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Presentation: Women and disarmament

19 May 2016
Mia Gandenberger | Reaching Critical Will of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom

For our predecessors and us the work for peace began in 1915 when we were founded and since then we have been:

  • Challenging militarism
  • Investing in peace
  • Strengthening multilateralism

All this work was always very much linked to disarmament and challenging the predominant militaristic and violent-masculine approaches on how to go about world politics.

At the outset of my presentation I want to quote Shorna-Kay Richards of Jamaica who made the following closing remarks at the OEWG last week, which summarise very well why the question of gender matters for disarmament:

“I wish to stress the importance of the recognizing and operationalising the link between gender and disarmament which can contribute to the achievement of disarmament goals. Success in disarmament requires that attention is given to all stakeholders, and that their knowledge, experiences, perceptions of security or threats to security, priorities and needs will influence disarmament activities on the ground.

Integrating gender perspectives will allow us to bring a human security/ humanitarian approach, as well as an interdisciplinary/ multidimensional approach and move us away from the from the “failed state - centric isolationist” posture. This narrow perspective of the security - military and male-domination view- as we know does not contribute to peace and security. Instead it perpetuates a cycle of security and conflict and allows for the spending of $1.7 trillion dollars on militaristic solutions. However, the very complex and integrated security challenges of today cannot be addressed by this narrow perspective.”

Now in order to process that and see how that can work we need to first understand what is gender and how gender perspectives can initiate a change in thinking and more importantly action. I will look at nuclear disarmament in particular.

What is Gender?

Gender does not refer to biological sex, but rather to socially constructed ideas that attribute meaning to and differentiate between sexes. Socially constructed understandings of gender affect perceptions of social roles, behaviour, and identity, and have implications for relations between people.

Conceptions of gender provide a way of structuring relations of power, whether in families, societies, or even in international relations. For example, in the family these structures are often visible in the traditional role of men as a protector and provider and women as a caretaker as well as the one responsible for the household. However, all these socially constructed roles are not innate or constant; they can alter and change over time. 

Using a gender perspective means examining how these constructed gender roles might affect policy decisions or budgets. It also means being sensitive to the fact that women and men may be differently affected, may play different roles, and may have different experiences in a particular situation due to their sex or expectations about gender.

Questions of gender do not exclusively concern women, but all sexes and sexual and gender identities. It is also important to recognise that “women” is not a homogeneous social category, including when it comes to experiences of war and armed conflict.

Recognising the diversity of experiences, interests, and agencies of all actors is necessary to ensure that any approach to addressing the challenges of armed violence and conflict are applied in the most effective, integrated way possible 

Gender perspectives

In disarmament, gender impacts our work in three different ways, broadly speaking through:

Gendered impacts of the use and trade of weapons
Women and men can suffer disproportionate or differential impacts from the use or proliferation of weapons, inside or outside of armed conflict. Men tend to make up the majority of direct victims of armed violence. Sometimes, they are targeted just for being men. Women, however, can face differential impacts from the use of weapons such as exacerbated social and political inequalities and pressures from the increase in female-headed households; inequalities in access to survivor assistance; and higher risk of sexual violence.

Gender diversity in disarmament
There is a stark disparity in the level and volume of participation of women, men, and others in disarmament and arms control discussions, negotiations, and processes. Recent research has shown that at any given intergovernmental meeting on disarmament, only about one quarter of participants are likely to be women and almost half of all delegations are likely to be composed entirely of men. This underrepresentation is fueled in part by the tendency to treat women as vulnerable victims, usually grouped together with children and the elderly—this framing reinforces persistent constructions of women as the “weaker sex” in need of protection by “powerful” men and enable women’s continued exclusion from authoritative social and political roles. Meanwhile, the framing of all military-aged men as “potential” or actual militants entrenches a tendency to support “violent masculinities”—a social construction in which masculinity is linked with preparedness to use military action and to wield weapons.

Gendered perspectives on disarmament and arms control
The framing of women as weak and vulnerable is also often used to construct “a feminized and devalued notion of peace as unattainable, unrealistic, passive, and (it might be said) undesirable.” The devaluation of certain perspectives, ideas, and, interests because they are marked as “feminine,” coupled with the equation of masculinity with violence gives war positive value as a show of masculine power. This means that even if women do participate in negotiations or discussions on matters related to peace and security, their positions or ideas are often forced to conform to the dominant perspective in order to be taken seriously. This is not to say that women bring one perspective to a conversation and men bring another. It rather highlights the gendered understandings of war and peace, disarmament and armament, strength and weakness, which dictate what is considered “acceptable” by the dominant perspective in such conversations.

