes the work of WomanStats has also made an impact on the larger discussion around the issue of women’s empowerment.
“In terms of whether there are people who want our data, who want our analysis— yes, absolutely,” said Hudson. “Have our publications made a difference? I think they have considering the sales of the books, the downloads of articles, and the awards the books have received.”
While there has been some progress, there is still much work to do.
“I’ve definitely got a wish list,” said Hudson. “Child marriage must be ended. Child marriage mires generations in poverty, ill health, and ignorance. Polygamy effectively does the same. You see very poor outcomes for children of polygamous households in places where polygamy is prevalent, such as Africa and the Sinai.”
In combatting threats to women’s security, there is always more work to do. But with the help of the data provided by Dr. Hudson and the researchers at WomanStats, the international community can begin to make more effective positive inroads on an issue too serious to be ignored.