As the year comes to a close and the nation prepares for the inevitable ascension of Trump as our president, a foreign policy concern will be the extent to which he focuses on women’s rights across the globe. While they may appear unrelated on the surface, research has identified a number of significant ways that the rights of women within nations are intricately linked to other critical cultural dimensions, such as economic stability, democratic values, susceptibility to instability and violence, and of course more generally a focus on human rights.

It isn’t coincidental that one of the greatest terrorist threats to the world—ISIS—is marked by a brutal campaign against women in all of the territories it has taken over in the Middle East. Indeed, as identified in a Foreign Policy article:

If there has been one common thread shared by the extremist movements that have captured the world’s attention in the last year [2015], from northern Nigeria to northern Iraq, Syria to Somalia, and Myanmar to Pakistan, it is this: In each and every instance, the advance of extremist groups has been coupled with vicious attacks on women and girls’ rights (Mlambo & Coomaraswamy, 2015, para 1).

Similarly, in an Op-Ed piece this week for The New York Times, researchers Hudson and Kay Cohen (2016)  reflect on the pivotal role women’s rights should play with a foreign policy position focusing on national security in an article aptly entitled, “Women Are a National Security Issue”. In addition to their point that women’s rights are directly attached to national security, they specifically identify the ways in which gender equality—or in the case of nations in crises across the globe, inequality—are significant barometers that also predict other forms of oppression and violence within societies.

There are a lot of variables that converge in this arena. Poverty is also strongly linked to gender—as 70% of the world’s poor are women (e.g. Lefton, 2013), and poverty or relative deprivation in and of itself can be a cultural dimension within societies raising vulnerabilities for instability and violence. Indeed, “over a decade’s worth of research shows that women’s advancement is critical to stability and to reducing political violence. Countries where women are empowered are vastly more secure, whether the issue is food security, countering violent extremism or resolving disputes with other nations peacefully” (Hudson & Kay Cohen, 2016, para 8).

In fact, there is a growing body of research identifying significant links between gender inequality and terrorism. The majority of perpetrators of violence—be it warfare, terrorism, genocide, or somewhere in between where the lines blur—are male. Moreover, the values associated with hyper-masculinity that promote violence oftentimes also converge with the same values that undermine women’s rights and promote inequality between the sexes.

Take, for instance, a cross national assessment that studied nearly 60 countries over nearly a decade and determined that, “actual outcomes of gender equality have a significant and consistently negative impact on terrorism” (Aneela, 2015, Abstract). Interestingly, the research further unveiled that women’s participation in politics, access to higher education and jobs were more effective policies curbing violence and terrorism than merely cultural support for such values.

In the aftermath of the genocide in 1994, Rwanda serves as a great case study in how the advancement and empowerment of women helped to significantly repair the culture after one of the worst historical atrocities ever. Given that the majority of the perpetrators of the genocide were male, in its aftermath, the overcrowded prisons, number of perpetrators fleeing, and a host of other issues led to the advancement of women in significant roles within the society, including politics. Not only did it become the first country to have a female majority in parliament in 2008, but Rwandan women have been credited with playing a critical role in helping their nation heal and thrive economically since the genocide (e.g. Hunt & Heaton, 2014). In fact, Rwanda today remains one of the more stable and economically thriving countries in Africa.

Similarly, Hudson & Kay Cohen (2016) have identified the pivotal role women have played in conflict resolution and peacebuilding. For instance, they identify, “A study of the landmark United Nations resolution on women, peace, and security found that peace agreements were significantly more durable when women took part in its negotiations” (Hudson & Kay Cohen, 2016, para 13).

The Trump transition team recently asked the State Department for information regarding programs and jobs that focus on advancing gender equality. While the request was interpreted as ominous by many, and speculation abounded regarding the intent of such a request, here is hoping that there is at least one person in the Trump administration that is privy to the research and has a handle on the pivotal role advancement of gender equality has in combatting terrorism and extremism across the globe. Unfortunately—and perhaps catastrophically for our future foreign policy—Trump himself does not have a stellar record regarding his own relationship with women and he promotes a particular type of hyper-masculinity that generally denigrates and objectifies them, suggesting that he will dismiss or marginalize the pivotal role gender equality can play in combating violence and extremism. 

Copyright Azadeh Aalai 2016


Aneela, S. (2015). Green Houses for Terrorism: Measuring the impact of Gender Equality Attitudes and Outcomes as Deterrents of Terrorism. International Journal of Comparative & Applied Criminal Justice, 39, 281-306.

Hudson, V.M, & Kay Cogen, D. (2016, December 26). Women are a national security issue. The New York Times: OP-ED. Print edition.

Hunt, S., & Heaton, L. (2014, April 4). Women in post-genocide Rwanda have helped heal their country. National Geographic. Retrieved on December 26, 2016 from:

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