Malignant Ulcers of Capitalism: The Proletarian Struggle for Reproductive Freedom (Part 3)

In our first two pieces on reproductive struggles in class society we highlighted the family unit, prostitution, sex-selective abortions, sterilization, religion, bourgeois laws, and some of the facts and dangers surrounding abortion and contraception. This piece examines sexual violence in times of imperialist conflict and the impact that the climate crisis is having on reproduction.

Imperialist Conflict and Sexual Violence

Women being driven into the workforce because of imperialist conflict is as old as imperialism itself. This has been the case in Syria for over a decade now; multitudes of working men have been killed in the war and this has left many women as the family breadwinner. The need to support their families now has them bearing the burden of unemployment, low salaries, and high living costs.(1) Women were largely confined to the household prior to the outbreak of the war in 2011, with only 4 percent of households headed by women.(2) Now around 22 percent of Syrian households are headed by women, and they make up most of the workforce in certain sectors.(3) In pre-war Syria, 96 percent of women were able to access qualified maternal healthcare. Consequently, the maternal mortality rate dropped significantly between 1970 and 2009.

The past 11 years of ongoing conflict on top of the pandemic has left many starving due to what little income they had having been wiped out.(4) Maternal healthcare services are now near non-existent and previously long eradicated diseases such as polio have reappeared.(5) Approximately two-thirds of professionals in the medical industry have fled Syria and more than half of all hospitals have been closed or are only somewhat operational. What hospitals remain in the war-torn country are not sufficiently protected from airstrikes and so many women give birth at home or in the streets rather than risk the danger of debris or falling shells. Newborn babies are often malnourished and sick, and with little to no neonatal care available, imminent death is a frighteningly real possibility.

The situation is quite similar in Yemen. According to reports from Unicef, one in 260 women die during pregnancy or childbirth, one out of every 37 newborn babies die in their first month of life, and just 3 out of every 10 births takes place in a health facility. Only around half of all health facilities are fully functional and they still suffer with severe shortages of medical and health essentials.(6) In these times of crisis, reproductive healthcare is all too often the first thing to go. The necessity of these services has been overshadowed by the urgent need to respond to outbreaks of cholera and more than 80 percent of the population lacking food and drinking water. Increasing poverty endured by working class families is another reason the number of women giving birth at home continues to rise, with medical care only sought if there are complications.

In Afghanistan, decades of war have left at least half of the population so poor that they are lacking necessities such as clean water and basic nutritional foods. The pandemic, ongoing food crisis, and winter weather have only aggravated the situation.(7) Although child labor and marriage have long existed on some scale in Afghanistan, it has now become commonplace for children to be put to work and for pre-pubescent girls to be sold into marriage so that the rest of their families may stave off starvation a little longer.(8) There is research showing young girls who are married off are more likely to suffer through domestic violence, have poor mental health, and develop complications during pregnancy. Moreover, the longer girls remain in school, the less likely they are to be married off as a child. Thus, another factor which has increased the incidence of child marriage in Afghanistan is the prohibition of women and girls’ education, reinstituted by the Taliban since taking power once more.

Sexual violence is exacerbated by militarism and used as a weapon of war by all factions in nationalist conflict. It is inextricably linked to imperialist competition and the subsequent decline in conditions among the proletariat.(9) It is not just inflicted on outsiders though; it especially runs rampant among members of the military. In the US Armed Forces, for example, unwanted sexual contact rose by almost 40 percent between 2016 and 2018. Roughly 85 percent of rape survivors know the identity of their attacker, who is most commonly a superior officer.(10) It is telling that members of the US military are more likely to develop PTSD because of sexual trauma than they are as a result of combat.(11)

One of the most agonizing complications of sexual violence is unintended pregnancies. In many countries across Africa and the Middle East, children are not eligible for national IDs unless the father’s name is on the birth certificate; this prevents children born as a result of rape from going to school or receiving government assistance. Many Yazidi mothers who survived enslavement at the hands of ISIS have been left with the heart-breaking decision of having to either abandon their children or not return home.(12) Women who give up their children are sometimes told they will be able to visit them or be reunited later, but this tends not to be true. Once the mother has entered Iraq, she is stopped by border security from returning to Syria. These women often have no other resources and are almost entirely dependent on their families, who typically forbid them from bringing their children back with them.

