Militarism and Reproductive Freedom

Lately, it seems whenever we need a reminder about why it is the U.S. should budget more national funds for the military, or take aggressive action in another small poverty-stricken country, the battle cry of equal rights for women is sounded by the most unlikely people.

When U.S. soldiers invaded Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 and unseated the Taliban, they were hailed as the liberators of Afghani women. Bush has repeatedly referred to women’s rights in Afghanistan and Palestine as a positive outcome of U.S. intervention in those areas as well as in Iraq. If we are to believe what we hear, militarism is the true herald of feminism. But don’t let the talking heads fool you. Upon closer examination it is clear that tanks and guns are doing more damage to women than liberating them. Here are ten reasons why:

1. Military toxins damage the environment and reproductive health.

Militaries are among the worst polluters on the planet. Not only does war degrade or destroy local environments, but military bases and weapons facilities contaminate the air, soil, and water with deadly toxins. According to geographer Joni Seager, “Anywhere in the world, a military presence is virtually the single most reliable predictor of environmental damage.”

Military pollution has many harmful and long-lasting effects on reproductive health. In Vietnam, the herbicide Agent Orange sprayed by the U.S. military is responsible for ongoing high rates of birth defects, miscarriages and reproductive cancers. In both the U.S. and Russia, releases of radioactive materials from nuclear weapons production and testing are associated with sterility, cancer and genetic abnormalities.

Military pollution is usually shrouded in secrecy. In Memphis, TN, a military depot dumped chemical weapons in the midst of a black residential community without informing people of the health dangers. Today, women there report a high incidence of miscarriage, birth defects, kidney diseases and cancer.

2. Army bases increase prostitution.

Military bases are notorious for their contribution to prostitution, child prostitution, and the spread of HIV/AIDS. In countries where prostitution is illegal, women are counted as “special job workers” and are categorically denied protection against abuse both by their customer and their boss.

At the U.S. Udon Air Force Base in Thailand, the number of “special job workers” increased from 1246 in 1966 to 6234 in 1972 during the Vietnam War. In 1991, a U.S. Navy convoy returning from the Gulf War with seven thousand soldiers made a stop at the Thai beach resort town of Pattaya. The men aboard were prepped on how to use a condom and the convoy was greeted with banners that proclaimed, “Welcome U.S. navy to the Red Parrot Sexy Life Show.”

Military base prostitution has led to the devastating spread of HIV among prostitutes. Today, sex workers are still blamed for the spread of HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infections while little or no attention is given to the military’s role.

3. Militarism increases violence against women.

In times of war, military-sponsored rape becomes commonplace. Rape is frequently used as a tool to further ‘ethnic cleansing.’ In Bosnia-Herzegovina, an estimated 20,000 women and girls were raped by the Serbian military in the early 1990’s. The rapes were committed to terrorize the population and eliminate Muslims from the region by impregnating women and forcing them to bear Serbian children.

The climate of militarism also easily gives way to domestic violence. In the summer of 2002, four wives of U.S. military officers, all stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, were killed by their husbands. Three of the four officers had recently returned to the country after being deployed to Afghanistan as special operations soldiers. It is suspected that these women were victims of domestic violence long before their murder, but could not or did not choose to obtain help.

This is not surprising given Cynthia Enloe’s observation that, during times of war, “Soldiers’ girlfriends and wives…[have] been persuaded that they are ‘good citizens’ if they keep silent about problems in their relationships.”

4. Militarism cuts funding from social services.

War is expensive and must be funded at the cost of health care, education, and social security. In February 2002, President Bush proposed a national budget for FY 2003 that would raise defense spending by nearly 13%, the greatest increase since the Reagan Administration’s Cold War era budget. Bush’s proposed defense budget would reach $451 billion by 2007, while funding to social services would be sacrificed in order to support this increase in military spending.

The Bush budget relies heavily on savings from Medicaid and CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program), as well as cuts in Social Security. Budget cuts such as these put safe and accessible healthcare for low income women and older women in severe danger.

5. Militarism and military occupation restrict freedom of movement.

Restrictions on freedom of movement during wartime include curfews, roadblocks, checkpoints, and closure of geographical areas. These restrictions are enforced by the military, often with the use of force. They have a devastating effect on women, barring their access to food, work, and medical attention. The right to move freely is particularly critical for sick, injured, and pregnant women.

The Israeli human rights organization, B’Tselem, has documented 35 cases of death since 2000 due to restriction of movement imposed by the Israeli military. Eighteen of those have been women and girls. Eight have been infants that died because their mothers were detained at checkpoints while in labor.

6. Militarism increases racism and anti-immigrant activity.

It is no secret that militarism fosters racial prejudice in the name of national security. From Japanese-American internment camps during World War II to the current INS detention of Middle Eastern men, war reinforces racial stereotypes and discrimination. Today, racial profiling of Arab-American, Muslim, and South Asian people is defended as necessary for homeland security. In the wake of September 11, national anti-immigrant groups strengthened their activism to severely restrict immigration into the United States.