In this connection let me recall a presentation my colleague Ray Acheson gave in NY last year at a side event to the NPT RevCon. She was speaking about why ethics is important to the politics of nuclear weapons and raised some very true points that are still valid and that I believe are especially relevant to your work here. 

She highlighted how this plays out in a gendered discourse about rationality and emotion:

Those talking about the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and calling for prohibition are accused of being divisive, polarising, ignorant, and even emotional. Those making these accusations say they support “reasonable,” “realistic,” “practical,” or “pragmatic” steps that anything else is irrational and irresponsible.

This is highly gendered. When men want to assert their power and dominance and make women feel small and marginalised, they accuse us of being emotional, overwrought, relentless, repetitive, irrational. This technique has been employed for as long as gender hierarchies have existed.

And this is true within the traditional nuclear weapon discourse, which is full of terms with loaded meanings. This discourse continues to be mired in dichotomies such as hard versus soft security, strong versus weak, active versus passive, and national security versus human security. With remarkable consistency, the masculine-identified sides of these pairs are tacitly attributed more value than the other.

Nuclear weapons are themselves loaded with symbolism—of potency, protection, and the power to “deter” through material “strength”. For many, such symbolism obscures the real point of the existence of these arms—to destroy—and their horrendous effects.

Taking a human-focused approach to disarmament, and thereby challenging a state-centered approach to international peace and security, is a good first step. An understanding of the gendered meanings and characterizations embedded in the discourse and politics of nuclear weapons will support that process. 

Just as the humanitarian discourse undermines the perceived legitimacy of nuclear weapons, a gender discourse undermines their perceived power and currency. It also helps illuminate possible solutions. By challenging the discursive equation of nuclear weapons with masculine strength and power, we confront approaches to nuclear governance that work in favour of the indefinite retention of nuclear weapons by a handful of states.

The dominant arms control and non-proliferation paradigm asserts security through possession of all-destructive arsenals and seeks to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, particular to ‘irrational’ actors. A gender analysis that highlights the patriarchy and social constructions inherent in this valuation of nuclear weapons helps to multiply, amplify, and deepen arguments for nuclear disarmament and question the role of a certain kind of masculinity of the dominant paradigm. Disarmament, which is sometimes accused by its detractors as weak or passive, can instead be shown for what it is—as rational, just, moral, and necessary for security.

Now what can you do?

Do not despair. First of all you all know where to find us (WILPF), should you be looking for guidance, food for thought, or just some input.

For a more detailed understanding of how women, weapons and war are connected, I encourage you to read our publication on that subject which offers a  gendered critique of and considers synergies—and contradictions—related to gender and women in the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), the UN Programme of Action on trade in small arms and light weapons (UNPoA), a number of UN Security Council, UN Human Rights Council, and UN General Assembly resolutions, and other relevant treaties, declarations, and commitments.

But we also have made some concrete recommendations that you might want to consider: 

Women must not be primarily categorised as vulnerable or innocent victims. Instruments and initiatives can recognise the differential impacts of weapons use, trade, and proliferation on women and others without rendering them helpless victims that lack agency. The motivation in documenting and highlighting differential impacts on women should be to ensure that they receive equal and adequate protection, care, rehabilitation, and participation as men in preventing and recovering from armed conflict. 

Gender diversity in disarmament, non-proliferation, and arms control must promote the participation of women but also of those not conforming to dominant gender or sexuality norms. Armed violence also has differential impacts on LGBTQI people, which should be reflected in discussions about weapons, conflict, and violence. It should ensure a range of perspectives can be presented in discussions and negotiations, including critiques of dominant structural inequalities and normative framings. “Effective” participation of women and others creates space for alternative conceptions of security and ways to focus on preventing armed conflict and armed violence rather than on responding to it with military force.

Treaties, resolutions, commitments, and declarations on the production, possession, transfer, proliferation, or use of weapons must have a gender perspective. They need to take into account differential gendered impacts; gender diversity in the negotiation and elaboration of relevant instruments; and an analysis of the gendered dimensions of the challenges being confronted.

Similarly, instruments dealing with women, peace and security or women’s human rights must incorporate issues related to weapons and war. They should promote disarmament and arms control as integral to enhancing women’s human rights, preventing gender-based violence, and preventing and ending armed conflict and armed violence. 

I will leave it at that.

Thank you very much for your attention.