The Gender Factor: A Missing Variable in Weak State Analysis

[Editor’s Note: This post was originally written as a response essay for DIP 735: Weak States & International Security at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce]

The study of weak and fragile states is a complex endeavor which involves the full employment of multidimensional and integrative concepts, explanations, and factors. States which fall into this category are best understood along a continuum of fragility, and it is important to recognize that the equation for weakness is unique for each state. Much of the literature seeks to understand why certain states express violence while others do not, and a variety of factors are presented as possible explanations for the variance in expression. A key element of this “violence equation” is often missing, though: gender factors. While it is by no means the sole predictor of state violence, gender provides a lens through which to examine the emergence of state violence. This paper seeks to explain how gender can act as both an independent variable and dependent variable in the equation for weak state violence, and the implications of such an analysis allow for a more holistic and nuanced view of the weak state.

Contextualizing Gender in Weak States

Gender is a social construct, and as such, it interacts with society in a way that permeates behavior from the domestic to the state level. Gender equality can greatly affect the ways in which a state and society treat its citizens, provide services, and interpret the government’s social contract. Much like poverty does not directly lead to the creation of citizen terrorists (Atzili 2010), gender relations must be taken within the context of the state’s functions and society and in combination with other components which might drive violence. Gender inequality contributes to patriarchal societies and the prevalence of gender-based violence (GBV); each of these correlates to higher incidents of violence within a state, and in these ways, gender acts as an independent variable within a weak state’s equation of violence. As such, the experiences of women in a society must be viewed as more than a private issue and instead as an important component of a state’s security (Confortini 2013).

It is also important to look beyond explanations of patriarchy and gender inequality and to view gender as a dependent variable. In areas where violence occurs, characteristics of weak states can actually contribute to increased expressions of gendered violence. This paper uses sexual violence in conflict (SVC) as a dependent variable, and it explores the ways in which the presence and prevalence of SVC inform understandings of weak state attributes, particularly ethnic fractionalization, young male populations, and combatant socialization. The view of gender as a dependent variable is underutilized in the literature, and yet it informs the discussion of why violence looks different – or does not appear – among weak states. Furthermore, the prevalence of SVC can be used to develop better policy prescriptions for weak and fragile states post-conflict.

Gender as an Independent Variable in Weak State Violence

The level of gender equality in a state is related to its use of violence: states with less gender inequality invoke violence less, both in interstate and intrastate conflicts (McDermott 2015; Hudson et al. 2008). The concept of gender as an independent variable in state violence is prominent throughout feminist security literature, and it is a perspective which must be considered in regards to why weak states are prone to violence and why there is variance in how this violence presents in conflict. Gender inequality contributes to patriarchy and GBV, and these increase the likelihood of violent reaction within and from a state due to norms and socialization.

Patriarchy. A society in which women are considered subordinate to men negatively affects the strength and capabilities of the state. The social practice of violent and exclusive treatment of women serves “as a template for broad classes of social behavior – specifically those that concern social differences.” As a result, patriarchy facilitates hierarchical systems based on discrimination and exclusion and promotes a socially acceptable level and use of violence. A state which is based on patriarchy has already coded those separate from the hegemonic male as different, and this is often reflected in patriarchal nationalism. This dominance-based nationalism is used as justification for state violence against threats to the status quo or existence; it even lends itself to the legitimization of authoritarian regimes. Patriarchal states are more likely to employ violence as a conflict resolution, just as is employed on the domestic level (Hudson et al. 2008).

The influence of patriarchal societies on violence is also evident in social groups, particularly clan-based societies. In these sub-national identities, patrilineal culture is pervasive, and male-bonded trust is the most important feature of societal continuity. Women are thus considered subordinate in order to maintain this status quo and promote male bonding (Hudson & den Boer 2015). Because women are beneath male authority and viewed as objects of the society, their existence and spaces are politicized and militarized, and women become the representative boundaries of the society which must be protected by in-group males and attacked by out-group males. This connection between patriarchal ethnic groups and violence is exemplified in the case of Yugoslavia where the female body was used both as a weapon in violent conflict and nationalist rallying point for the various warring ethnic factions (Buss 2009).

It is also important to note how patriarchy can contribute to chronic insecurity in less direct ways. In cultures where son preference is strong, female infanticide, sex-selective abortions, and general abuse and neglect of female children occurs at high levels and skewed sex ratios emerge. This not only negatively affects the economic potential of a state or region, but it also creates a demographic bulge of young male citizens (Hudson & den Boer 2015). As will be discussed later, this correlates with higher rates of violence in a state. Furthermore, patriarchal societies provide social rewards for gender-based discrimination and violence through religious and social norms. This instills a greater tendency toward violence in the male population at a young age and reinforces the notion of violence and domination as a reasonable means of conflict resolution (Hudson et al. 2008). Patriarchy contributes to the ways in which gender can act as an independent variable on state violence, particularly in regards to GBV.