Similarly, in DR Congo, women who have been raped are often deserted by their husbands and families. These attitudes are largely influenced by the trauma and shame associated with men regularly having witnessed the assault and feeling as though they have failed in their “masculine duty” to protect their wife.(13) In cases where the husband stays or returns, and this is especially true if his wife has had a baby as a result of the attack, it isn’t uncommon for men suffering from untreated trauma to feel as though they must reassert their role and place within the family, through inflicting more violence if need be.(14)

The same social stigmas and sense of shame have often ensured that the most heinous instances of sexual violence go largely unreported and undocumented throughout history. The state also covers up and passes the blame for the violence carried out in its name. The 2020 report on Australian war crimes in Afghanistan has a significant amount of information blacked out, and remarkably, neither rape nor sexual assault are mentioned as having been committed by Australian Defence Force (ADF) soldiers. Yet, if they were willing to reveal allegations of 39 unlawful killings, including ADF soldiers slitting the throats of two 14-year-old boys, then it is likely that what was blacked out would be even more horrific and shameful than that.(15)

To this day the above factors help conceal from the public that working men and boys are also targets of sexual violence as a weapon of war. While working women and girls are still disproportionately harmed by sexual violence on a global scale, in places such as Syria, boys and men are almost just as likely to be victims. With zero resources available they are simply left to isolate themselves – sometimes completely losing interest in sex and other activities they once found enjoyable. At other times, the combination of untreated trauma and further poverty from the subsequent inability to work, results in these boys and men becoming violent.(16) The stigma they experience often pushes them to relocate to a place where people are unaware of the assault they endured.(17)  Studies from wars in Liberia, Uganda, and post-Yugoslav countries have also shown that men and boys are targeted. Sexual violence in times of war is used to humiliate, terrorize, and subjugate workers of all genders.

Contrary to liberal beliefs, changing laws and providing reparations to survivors of sexual violence will never be adequate nor will it stop this barbarism from happening in the first place.(18) Bukharin put things well in Imperialism and World Economy when he stated, “Human society as a whole, placed under the iron heel of world capital, pays tribute to this contradiction ‑ in unbelievable torment, blood, and filth.”(19) So long as capitalism and mercantile relations of production persist in some form or fashion, militarism, war, and sexual violence will too. Thus, the only war to which we can, in good conscience, lend our support is that which leads to our emancipation and deliverance from every form of oppression – the class war.(20)

Climate Change

With the climate crisis worsening, young workers are increasingly opting out of having children out of fear of raising them during environmental catastrophe. Although birth rates in the US are declining due to various factors, surveys indicate that more than a third of young adults are reconsidering having children because of climate change. Similar results have been found among working people within the same age cohort in Australia.(21)

Climate reformists have advocated having fewer children as one of the ways people can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It has become an increasingly popular position to claim that it is immoral to have children in the face of the climate crisis; this kind of moralizing is unproductive and stigmatizes working class families, many of whom do not have access to proper sex education or contraceptives. A 2017 study showed that having one fewer child in a developed country would save 58 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, reducing their carbon footprint. Bourgeois reformists have latched onto these statistics as justification for their anti-natalist narrative. However, the fact that Niger has the highest birth rate in the world and the lowest carbon emissions per person make it beyond clear that the main culprit is capitalism.

In fact, a climate scientist who was part of the same 2017 study, Kimberly Nicholas, clarified that reducing the population, by choosing not to have children, will not solve the climate crisis. In the context of the study, the amount of carbon dioxide per year that would be saved from having one fewer child in a developed country was calculated by considering the hypothetical long-term carbon emissions that would be emitted across multiple generations. Given the recent intensification of the climate crisis, we have a much smaller timeframe to stop the planet from falling into total environmental collapse; long-term consequences of having children are therefore not as relevant or immediately concerning. On the contrary, climate scientists like Nicholas have argued that it is more important to transition away from fossil fuels to clean energy on a global scale. The bourgeois reformists that peddle this brand of climate conscious anti-natalism misrepresent science by taking findings out of context and guilting couples into not having children, displacing all the responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions onto individual consumers. The onus of “solving the climate crisis” is put on individual workers while the capitalist class continues to indulge in environmental destruction guilt-free. While personal choices may have a small impact on reducing one’s contribution, no amount of “birth strikes” will put a dent in the environmental damage caused by capitalist accumulation.

The drastic increase in emissions following the industrial revolution indicate that production based on never-ending accumulation is responsible for our environmental crisis, and if we wish to avoid total environmental catastrophe, we must organize along class lines towards a new mode of production based on human needs rather than on profits.(22) The solution is not to wait for politicians to reach a global consensus on climate reform, or to avoid having children, but to abolish the capitalist system before it is too late. Politicians would never prioritize saving the planet from environmental destruction if it meant they could not profit from it; even if they did, reforms do not address the root of the issue. Only in a world where production is social, and our development is free will we be able to meet the needs of humanity and save ourselves from ecological collapse.

Our next part in this series will comment on the full impact that the COVID-19 pandemic is having and is predicted to have on us having and raising children.

