Gender and disarmament


  What is gender?

Gender does not refer to biological sex, e.g. man, woman, or intersex, but rather to socially constructed ideas that attribute meaning to and differentiate between sexes. Gender is the range of characteristics associated with man, woman, intersex, masculine, feminine, transgender, etc.

In his 2002 report Women, Peace and Security, the UN Secretary-General noted that conceptions of gender “vary according to socio-economic, political and cultural contexts, and are affected by other factors, including age, race, class and ethnicity. Gender roles are learned and are changeable.”

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.

How is gender relevant for disarmament and arms control?

Ideas about gender affect the way people and societies view weapons, war, and militarism. Considering gender can help in developing deeper understandings of “gun cultures,” armament policies, or obstacles to disarmament. It can also help determine appropriate policy or budgetary responses to particular challenges.

For example, there is a strong correlation between carrying guns and notions of masculinity. Inside and outside of armed conflict, so-called “gun culture” is overwhelmingly associated with cultural norms of masculinity, including men as protectors and as warriors. Armed conflict tends to exacerbate views about what qualifies as masculine behaviour: group pressure usually amplifies men’s aggressiveness and inclination to treat women as inferior. Armed men perpetrate sexual violence at gunpoint against women and girls with impunity, most famously in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but also in a number of countries that are not necessarily at conflict.

Nuclear weapons likewise afford a sense of masculine strength. Possessing and brandishing an extraordinarily destructive capacity is a form of dominance associated with masculine warriors (nuclear weapons possessors are sometimes referred to as the “big boys”). After India’s 1998 nuclear weapon tests a Hindu nationalist leader explained, “We had to prove that we are not eunuchs.” When governments act as though their power and security can only be guaranteed by a nuclear arsenal, they create a context in which nuclear weapons become the ultimate necessity for, and symbol of, state security. And when nuclear-armed states then work hard to ensure that other countries do not obtain nuclear weapons, they are perceived as subordinating and emasculating others.

Highlighting the ways in which the possession and proliferation of weapons are underwritten and supported by a particular construction of masculinity enable us to see just how dangerous and illusory an image of security weapons produce. Gender analysis can illuminate some of the connections between constructed masculinities and “gun cultures” that promote the possession and use of weapons. It can also help demonstrate that the enshrinement of nuclear weapons as an emblem of power is not a natural fact, but a social construction. These understandings can in turn help us to develop discourse, actions, and approaches to disarmament and arms control that address some of the ideas and causes that lead to armament in the first place.

Gender-based violence

Gender analysis can also help us understand how weapons are used—and against whom and why. This in turn can help inform policies and programmes that specifically address these challenges.

Violence that is perpetrated against a person based on gender conceptions is known as gender-based violence (GBV). Acts of GBV violate a number of human rights principles enshrined in international instruments and can constitute violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) if perpetrated during armed conflict. Some common examples of GBV include rape and sexual violence, forced prostitution, trafficking, domestic violence, and forced marriage.

The UN Inter-Agency Standing Committee Task Force on Gender and Humanitarian Assistance notes that globally, “GBV has a disproportionate impact on women and girls, due to their subordinate status in society and their increased vulnerability to violence, but this does not mean that all victims of gender-based violence are female.” Men and boys, trans or intersex people, may also be victims of GBV. Men or trans or intersex people are sometimes harassed, beaten, or killed because they do not conform to mainstream gender roles or behaviour. GBV also includes violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.

GBV and the arms trade

Irresponsible transfers of weaponry, munitions, armaments, and related equipment across borders have resulted in acts of GBV perpetrated by both state and non-state actors. Thus in the recent negotiations of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), civil society organizations and like-minded governments worked together to ensure that the treaty included a legally-binding provision on preventing armed gender-based violence.

Article 7(4) of the ATT text adopted by the General Assembly on 2 April 2013 obligates exporting states parties, as part of the export assessment process, to take into account the risk of the conventional arms, ammunition, munitions, parts, or components under consideration being used to commit or facilitate acts of gender-based violence. States shall not be permitted to authorize the transfer where there is a risk of gender-based violence when it constitutes one of the negative consequences of article 7(1)—i.e. when it is a violation of IHL or international human rights law, when it undermines peace and security, or when it forms part of transnational organized crime. This binding criterion also requires states to act with due diligence to ensure that the arms transfer would not be diverted to non-state actors such as death squads, militias, or gangs that commit acts of GBV.

During the implementation of the ATT, some key questions in the risk assessment process should include whether there is an effective regulatory system to control arms and prevent GBV, and whether there is evidence of acts or patterns of GBV in the recipient country.

Women and disarmament

While gender refers to social constructions of masculinity, femininity, etc., the concept of a “gender perspective” also includes looking at whether and how men and women are affected differently by a particular circumstance or problem. The possession, use, and trade in weapons affect men and women in different ways.

