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Building Cultures of Peace

If we are to build cultures of peace we have to start talking about something that still makes many people uncomfortable: gender.

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The Economics of Domination and Partnership

The roles and relations of the two halves of humanity can no longer be considered “just a women’s issue” (though we’re half of humanity, that phrase again shows how we’ve been conditioned to devalue women and anything associated with women). In reality, gender roles and relations affect everything about a society from its institutions (for example, whether families are more democratic or authoritarian) to its guiding system of values.

Let me give you an example from economics. Most of us would never think economics has anything to do with gender. At most, we think this refers to the workplace gender discrimination we’re finally beginning to talk about. But actually it goes much, much deeper. Economics has huge systemic effects.

Have you ever wondered, for instance, why it is that so many politicians always find money for weapons, for wars, and for prisons, but when it comes to funding health care, child care, and other “soft” or caring activities, they have no money? Nor do they have money for keeping a clean and healthy natural environment—rather like the “women’s work” of keeping a clean and healthy home environment.

Underlying these seemingly irrational priorities is a gendered system of valuations we’ve inherited from earlier, more domination-oriented times. To meet the challenges we face, we must make this visible.

Neoliberalism is actually a regression to dominator economics: to a top-down economic system where trickle down economics is really a continuation of dominator traditions, where those on the bottom are socialized to content themselves with the scraps dropping from the opulent tables of those on top.

This is an ancient economics of domination, which transcends labels like capitalism and socialism. Indeed, the two large-scale applications of socialism, the USSR and China, also turned into domination systems, highly authoritarian and violent, with horrendous environmental problems, because the underlying social system did not shift from domination to partnership.

That’s not to say we should discard everything from capitalism and socialism. We need to retain and strengthen the partnership elements in both the market and government economies and leave the domination elements behind. But we need to go further to what I have called a “caring economics.”

Now, isn’t it interesting that when we put “caring” and “economics” in the same sentence, people tend to do a double take? We’ve been told that caring policies and practices may sound good, but they’re just not economically effective. In reality, study after study shows that investing in caring for people and nature is extremely effective—not only in human and environmental terms, but in purely financial terms.

Costa Rica Children, photo by Susan HardmanWhy Is Costa Rica Smiling?
How a focus on peace is helping this Central American country top the Happy Planet Index.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and Finland suffered from poverty and famine. Today, these nations are invariably in the highest ranks not only of United Nations Human Development Reports but of the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Competitiveness reports. This is largely due to the fact that their norm became a more caring economics, a more caring society.

These nations have government-supported childcare, universal healthcare, stipends to help families care for children, elder care with dignity, generous paid parental leave. In short, they economically support caring work in both the market and the household. As a result, they have very long life spans, very low poverty rates, very low crime rates, and a generally high standard of living for all. They are also in the forefront of moving toward sustainable energy and invest a larger proportion of their GDP in helping people in the developing world than other nations.

They are not ideal nations, but they have moved farther than most contemporary nations to the partnership side of the partnership-domination continuum. They have more democracy and equality in both the family and the state. They have been in the forefront of trying to leave behind traditions of violence inherent in domination systems. For example, they pioneered the first peace studies and the first laws prohibiting physical discipline of children in families. And, in contrast to domination systems that subordinate the female half of humanity to the male half, they have a much more equal partnership between women and men. For example, approximately 40 percent of their national legislators are female.

As the status of women rises, men no longer find it such a threat to their status, to their masculinity, to also embrace more caring practices and policies. These nations also have a strong movement to disentangle masculinity from its dominator equation with conquest and violence, including a strong movement for men to take responsibility for violence against women and children.

Between child-battering, wife-beating, sexual abuse of children, rape, bride burnings sexual mutilation of girls and women, so-called honor killings, and other horrors, the number of lives taken and blighted by intimate violence worldwide are much greater than those taken by armed conflict. And yet this violence is still largely invisible.

Our job is to make it visible. If we really want a more peaceful world, we can’t just tack that on to a system that idealizes violence as “masculine” and devalues caring and nonviolence as “feminine.”

Building Cultures of Equity and Peace

Let’s join together and move into that second phase of the peace movement: that  integrated phase that takes into account the whole of human relations, from intimate to international. Let us muster the spiritual courage to challenge traditions of domination and violence in our primary human relations – the formative relations between women and men and parents and children.

Let us work for systemic change, for the new norms that will enable a future where all children, both girls and boys, can realize their enormous human potentials for consciousness, creativity, and caring.


Riane EislerRiane Eisler adapted this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions, from the speech she gave while accepting the Distinguished Peace Leadership Award from the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. Dr. Eisler is a social scientist, attorney, and social activist best known as author of the international bestseller The Chalice and The Blade: Our History, Our Future and The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics. She is president of the Center for Partnership Studies and is included in the award-winning book Great Peacemakers, as one of 20 leaders for world peace, along with Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King. Her website is www.rianeeisler.com.

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