In her article, “On the Battlefield of Women’s Bodies: An Overview of the Harm of War to Women,” Hynes exposes the story of war that is often neglected, and that story involves the silent subjugation of women, both during and after active conflict. While it is more common for men to be engaged in physical battles on the frontlines of war, women are engaged in multiple struggles of their own, and these struggles are physical, psychological, and economic in nature. Hynes first addresses the physical effects of war on women.
On the most basic level, nine out of ten people who are killed in war are civilians (Hynes 431), and of these deaths, both men and women are equally likely to experience fatal injuries. Beyond this ultimate physical loss, however, which obviously cannot be recovered in any way, women are often forced to perform non-consensual sex acts for the entertainment of soldiers; rape camps and sex trafficking are also increasingly common, though not discussed widely in the media (Hynes 431). All of these circumstances cause women to lose control over the one object that they possess: their own bodies. Forced sex also results in the increased likelihood of physical illness, both acute and chronic, for which many women cannot seek treatment. These forms of loss and degradation are compounded, however, by the economic hardships for women in war-torn societies, which are typically impoverished even before a war begins (Hynes 431).
All of these factors, which Hynes attributes to the structural variables related to male aggression and the culture of war, “unleash a dreadful morbidity of the soul, psyche and livelihood rarely diagnosed in clinical incidence of morbidity and mortality and missing from conventional health statistics and surveillance” (Hynes 433). In regions where there are few, if any, resources to help women to recover this “morbidity of the soul” described so poignantly by Hynes can quite literally be fatal.
In his article, “Women, Poverty, and AIDS,” which discusses cases much closer to home, Farmer identifies the same kinds of problems with silence, shaming, and the unchecked use of abusive power perpetrated by men against women who have little, if any, agency and authority of their own. As Farmer points out, “women with AIDS were robbed of their voices long before HIV… further complicate[d] their lives” (6). He continues by exposing the mechanics of the dynamics of multiple oppression, explaining that “In settings of entrenched elitism, they [women with AIDS] have been poor. In settings of entrenched racism, they have been women of color. In settings of entrenched sexism, they have been… women” (Farmer 6). Like Hynes’s women of war, then, the women Farmer describes as a group, and then those whose individual cases he presents, lack a base of power from which they can work to protect themselves and their space and from which they can begin to recover from these forms of structural violence that have been perpetrated against them, rendering them invisible. It is curious, Farmer notes, that even ten years into the AIDS epidemic, the disease was still largely viewed as a disease of men, and specifically gay men, and even scientists dismissed the possibility that an AIDS epidemic would affect women significantly. Eerily reminiscent of Nazi eugenics and constructions of race, women’s anatomy, women’s bodies, have been viewed as having certain strengths or deficiencies—a “‘rugged vagina’” compared to a “‘vulnerable anus’” (Farmer 4)– that were used to dismiss the idea that AIDS could impact women on a massive scale. Farmer alludes how this argument also supported the perpetuation of heterosexist norms, providing further evidence that homosexual intercourse was deviant and deadly. The fundamental “mismatch between reality and representation” (Farmer 5) in the case of women with AIDS has served not only to silence an marginalize this population, but to also support social norms preferred by male heterosexuals.
