Warfare Population Pressure and Female Infanticide

Many scholars have suggested that warfare impacts negatively on women's status. Anecdotally, women seem to have fared better and their status has been higher in peaceful prestate societies in noncompetitive environments than in state societies or in societies with endemic warfare. However, cross-cultural studies on the frequency of warfare are not so clear. On the one hand, a study of hunter-gatherers, generally egalitarian, found a strong correlation between low female status and male combat deaths (Hayden, Deal, Cannon, & Casey, 1986). On the other hand, Whyte's (1978, pp. 129-130) worldwide comparison was equivocal; although a few aspects of women's status appear to decrease with warfare (e.g., men and women have less joint social life), more appear to increase (e.g., women's greater domestic authority and somewhat greater value placed on women's lives).

Perhaps more important than warfare itself is the type of warfare and the degree to which population pressure may cause endemic fighting. Warfare tends to be found in situations where human populations compete over resources—often the result of population pressure— and it is associated with solidary male groups, notably patrilineal and patrilocal ones. Warfare in such societies tends to be local. In contrast, abundant resources and lack of competition seem to favor matrilineal and matrilocal systems. Moreover, one characteristic of matrilineal societies is the general absence of internal warfare, that is, warfare waged on the local level. Long-distance or external warfare, which takes male warriors away from home for long periods of time, is more typical of these societies. Under conditions of long-distance warfare and trade which remove men from their communities for months at a time, women take on a greater role in subsistence with a concomitant rise in status The Iroquois are a classic example; men were absent at distant wars for many months, as well as on hunting and trading expeditions (Brown, 1975; C. R. Ember, 1975; M. Ember & Ember, 1971; Martin & Voorhies, 1975).

Some anthropologists claim that because warfare puts a premium on rearing males to serve as warriors, females are devalued. And, in fact, female infanticide, the selective neglect and killing of female infants, is sometimes found in horticultural societies with endemic warfare, competition over resources, and growing populations. These conditions are said to result in a "male supremacist complex" that provides an ideological justification for devaluing females. In the absence of modern contraceptive techniques, the selective killing of female infants helps to control population increase because, other things being equal, the rate of population growth is dependent upon the number of females who reach reproductive age (Divale & Harris, 1976). A well-known example of a society with such a complex is the Yanomamo of northern Brazil and southern Venezuela

(Chagnon, 1997). There the intensity of warfare is said to be related to male dominance and female subordination, as evidenced by female infanticide, frequent physical aggression against women, and the glorification of male warriors.

This complex supports the contention that when women's role in reproduction becomes a threat to society because of overpopulation, women's value plummets and their rights and freedoms are severely restricted (Abernethy, 1993). According to Abernethy, practices associated with low female status, such as the benign and malign neglect of female infants, bride burning, bans on widow remarriage, strict regulation of female sexuality, and severe punishment of female adultery, are found in societies where population threatens to outrun resources.

The role that population pressure may play in women's status is suggested by a comparison of the treatment of women in two societies in New Guinea. Among the Enga, plagued by insufficient land to sustain a rising population, women and their childbearing capacities are devalued. A high premium is put on premarital chastity, sexual abstinence is required on many occasions, women are killed shortly after their husbands' deaths, and funerals are held for men and pigs, but not for women and children. In contrast, the Fore faced a situation of underpopulation as a result of high mortality from an endemic disease (kuru). In Fore society women and their reproductive abilities were valued, premarital sexuality was not discouraged, and widows remarried after the death of their husbands (Lindenbaum, 1972; Meggitt, 1964).

Unbalanced sex ratios are evidence of the benign or malign neglect of female infants and children and of low female status. That is, in societies where males significantly outnumber females, cultural practices such as female infanticide and the undernutrition of girls are suspect. For example, estimates suggest that nearly 6% of women in India are "missing" and that as many as 100 million women worldwide are unaccounted for when demographers compare expected with actual sex ratios (Coale, 1991; Miller, 1997). Ultrasound technology has made the selective abortion of female fetuses in contemporary China, Korea, and India a source of concern. For example, India has the lowest ratio of females to males among the 10 most populous countries in world (Dugger, 2001).

But such practices do not result from population pressure alone. In northern India, where sex ratios are very skewed, the selection against females likely results from two additional factors. Women, particularly those of the middle and elite castes, do not engage in agricultural production and upon marriage their families are required to provide their husbands' families with large dowries. Thus, women produce little but cost a lot so that families see it in their own economic and social interest to limit the number of daughters (Miller, 1997). It comes as no surprise that these conditions make for low female status.

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