Organizations such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform, Negative Population Growth, and the Carrying Capacity Network blamed immigration for the attacks on the World Trade Center, using fear-based tactics to play upon the national panic. The sentiments of these organizations have helped lead to programs, public policy, or legislation that target women of color and immigrant women for population control.

Population control has often taken the form of involuntary sterilizations, welfare family caps, and/or risky long-term contraceptives. Anti-immigration attitudes associated with militarism pose huge threats and challenges to immigrant women, particularly those seeking asylum or those fleeing domestic violence. According to Amnesty International, women seeking asylum in the U.S. (some of whom are pregnant) have reported being detained without adequate food or medical care and undergoing strip searches, as well as physical, verbal, and sexual assault.

7. Militarism silences women.

During war, the first voices to be eliminated from the public sphere are those belonging to women. According to a study conducted by Fairness and Accuracy in Media, in the month following September 11, women were outnumbered by 10 to 1 on op-ed pages of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and USA Today. Similarly, while Bush’s 90% approval rate was consistently hailed, a poll finding that 48% of women supported limited or no military action was severely under-reported.

8. The military restricts soldiers’ right to abortion.

Women in the U.S. military are unconstitutionally denied their right to choose abortion if they are faced with an unplanned pregnancy. Women serving in the armed forces are barred from obtaining an abortion on a military base, even if they are able to pay for the procedure with their own money.

In June 2002, the Senate voted 52-40 to lift this ban. However, the House of Representatives opposes this measure, and prevented it from being included in the FY 2003 National Defense Authorization Act. As a result, women who are stationed in countries where abortion is illegal or inaccessible are still forced to carry their pregnancy to term whether or not they want to do so.

9. Militarism encourages a climate hostile to choice.

Militarism shifts the nation’s priorities toward increased support for military and defense programs. This undercuts issues like gender equity and reproductive choice, thus discouraging citizens from considering such social concerns when voting. Candidates with the staunchest support for war are usually the most adamantly opposed to reproductive freedom; hence, anti-choice politicians win wartime elections and continually draft and introduce anti-choice legislation.

Under the Bush Administration and the Republican-controlled House, several anti-choice, anti-child initiatives have passed in the House including the Child Custody Protection Act, the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act, and the Unborn Victims of Violence Act (for more information on this legislation visit www.crlp.org.) President Bush has also consistently supported judges who are opposed to reproductive freedom.

10. War kills people.

It is impossible to deny that war kills innocent people. Civilian casualties occur, no matter how “smart” the bombs or how much peanut butter is dropped from the sky. In Afghanistan, among other things, the U.S. bombed a Red Cross building, a U.N. building, and a wedding. The Gulf War, though hailed as a war with so few casualties that the first Bush Administration described it as “surgical,” resulted in the destruction of all Iraqi irrigation systems, 52 health centers, 28 hospitals, 56 mosques, and over 600 schools.

Due to the extensive damage to water and sewer systems, more than 250,000 people (most of them children under the age of five) died within a few months. Even after the Gulf War, the U.S. led the United Nations in imposing sanctions on Iraq. The International Action Center estimates that, as a result, 1.5 million Iraqi people have died, over half of them children under the age of five.

Why, one might ask, is this amount of death and destruction considered “very clean” and continually justified? Furthermore, why are these atrocities committed by U.S. leaders who claim to be “pro-life”?

Prepared by the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College.


1. Joni Seager, “Patriarchal Vandalism: Militaries and the Environment,” in Jael Silliman and Ynestra King, eds., Dangerous Intersections, Boston: South End Press, 1999. Nancy Lee Peluso and Michael Watts, eds., Violent Environments, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001. Military Toxics Project and Environmental Health Coalition, Defend Our Health: A People’s Report to Congress, 2001, accessed at http://www.miltoxproj.org/magnacarta/DefendOurHealthReport.html.

2. Cynthia Enloe. Maneuvers: The International Politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives. Berkeley: CA: University of California Press, 2000.

3. Angela Robson, “Rape: Weapon of War.” New Internationalist. Issue 244 (1993). Associated Press, “Military Murders: Series of Slayings Shakes Fort Bragg Community.” Crime and Justice, http://pub86.ezboard.com/fcrimeandjustice13552frm51.showMessage?topicID=75.topic Cynthia Enloe, “Sneak Attack: The militarization of U.S. culture.” Ms., December 2001/January 2002: 15.

4. “Bush Unveils ‘War’ Budget.” BBC News. 4 February 2002. Accessed at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/1798732.stm.

5. B’Tselem. www.btselem.org

6. Azi Shariatmadar, “Anti-Immigrant Alert!” Political Environments. Issue 9 (2002): 8-9. Amnesty International. www.amnesty.org

7. Jennifer Pozner. “Casualty of War: The U.S. Press Corps wimps out.” Ms. December 2001/January 2002: 33-34.

8. National Organization for Women, www.now.org/news/goodnews.html abortion Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, www.crlp.org/hill_military.html

9. Center for Reproductive Law and Policy. www.crlp.org

10. Barbara Kingsolver “Jabberwocky.” High Tide in Tucson. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1995. International Action Center. www.iac.org/iraq.htm

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