In “Mail-Order Brides in a Global World,” Belleau explains how the “growing availability of information technology networks” (595) has had the curious effect of complicating all of these structural issues described by the other authors. Foreign women who agree to become mail-order brides are exploited, Belleau contends, because this particular trade feeds on “highly unrealistic and contradictory expectations about marital relationships” and “the crudest of stereotypes” (596). The prospective husband is looking for an exotic, “docile, submissive and subservient bride whom he can control and dominate” (Belleau 596) because he “hates the feminist movement” (596) and is suspicious of aggressive American women. The foreign or mail order bride, on the other hand, envisions a movie star husband, a caregiver and protector who will support her; in both cases, then, the man and the woman are suffering from false expectations that mail-order bride facilitators perpetuate in order to keep the industry lucrative. While these women may have some connection to the world beyond their own experience, they have few, if any, means to contest these stereotypes and the false dreams which are constructed around them. Thus, the women who act as mail order brides are essentially sold into slavery, lacking the resources to either verify or dispel their hopes and expectations. The mail-order brides often feel that even a disappointing marriage is preferable to living in a country where they are limited educationally without feminism as a strong force, socially, and economically; they perceive, albeit incorrectly, that the marriage will be a springboard to other opportunities that can alleviate their suffering. In addition to resulting in personal pain in most cases, the exportation of mail-order brides serves to perpetuate the structural deficiencies of the bride’s home country; as more women leave, there is less motivation to do anything meaningful to improve their conditions.
Finally, in Gamburd’s article, “Nurture for Sale: Sri Lankan Housemaids and the Work of Mothering,” this idea about domestic difficulty serving as an impetus for women to leave home in search of economic opportunities is expanded upon. Gamburd explains that the economics and social conditions in Sri Lanka compel many women to pursue employment abroad, typically in Saudi Arabia, where oil wealth has made it possible for Saudi families to hire domestic help at a higher wage than the domestics would receive at home, but lower than the going rate in Saudi Arabia (181). Gamburd’s astute analysis offers a panoramic view of the structural violence that is perpetrated against Sri Lankan domestics and the very notion of womanhood (179). When one in four women migrate from a small Sri Lankan village to work abroad, Gamburd writes, how can one expect that individual and collective identity, notions of motherhood, the traditional role of the breadwinner, the composition of the family, and the very economics of society will not change dramatically (179)? While it may appear that women choose to go abroad to work, it generally feels to them as if they have no choice at all; economic conditions at home are so poor that seeking work abroad is seen as the only viable alternative for the economic survival of the family, despite the other threats to family integrity and to the woman’s own integrity and honor (Gamburd 186). These women, who are sacrificing themselves for their families and their communities, suffer doubly, for they lose “a measure of honor [when they go abroad], a blemish which is offset but not erased by financial success” Gamburd 186).
The common theme in these four articles reflects the predominant concerns of women’s lives, regardless of their nationality. Women, who are multiply oppressed because of their gender, their socioeconomic status, and, in many cases, their race or ethnicity, lack the agency and authority, and even their very voices, to articulate their needs and advocate assertively for change in the structural conditions that perpetuate the cycles of violence from which they suffer. These forms of violence are not only physical, but are psychological, intellectual, occupational, social, and financial as well. One of the limitations of each of these articles, however, is that they lack prescriptions and possibilities for meaningful action that can lead to tangible change. How can women, when they are so oppressed, create a base of power for themselves? How is society at large responsible for altering the conditions of structural violence that perpetuate women’s oppressed positions around the world? These are two questions that are difficult to answer. In some cases, the answers are highly specific to a country or region, and in others there are, perhaps, universal prescriptions for change. These articles are important because they expose how widespread and diverse the forms of structural violence are; what is needed now is a blueprint for meaningful change.
Belleau, Marie-Claire. “Mail-Order Brides in a Global World.” Albany Law Review 67 (2003): 595-607.
Farmer, Paul. “Women, Poverty, and AIDS.” In Farmer, P., M. Collins, and J. Simmons (eds). Women, Poverty, and AIDS: Sex, Drugs, and Structural Violence(2nd ed.) New York:Common Courage Press, 2005.
Gamburd, Michele Ruth. “Nurture for Sale: Sri Lankan Housemaids and the Work of Mothering.” In Adams, Kathleen M. and Sara Dickey (eds). Home and Hegemony: Domestic Service and Identity Politics in South and Southeast Asia. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2000.
Hynes, H. Patricia. “On the battlefield of women’s bodies: An overview of the harm of war to women.” Women’s Studies International Forum 27 (2004): 431-445.