Prevalence of GBV. The ways that female physical security is shaped can have effects on state violence. The prevalence of GBV in a society is influenced by gender equality and patriarchy, and it serves as an important social influence in individual and state behavior. As mentioned prior, the literature cannot dismiss the treatment of women as a private issue; in very real ways, GBV shapes male perceptions of conflict resolution, particularly when violence is the “default mode of conflict resolution” in the home (McDermott 2015). At the individual level, sons internalize this behavior through modeling from their fathers, and male participation in such behaviors is reinforced by patriarchal social systems. These males then bond in groups where dominance and power are central to their socialization and outward views; aggressive males tend to bond together through rituals which dehumanize nonmembers, as was modeled and reinforced prior. In such societies, males who have gone through this socialization are often in decision-making positions (at the state and rebel force level) and would naturally possess greater proclivity for militarization. Domestic violence also shapes structural violence, where cultures partake in exploitative divisions of labor, discrimination, and marginalization. Structural violence also socializes and politicizes “the other” and permits a culture of dominance and oppression (Hudson et al. 2008).

Gender as a Dependent Variable in State Violence

While it is important to understand the ways in which gender can act as an independent variable in state violence, using gender factors as dependent variables better conceptualizes the variance in state violence among weak states. For the purposes of this paper, sexual violence in conflict is used as the dependent variable; this allows for a better analysis of how weak state behavior is shaped by a unique combination of factors. SVC does not occur across all conflicts, and there is even variation of its use within conflict-ridden societies, much like other indicators of state violence. Furthermore, vacuums of power which emerge around conflict lead to issues such as lack of law enforcement and state services (Atzili 2010); SVC is an indicator of these failures. As such, gender provides a lens through which to examine factors contributing to state violence presented in the weak state literature.

Ethnic fractionalization. Social cleavages and fragmentation are frequent within weak states. Because this often occurs in areas where the government possesses a low degree of legitimacy and national identification, ethnic groups often define individual identity and hold great power (Atzili 2010). It is important to recognize that not all weak states which are ethnically fragmented become violent, likely because they are able to operate within existing or ad hoc social institutions (Posner 2005; Arias 2010). Furthermore, violence along ethnic lines is determined by cultural differences, nature of the conflict, and historical contexts, including colonial experiences (Posner 2005). However, without institutions which are able to discipline and contain social fragmentation, state weakness can perpetuate violent fractionalization, and social cleavages in general are correlated with higher rates of violence in a state (Reno 2010; Collier, et al. 2009).

The ways in which ethnic fragmentation contribute to state violence are exemplified in the prevalence of SVC. As previously mentioned, not all social cleavages are associated with conflict in weak states, but those with strong identity and internal mechanisms which supersede state function and nationalism seem particularly problematic. Clans are such examples, and patriarchy is a prevalent feature among them. Expanding off of the previous section, these male-bonded societies differentiate “the other” byway of dominance and violence, and there is great emphasis on male-bonded trust. This connection among male members is so strong that in-group males are considered more reliable for ensuring group maintenance, protections, and services than the government (Hudson & den Boer 2015). Furthermore, group members are united in their strong “psychology of defense” whereby support and violent response occur in the face of an existential threat (McDermott 2015). When group identity is threatened and the state is perceived to be of less help than in-group males, the patriarchal structure encourages the use of violence, coercion, and dominance against the enemy group (Hudson et al. 2008). As a result, cases of rape as genocide and as a weapon of war are prevalent. In these groups, women are viewed as the boundaries of their ethnic nation and are objects to attack. SVC as genocide or a weapon of war was frequent between the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda and among the various groups in the conflict in Yugoslavia (Buss 2009). In weak states, SVC is a useful tool employed by ethnic groups to demoralize a population, create unacceptance of victims within a group, and coerce populations to flee the region.

Ethnic fractionalization must not be overgeneralized in the equation of weak state violence, and this is reflected in the dependent variable of SVC. The makeup of the social fragmentation must be considered in addition to the context in which it is present. Much in the same way, SVC as genocide or a weapon of war is not present in all ethnic conflicts. The cases where it is present often mirror the necessary components of violent social fragmentation: sub-national identities, the inability of the state to provide for the group, and violent conflict resolutions, often found in clan-based patriarchal societies.

Young male population and combatant socialization. The proportion of a population which is young and male correlates to the level of state violence, and this can result in higher rates of SVC due to combatant socialization informed by patriarchy and hegemonic masculinity. A large male population increases the risk of violence in a state: as this population doubles, the risk of conflict increases from 4.6% to 19.7% (Collier, et al. 2009). This can occur for several reasons. Large male populations often grow alongside high rates of unemployment, which creates a surplus of labor in a state (Arias 2010). Because they cannot fully participate in their community, these young men tend to feel disconnected from their communities and become targets for recruit into a rebellion movement. In fact, rebellion almost exclusively pulls from this population because they are easy and cheap recruits (Reno 2010; Collier, et al. 2009). However, because these young men feel disconnected from their communities, they do not feel bound by social norms and acts of violence become harder to control (Reno 2010). Young male psychology favors group behavior and seeks status within groups; as aggressive males distant from their social groups join rebel forces or military units in weak states, violence involving the dehumanization of others, particularly women, becomes a bonding tool (McDermott 2015; Hudson, et al).

