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Norms and Nonviolence

by Jaclyn Donahue

June 2018

Jaclyn Donahue
Citizens in dire circumstances often engage in opposition and resistance against their governments. But what makes such opposition movements violent or nonviolent? Leadership, economic and political conditions, demographics, protections of freedoms, to name a few, are often discussed and debated in what turns a conflict violent or not. A recent study examines how the level of gender equality in a country also impacts the onset of nonviolent or armed opposition movements.

Drawing on research which finds that gender inequality is associated with armed intrastate conflict, the author argues the corollary point, that a society which values norms more supportive of gender equality will also be more likely to support nonviolent strategies. Thus, gender norms impact conflict norms. In a gender equal society, both women and men may have the opportunity to join a movement. Since nonviolent campaigns are more dependent on mass mobilization than armed campaigns for success, an opposition movement in a more gender equal society can potentially mobilize both women and men in its efforts. As this makes mass mobilization more likely, and gender equality encourages people to resolve conflict nonviolently, the opposition may be more likely to engage in nonviolent strategies.

The author finds support for the argument by analyzing the effect of gender equality on 6,954 observations of ‘conflict onset’ from 1961 to 2006, using the fertility rate and female-to-male primary education enrolment ratio as indicators. With increased gender equality, the onset of nonviolent conflict is more likely than no conflict onset or armed conflict onset (over 25 battle-related deaths). These findings hold when nonviolent conflict onset is compared to war onset (over 1,000 battle-related deaths) as well as when other indicators of gender equality, such as percentage of women comprising the labor force, are used.

But how do we change societal gender norms in the first place? While it is a responsibility of practitioners, policymakers, and citizens alike, this study serves as a reminder that gender sensitivity and policies and practices that support gender equality can do much in making strides toward a more peaceful society.

Jaclyn Donahue is a Program Manager at the Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity (AC4) at the Earth Institute, Columbia University, where she is responsible for the organization, implementation, and promotion of the Sustainable Peace Project. She is also a member of the Research Workgroup at MD-ICCCR and works closely with her MD-ICCCR colleagues on joint events, conferences, and projects which engage the peace and conflict community at Columbia University. She is a researcher and international development practitioner, and has worked with teams at international non-government organizations and at universities on issues of gender, sustainable development, and conflict transformation. She earned a Master’s degree from the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies.



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