With the fall of the Berlin Wall, globalization, and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, security policy all over the world has changed. Meanwhile, climate change, worldwide famine, the struggle over resources, and the global financial and economic crisis have become potentially new threats to peace. They affect the living conditions of women and men – and are shaped by them – in different ways. The social group they belong to and the region they live in plays a major role. The dividing lines are, among others, between North and South, rich and poor, religions, ethnic groups, classes, and levels of education. The living conditions of a vast majority in the European Union differ enormously from those in most African countries, although in both cases there are winners and losers. Poverty and social inequality are growing on a global scale. Misery and impoverishment are far more dramatic in the countries of the South and East than in the West and North. According to a World Bank report of August 2008, one out of every four people in the world lives on less than $1.25 per day. Over 1.4 billion people thus “live in absolute poverty” as defined by the World Bank. Nearly a billion go hungry.
The absolute number of poor and the increasing social polarization on a global scale is a normative, or rather a human rights challenge. On the other hand, global poverty is increasingly being discussed in the context of political stability, peace, and security. How much inequality can the world “tolerate”? When and under what conditions does it turn into instability or violence?
These questions are being vigorously discussed in the context of UN reform, the Millennium Development Goals, and new security strategies. Controversy is raging over ways to overcome the economic crisis and global poverty. It would certainly be possible for developed countries to tackle the economic crisis, climate change, and the food crisis all at the same time using financial incentives for reconstruction. But institutions like the World Trade Organization (WTO) or the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are still biased – for them the ideal solution to overcoming poverty is unlimited growth.
Since the end of the Cold War the world has not become more peaceful. The conflict barometer, published by the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research, listed nine wars for the year 2008, including between Russia and Georgia, Turkey, Sudan (Darfur), Somalia, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. Overall, the institute counted 134 armed conflicts, most of them no longer wars between countries, but conflicts raging within them.
With the violent conflicts in Rwanda, Somalia, Liberia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which claimed millions of victims, the failure of statehood has become a central theme of security, peace, and development policy. In these fragile states the state’s monopoly on power has been broken and rivaling new and sometimes cross-border power groups are forming. Some are rebelling against autocratic rulers who could not provide for the basic needs of the population. Some are international criminal organizations that deal in weapons, raw materials, drugs and/or human beings. The protagonists spearheading the conflict on both sides are generally male and they deploy child soldiers of both genders in many of these “new wars.“ According to current estimates, 250,000 children and youths under the age of 18 are fighting in more than 50 armed groups, mostly in Africa. Almost one-third of them are girls.
The reasons for violent conflicts are numerous and vary according to region: They include the failure or collapse of the state, corruption of the ruling elites, religious and ethnic conflicts, secessionist movements, political realignments, poverty and misery, and disputes over natural resources. Political, geostrategic, and economic interests also play an important role, along with interference by the North. Thus al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban regime were in part a product of the deliberate promotion by the United States of bin Laden and his followers during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The colonial legacy of the 19th century and, in consequence, the arbitrarily drawn borders of African countries must also be considered. A number of factors collide in each conflict, triggering these violent processes. In the analysis of causes, however, one crucial factor is regularly being overlooked – the gender dynamic. It, as well as the different ways in which women and men shape them, remain to be investigated.
Violent conflicts often extend beyond regional borders, as witnessed by international terrorism and the reactions to it. For the West, the attacks of September 11, 2001, but also those of March 2004 in Madrid and July 2005 in London, marked the end of a perceived sense of security within one’s own country and aroused feelings of insecurity and being under threat. The repercussions have been far-reaching. Large segments of the population approved of military interventions and restrictions on human and civil rights. Ethnic, religious, and cultural differences have been radicalized and have, in many ways, become political instruments. Religious and political fundamentalism is on the rise in a number of regions; racism and policies of exclusion have become common in the North – often with grave consequences for women’s rights.