4 June 2015, Vol. 7, No. 4
Editorial: Sex and gender in a world awash guns
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF
Reducing the quantity of weapons in circulation and preventing easy access to weapons will contribute to security, contrary to the popular belief that the more weapons you have, the more secure you are, argued Argentina’s representative during Wednesday morning’s MGE2 plenary. This popular culture around guns in many societies is hugely problematic and is what leads to staggering rates of armed violence, including acts of gender-based violence (GBV).
“My country has developed a gun culture that has given rise to terrible incidents,” said Dr. Omalade Oladejo of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) in Nigeria during Tuesday’s civil society segment. “Some people see guns as a form of protection for their families. However, as scientists we know that guns in our homes and in our communities are much more likely to be used to kill, injure, or intimidate an innocent person than to protect against an attacker.”
“Gun culture” is highly masculinised in many societies. Boys come to learn—through parenting, media, and schooling—to define themselves as men through violence. They are socialised into militarised gender identities—and girls and women are socialised to support such identities—through the marketing of weapons culture through toys, stories, films, and social norms. In the United States, for example, “video game and film industries both take money from companies that make firearms to feature their products” and then the military uses these games and films for recruitment. “These extreme examples intersect with the everyday, mundane lessons about the importance of being ‘real men’ that boys and men receive from the media and their peers, parents, coaches, and more,” writes sociologist Lisa Wade.
Boys and men are also taught a duty to protect those “weaker” than them—women, children, the elderly. Taking up arms to “protect” others is often construed as reflecting masculine strength. This construction of violent masculinities reproduces the power asymmetries and gendered hierarchies that underpin many acts of GBV against women and others. Boys that are brought up to define themselves as men through violence develop a particular sense of entitlement to and expectation of power and privilege over women and others, expectations that often play out in acts of GBV.
These constructions of violent masculinities also effectively devalue male life, producing a widespread acceptance of the relative expendability of men. Associating maleness with violence increases the vulnerability of men in the immediate term, notes professor Charli Carpenter, which exacerbates other “gender-based vulnerabilities that adult civilian males face, including risks of forced recruitment, arbitrary detention, and summary execution.” In many armed conflicts today, all military-aged men tend to be seen as “potential” or actual combatants or militants—which as Reaching Critical Will and Article 36 found in a recent study, tends to have grave implications for drone strike targeting and casualty recording.
Such constructions, the RCW/A36 report highlights, also reinforce established gender hierarchies that work against the establishment and sustainment of a more equitable society. “Framing women as weak and in need of protection continues to enable their exclusion from authoritative social and political roles, while reinforcing violent masculinities reproduces the power asymmetries and gendered hierarchies that underpin many acts of GBV against women and others.”
There is a highly negative feedback loop between the construction of violent masculinities and weak femininities and the oppression, marginalisation, and abuse of rights of women and others. Thus just as IPPNW describes armed violence as a public health issue, so too are violent masculinities. Oladejo called for a public health approach to armed violence, based on collecting data, identifying risk factors, and tailoring preventative interventions. This is also necessary in terms of the culture of guns in relationship to constructions around gender. As the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) noted during its 100th anniversary conference in The Hague in April, education that fosters alternative understandings of what it is to be a “real man” is crucial. As the forthcoming outcome document from this conference explains, “Showing a different kind of masculinity—one that is nonviolent, respectful of women and others, upholding of human rights and dignity, opposed to traditional concepts of what it is to be male—helps men understand that there are alternatives to the toxic hegemonic masculinity.”
States and other actors must also ensure the effective implementation of the Arms Trade Treaty’s provision on preventing GBV. Article 7(4) compels exporters to deny a transfer of weapons if there is a risk they could be used to commit acts of GBV. The implementation of this provision must be undertaken in the context of both armed conflict and armed violence, and should be seen as one way among many others to confront the challenges of violent masculinities and associated gun cultures.
Gender diversity in discussions and negotiations around disarmament and other peace and security issues is also critical. The outcome document of the Fifth Biennial Meeting of States on small arms recognised the importance of women’s participation in policy-making and programme development and implementation related to small arms control. States must follow through on this and other international commitments to increasing the gender diversity in disarmament, such as those contained in UN General Assembly resolution 69/61 and UN Security Council resolution 1325.
“The focus of this MGE is technology,” noted Marren Akatasa-Bukachi of the East African Sub-regional Support Initiative for Advancement of Women, based in Kenya. But most people around the world “have no say in the development or promulgation of new technologies for weapons production.” Women are largely excluded from these decisions. While including women in discussions, policy-making, and negotiation does not automatically ensure changes in policy on any given issue, we can only hope to achieve change by diversifying the experiences, cultures, and priorities represented and by including the views and voices of everyone—because we are all impacted by the production, transfer, proliferation, and use of weapons.