EK (ICO) and KM (IWG)

4 June 2022

(1) The New Arab, “Syrian widows struggle with living costs and exploitation”, The New Arab, Jan 29, 2019 https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/indepth/2019/1/29/syrian-widows-struggle-with-living-costs-and-exploitation

(2) ‘If We Don’t Work, We Don’t Eat’: Syrian Women Face Mounting Food Insecurity a Decade into The Conflict, February 2021,
https://reliefweb.int/report/syrian-arab-republic/if-we-don-t-work-we-don-t-eat-syrian-women-face-mounting-food-insecurity

(3) Daniel Hilton, “The shifting role of women in Syria’s economy”, News Deeply, Dec 22 2017,
https://www.newsdeeply.com/syria/articles/2017/12/22/the-shifting-role-of-women-in-syrias-economy

(4) Mehmet Azalp, “In war torn Syria, the coronavirus pandemic has brought its people to the brink of starvation”, The Conversation, Sept 18, 2020,
https://theconversation.com/in-war-torn-syria-the-coronavirus-pandemic-has-brought-its-people-to-the-brink-of-starvation-144794

(5) Micaela Fischer, “The dangerous reality of maternal health in Syria”, Borgen Magazine, Sep 30 2017,
https://www.borgenmagazine.com/reality-of-maternal-health-in-syria/

(6) UN Children’s Fund, “Yemen: Parenting in a War Zone – The conflict in Yemen has a mounting cost to the lives of mothers and newborns”, UNICEF, June 2019, https://www.unicef.org/mena/reports/yemen-parenting-war-zone

(7) Henrietta Fore, “Girls increasingly at risk of child marriage in Afghanistan”, Unicef, Nov 12, 2021,
https://www.unicefusa.org/press/releases/girls-increasingly-risk-child-marriage-afghanistan/39224

(8) Leah Rodriquez, “5 steps we can take right now to protect girls from child marriage”, Global Citizen,
Jan 14, 2022,
https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/how-to-prevent-child-marriage/

(9) Klasbatalo, “The horror, the horror of world imperialism”, Internationalist Communist Tendency, May 15 2018,
https://www.leftcom.org/en/articles/2018-05-15/the-horror-the-horror-of-world-imperialism

(10) Brenda Duplantis, “Facts on military sexual trauma and statistics”, Hill&Ponton, Sept 18, 2020,
https://www.hillandponton.com/facts-on-military-sexual-trauma-and-statistics/

(11) Haley Britzky, “DoD IG: Military Sexual Assault More Likely Than Combat to Result in PTSD”, Military, Nov 5, 2019,
https://www.military.com/daily-news/2019/11/05/dod-ig-military-sexual-assault-more-likely-combat-result-ptsd.html

(12) “Yazidi mothers face wrenching choice: abandon kids or never go home”, National Public Radio, May 9 2019,
https://www.npr.org/2019/05/09/721210631/freed-by-isis-yazidi-mothers-face-wrenching-choice-abandon-kids-or-never-go-home

(13) Lucy Anna Grey, “Forgotten women: what does the future hold for the country that ‘never turned the page of conflict’?”, The Independent, June 3 2019,
https://www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/drc-sexual-violence-rape-democratic-republic-congo-war-election-women-a8937586.html

(14) Aryan Baker, “The secret war crime”, TIME, https://time.com/war-and-rape/

(15) Afghanistan Inquiry Report, https://afghanistaninquiry.defence.gov.au/

(16) Sarah Chynoweth,  “Male rape and sexual torture in the Syrian war: ‘it is everywhere’”, The Guardian, Nov 22 2017,
https://www.theguardian.com/working-in-development/2017/nov/21/male-sexual-torture-in-the-syrian-war-it-is-everywhere

(17) Syrian men are just as likely to be victims of abuse, but have nowhere to turn for help”, Arab World, Sep 11 2018,
http://www.arabnews.com/node/1370701/middle-east

(18) Ewelina U. Ochab, “Towards the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict”, Forbes, Jun 14 2019, 
https://www.forbes.com/sites/ewelinaochab/2019/06/14/towards-the-elimination-of-sexual-violence-in-conflict/#39211f0821a7

(19) Nikolai Bukharin, “Imperialism and World Economy”, 1917
https://www.marxists.org/archive/bukharin/works/1917/imperial/03.htm

(20) Communist Workers’ Organisation, “Internationalism and the War in Ukraine”, April 23 2022,
https://www.leftcom.org/en/articles/2022-04-23/internationalism-and-the-war-in-ukraine

(21) Sonia Elks, “A new ‘climate strike’: Opting for no children as climate fears grow,” Reuters, May 12, 2019,
https://www.reuters.com/article/us-global-women-climatechange/a-new-climate-strike-opting-for-no-children-as-climate-fears-grow-idUSKCN1SJ02Z

(22) Internationalist Communist Tendency, “Climate Change: Capitalism is the Problem” in Aurora, May 3 2019,
https://www.leftcom.org/en/articles/2019-05-03/climate-change-capitalism-is-the-problem

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