Women and Men, Peace and Security

EDITORIAL, 15 Jun 2009

#67 | Johan Galtung

European Commission Speech – Making the Difference: Strengthening the Capacities to Respond to Crises and Security Threats; Brussels, 03/May/09

Ladies and gentlemen,

My approach to this topic is based on 50 years experience with how women and men relate to peace and security issues; in formal and informal politics, in mediation and mediation training, in peace- keeping operations and peace-building, and in meetings like this one.

But let me first issue a warning against what I am going to say.  There are gender differences.  But they are not 100-0; 100% of women are like that, and 0% of men.  More like 75-25, or 67-33, or 60-40. Exceptions may overshadow the rules.   Moreover, women may be slipping from their position of comparative advantage.  And men may climb up to female levels of insight and practice; we are not lost by definition.  There are no iron laws here.  There is no essentialism.  There is some biology, however; strange if there were not.  But mostly socio-cultural contextuality, and with changing gendered interfaces with that context, the relation to peace and security will also change.

One more introductory remark.  The epoch-making UN SC Resolution 1325 on the horror costs of war paid by women as victims and the peace benefits from women as empowered actors was a late, but most welcome, gift to humankind; admirably enacted, like in this meeting by the EU.

So, here we go; exploring nine peace/security dimensions.

Holism vs. Specificity.  Women tend to be more holistic and contextual, taking more factors into account; men more specific, zooming in on the factors of their choice.  They love data about their pet factors, and feed on numbers where women feed on overviews.  Men tend to arrange their factors in linear sequences and go for linear agendas in thought, speech and action; women go more for spiraling agendas, returning to points in very complex landscapes.  Women see men as mechanistic, men see women as scatterbrains uttering bla-bla.

Dialectics vs. Final State. Women are used to contradictions and tensions, with a baby suckling, a child tucking at the skirt for attention, three casseroles overboiling, the fire coming to an end, a knock at the door, a nagging, egocentric husband, attention from an unwanted suitor–and handling all of that.  Disorder, chaos, entropy as the normal state of affairs, navigating waters whipped by storms from all corners.  Men have a wish for order, cosmos and energy emerging from, and protecting, the state of law and order, like a well greased bureaucracy with clear standard operating procedures for all, and for all situations.  A ceasefire looks orderly, and, consequently, is easily accepted as the end of the crisis, a final state.

Human Empathy vs. Metal, Things.  Observing Norwegian peacekeeping forces in Serbia-Beograd, with 30% women, women were clearly more interested in talking with Serbs, Croats and others to understand them better, and the men more interested in observing them, focused more on their binoculars, radar screens, armed vehicles, arms; metal, things. Closeness vs. distance.  High empathy vs. low empathy.  Crucial.

Compassion vs. Deduction.  This is Gilligan’s dimension(1) , here one among many: women derive political conclusions from compassion with others, to be helped, including across conflict borders, men more from deductions from abstract, general principles, like democracy, human rights, self-determination, to be monitored.  That compassion may extend particularly to other women in wars with sexualized violence as a part of the conquest, and more particularly to mothers from mothers and their offspring, knowing the impossible situation for adequate child care during a war.  Men get more trapped in them vs. us.

Nonviolence vs. Violence.  Above 90% of criminal and war violence is committed by men, making gender a major factor of war-peace. Added to socio-cultural division of labor women have more mono-aminooxidase, MAO, blocking hormones releasing violent aggression; men less.

But women also have more corpus callosum, connecting the emotions and verbal ability in the two brain-halves, making women better at verbalizing emotions.  Whereas MAO makes men more physically violent, the latter may predispose women for more verbal violence, for poisoned arrows carrying much emotional hurt.  Female verbal superiority makes “let’s sit down and talk it over” the equivalent of “let’s have a good boxing match”, given male physical superiority.  Many men cannot match female loquacity, and fear it will take very much time away from work. Marriages may become arenas for the dialectics of the two violencies.

 Dialogue vs. Debate.  A dialogue is a mutual search for something news, a debate is about winning, continuation of war by verbal means; a dialogue is questioning, a debate is dictating.  Women vs. men again.

Handling Conflicts vs. Managing Crises. Women see unacceptable goals and means in all, whereas men judge their side by good intentions and others by bad means. For women, violence means something underneath must be handled, for men it is a crisis to be managed by being strong. Women see their side as a part of the problem, not only the solution (in some, self-recrimination may go too far).  Men see their side as infallible, fueled by fear of looking vulnerable, even weak.

Peace vs. Security.  The two words do not stand for the same reality.  “Peace” is a situation where conflicts are transformed equitably and projects of equitable cooperation are built; security is a situation of low probability of violence to oneself, often fueled by paranoia.  Peace is a relation between parties. Security is something one party has; and the sum of two or more “securities” is not peace.  It follows that women more easily incline toward the former, like catering to the whole family, and men more toward the latter, catering mainly to egocentric, satisfied, undisturbed, secure, existence.

Diligence vs. Creativity.  Women more diligent, and men more creative?  So it seems, possibly because women feel more insecure.

Except for the last factor, this overview explains well what was so clear during the Cold War: men focused on arms and their numbers (usually faked anyhow), women on marches and contacts and human relations; men focused on what is wrong about them, women also on us.

But this comparative peace advantage held by women is fragile.

Thus, training in violence competence, be that in gangs, in liberation-resistance-revolution struggles, in regular state armies, breaking down old divisions of labor, makes women more like men.

So does simplifying home and family, outsourcing childcare and food-making, sharing house-work, make women more like men.

And so does having PhDs in subjects like international law and studies, political science and economics, as abstract, general systems with principles and deductions from them, again making women more like men.  No argument against women taking PhDs, but against constructions of the world where human beings hardly even exist, only systems(2).

These factors can be counteracted when women are aware of them. The same goes for possible deficits in creativity, so needed when a new social reality has to be built on the ashes of one that failed.

Very much of the peace existing in the world is carried on the shoulders of women.  That capacity should benefit humanity at all levels, micro-personal, meso-social, macro-states, mega-regions. Women should emerge from victimhood to leadership in mediation-negotiation, without becoming too self-righteous.  More important than negotiation tables would actually be myriads of women, and men, capable of holism, dialectics, empathy, compassion, nonviolence, dialogue, handling conflict, building peace, creatively.  Men alone around a negotiation table may be up to some mischief; women are needed.  NGO mediation open to women should precede state-region mediation closed to them.

This will not be easy.  Men will be jealous and afraid of losing power.  They should be praised and raised, and women are good at both.


(1)  Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1982).

(2)  Johan Galtung, 50 Years: 25 Intellectual Landscapes Explored, TRANSCEND University Press, 2008; www.transcend.org/tup.

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 15 Jun 2009.

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