With young male populations and combatant socialization, SVC provides a particularly interesting view into how violence varies among weak states. Overall, the prevalence of sexual violence, particularly gang rape, increases in times of conflict, but only among certain perpetrators. For militarized groups, recruitment is a key determinant in the use and scale of SVC (in most cases, it is a practice rather than a tool of war). There is a high correlation between groups which recruit young males through extreme forms of violence, such as abduction and pressganging, and the use of SVC. Due to the nature of their recruitment, these forces suffer from low social cohesion and need combatant socialization which is quick and bonding. SVC, particularly gang rape, is used as a performance of bonding whereby the act serves to address status anxieties within the group, promote power, and foster feelings of victory and esteem. Because SVC comes at great risk to the perpetrator physically and psychologically, it also promotes loyalty among those who participate. The differences in recruitment and the effects on SVC were clear in the case of Sierra Leone: the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) relied on abduction for recruitment and was associated with the highest rates of SVC, while the Civilian Defense Forces (CDF) recruited through kinship and had significantly lower levels of SVC (Cohen 2013). The variance in SVC perpetration is indicative of other differences in expressions of violence in Sierra Leone: rates of murders of children to adults by RUF was 1 to 3.89, while CDF was 1 to 11.89 (Reno 2010). This exemplifies the ways in which SVC can serve as an effective lens to explore the ways in which weak state characteristics produce differing expressions of violence.


There are many attributes of weak states which combine in unique ways to affect states’ expressions of violence. The literature of fragile states offers many interesting and compelling explanations for why state violence occurs (or does not) and why it can look different for each state. This paper argues that gender is a factor which is missing in this analysis. By adding feminist security theory to the existing literature, gender is offered as both an independent and dependent variable of the weak state violence equation. As an independent variable, gender inequality perpetuates patriarchy and GBV which shape societal norms and conceptions of violence and its uses toward “the other” and in conflict resolution. By examining gender within the dependent variable of SVC prevalence, one is able to fully appreciate the many nuanced details which determine how a state expresses violence. It is important to note that gender alone cannot explain why state violence occurs and how it will be expressed, but it is a factor which must be considered within the context of the weak state.

Works Cited

Arias, Enrique Desmond. “Understanding Criminal Networks, Political Order, and Politics in Latin America.” Ungoverned Spaces. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2010.

Atzili, Boaz. “State Weakness and Vacuum of Power in Lebanon.” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 33(8) 2010, pp. 757-782.

Buss, Doris E. “Rethinking ‘Rape as a Weapon of War’”. Feminist Legal Studies, 17 (2009), pp. 145-163.

Cohen, Dara K. “Explaining Rape during Civil War: Cross-National Evidence (1980-2009).” American Political Science Review, 107(3), Aug 2013.

Collier, Paul, Anke Joeffler, and Dominic Rohner. “Beyond Greed and Grievance: Feasibility and Civil War.” Oxford Economic Papers, 61(1) 2009, pp. 1-27.

Confortini, Catia C. “Violence Against Women, Masculinities, and the Global Economy.” Global Governance, 19 (2013), pp. 327-331.

Hudson, Valerie and Andre den Boer. “When A Boy’s Life Is Worth More Than His Sister’s.” Foreign Policy. 30 July 2015.

Hudson, Valerie et al. “The Heart of the Matter: The Security of Women and the Security of States.” International Security, 33(3), 2008/9, pp. 7-45.

McDermott, Rose. “Sex and Death: Gender Differences in Aggression and Motivations for Violence.” International Organization, 69 (2015), pp. 753-775.

Posner, Daniel. “The Political Salience of Cultural Difference: Why Chewas and Tumbukas Are Allies in Zambia and Adversaries in Malawi.” American Political Science Review, 98(4) 2005, pp. 529-545.

Reno, William. “Persistent Insurgencies and Warlords: Who Is Nasty, Who Is Nice, and Why?” Ungoverned Spaces: Alternatives to State Authority in an Era of Softened Sovereignty. Ed. Anne L. Clunan and Harold A. Trinkunas. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2010.

The photo attached to the article was acquired through Creative Commons at Flickr via this link.

BurihanovNatalie Burikhanov is an M.A. Candidate at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce where she is studying Diplomacy and International Development. Her primary interest of study is women’s issues, particularly sexualized violence in conflict. She recently worked as a Policy Intern at Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs and as an Anti-Human Trafficking Advocate (Graduate Intern) at Kentucky Rescue & Restore.

She hopes to continue working with women’s advocacy upon completion of her degree. You can contact her at, check out her LinkedIn profile, or follow her on Twitter.


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  1. Very interesting read. Showed much research for information written. Very proud of you for all you have accomplished.

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