“Women rarely manufacture, sell, buy, or use weapons, yet they are disproportionately affected by the arms trade and in particular, by the proliferation and misuse of small arms and light weapons. While men are the majority of those killed by small arms, women suffer in more invisible ways. High death and injury rates of men are the most obvious and visible effects of gun violence, yet what fails to appear in statistics is when guns are not used to kill but to exert power; when guns are used behind closed doors to subjugate family members; when guns are used to threaten adolescent girls with sexual violence, forcing entire families to flee. What we fail to talk about, when we talk about the arms trade, are the rapes of tens of thousands of women at gunpoint” (Rebecca Gerome, ATT Monitor 5.8, 2012, p. 3).

However, women are not merely victims of violence. They are often combatants in armed conflict. But this is frequently overlooked in disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) programmes. DDR activities are designed to facilitate disbanding military fighters and to ease their transition back into society, but such activities often focus on exclusively on young men. Women’s experiences and roles in war tend to be different than men’s, and given existing gender biases and inequalities in most societies, men are often better positioned to take advantage of reconstruction initiatives.

In addition to being victims/survivors of armed violence as well as combatants, women are of course also agents of political, social, and economic change. But challenges to women’s participation in political, social, and economic arenas are inextricably linked to gender-based violence against women. Such violence “is both a cause and consequence of low levels of women’s participation in all decision-making and, in fact, participation in day-to-day life.”

Thus we need to pay specific attention to all facets of women’s experiences of conflict—as victims, as combatants, and as agents of change—in order to realize women’s rights of participation in disarmament and arms control programmes, conflict prevention, conflict resolution, and peacebuilding.

Relevant UN resolutions

UN Security Council resolution 1325 is a watershed political framework recognizing that men and women experience wars differently. It requires these differences be taken into account and recognizes that women’s full and equal participation in all aspects and stages of peace processes is essential to building sustainable peace. Resolution 1325 “makes the pursuit of gender equality relevant to every single Security Council action, ranging from elections to disarmament efforts.”

While 1325 brought the concept of “gender mainstreaming” to bear on UN offices and programmes dealing with disarmament and arms control issues, it was not until 2010 that the General Assembly began to consider its specific implications for disarmament with the adoption of resolution 65/69 on “Women, disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation”.

There have been three further General Assembly resolutions on this topic. 67/48, adopted in 2012, urges member states and other relevant actors to promote equal opportunities for women in disarmament decision-making processes and to support and strengthen the effective participation of women, including through capacity-building efforts, in the field of disarmament. 68/33, adopted in 2013, made very little progress on 67/48. 69/61, adopted in December 2014, notes the imminent entry into force of the Arms Trade Treaty and encourages States parties to “fully implement all the provisions of the Treaty, including the provision on serious acts of gender-based violence.” It also encourages UN Member States “to better understand the impact of armed violence, in particular the impact of the illicit trafficking in small arms and light weapons on women and girls…”

Going forward

Within the UN system, it will be important for member states and UN agencies to integrate the requirements of 1325 and 67/48, 68/33, and 69/61 into their policy and programmatic frameworks. Subsequent resolutions should also seek to strengthen language on incorporating a gender perspective—in all of its senses—into work on disarmament and related issues.

In general, it is vitally important for states, international organizations, and civil society to explore and understand how gender constructions affect armament and disarmament policies and budgets. Much work is needed on this subject. Below are some resources from some of the academics and activists that have undertaken this task so far.

  WILPF publications and presentations

WILPF seminars and statements

Since 1984, WILPF has worked with other NGOs to organize a seminar linking International Women's Day with disarmament, peace, and security issues. Each year, a report and statement from the NGO conference has been delivered to the Conference on Disarmament, the only official oral contribution from NGOs to this body.

Other materials and resources

  • Dr. Carol Cohn’s writings on gender and militarism
  • Cythia Enloe, Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics, University of California Press, 2000.
  • Cynthia Cockburn, The Space Between Us: Negotiating Gender and National Identities in Conflict, London and New York: Zed Books, 1998.
  • Miriam Cooke and Angela Woollacott, eds, Gendering War Talk, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.
  • Cynthia Enloe, The Morning After: Sexual Politics at the End of the Cold War, University of California Press: Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1993.
  • Rebecca Grant and Kathleen Newland, eds, Gender and International Relations, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991.
  • Lauren Rabinovitz and Susan Jeffords, eds, Seeing Through the Media: The Persian Gulf War, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994.
  • Joan Scott, Gender and the Politics of History, New York: Columbia, 1988.
  • J. Ann Tickner, Gender in International Relations, New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.
  • Marguerite R. Waller and Jennifer Rycenga, eds, Frontline Feminisms Women, War, and Resistance, New York: Garland Publishing, 2000.