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Gender, war, and weapons: linking gender and disarmament at the Commission on the Status of Women

On 12 March 2015, Reaching Critical Will’s Director Ray Acheson spoke at an event during the Commission on the Status of Women that explored how to link the agendas on women, peace and security and arms control. The event was hosted by the Permanent Mission of Australia to the United Nations in association with the International Action Network on Small Arms Women’s Network, Global Alliance on Armed Violence, and the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs.

In WILPF when we talk about women, peace and security we are thinking much broader than 1325, or women, or participation. We are thinking about gender, about structures of power, and about war. And when we talk about arms control, we are thinking about disarmament, about changing the way weapons are viewed and used, and about eliminating them.

Gender issues intersect with weapons issues in at least three ways:

  • Gendered patterns of harm from armed violence and armed conflict
  • Gendered discourse and approach to weapons and war and violence
  • Gender diversity in arms control and disarmament negotiations and discussions

We know that women and men are exposed to different patterns of violence. This is not as a result of biology, but of socially constructed gender roles. Gender-based violence is violence that is directed at a person because of their sex, or their perceived gender roles, or their gender identity, or their sexual orientation. The majority of gender-based violence is violence inflicted by men onto women.

We see this most easily with guns and other small arms.

A key issue here is that the unregulated or poorly regulated international arms trade results in arms flows to areas of conflict and instability in order to generate profits. These sales often result in ample access by everyone, especially the men involved in the fighting, to small arms, which are used in conflict and after it to commit gender-based violence, including sexual violence.

Even when women are not targeted for acts of gender-based violence, they can face different experiences from the use of weapons.

Nuclear weapons are a stark example of this. Women face unique devastation from the effects of the use of nuclear weapons, such as the effects of radiation on reproduction and maternal health. But women who have survived nuclear weapon tests or use also face unique social challenges related to how they are treated in societies and communities.

Gendered patterns of harm are clear throughout every example of armed conflict. The bombing of towns and cities is killing the highest number of civilians in Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, and other areas of armed conflict. Shelling populated areas with explosive weapons kills and injures civilians, destroys vital infrastructure, and creates refugee flows.

The use of explosive weapons in populated areas can have a unique effect on women such as access to public places and services. Women affected by explosive violence often have fewer opportunities to engage with health care services and reconstruction processes. If heading the household they sometimes face systematic discrimination in trying to provide for their families. They also become more susceptible to further physical attack and sexual exploitation, especially when displaced from their homes.

However men also face gender-based violence and differential impacts of armed conflict, where men and adolescent boys tend to be the most frequent direct victims of violence.

And men are often targeted just for being men. We can see this expectation in the reported policy of using maleness as a signifier of militancy in the targeting and casualty analysis of drone strikes.

While drone strikes are not necessarily targeting individuals solely because they are men of a certain age, those executing the strikes appear to be using sex as a signifier of identity for the purpose of assessing whether or not a subject is targeted, and/or whether a strike is allowed (i.e. taking into account the sex of others in the vicinity of the strike), and/or to determine the impact of a strike subsequently. The sex of the subject is not the motivation for the attack, but it is being used as one proxy for another identity—militant—which in turn provides the motivation.

This contributes problematically to reinforcing gender essentialisms, including notions of men as violent and relatively expendable and notions of women as weak and passive.

Weapons are considered to be men’s business. Our societies still expect men to be violent. And our social relationship with weapons is linked to a persistent construction of women as the “weaker sex,” in need of protection by men.

While men make up the most direct victims, this is rarely presented as evidence of their weakness.

And so we edge towards the protection of only “innocent civilians”—women, children and the elderly—simultaneously reinforcing expectations that men are violent, undermining the law, and stripping women of their agency.

Framing women as weak and in need of protection continues to enable their exclusion from authoritative social and political roles here and elsewhere, and weakens the effectiveness of those processes. From all male panels of experts, to participation in peace talks, or treaty negotiations the voices of women must be heard.

We have seen some progress in recent years, through increased awareness of UN Security Council resolution 1325. On gender and disarmament issues specifically there are the resolutions in the General Assembly on women and disarmament. And the provisions within the Arms Trade Treaty on the prevention of arms transfers that could facilitate gender-based violence are landmark, and it has been welcome to hear many states refer to the importance of this provision.

But much remains to be done, on both weapons and war on the one hand and the gendered implications on the other. We should all seek to:

  • Avoid gender essentialism or victimization of women in resolutions and action plans on disarmament and arms control.
  • Develop awareness and policies to prevent reinforcement of violent masculinities or notions of men as expendable and as warriors.
  • Ensure the effective implementation of the provisions of the Arms Trade Treaty aimed at preventing gender-based violence, including through training for export control officials on risk assessments for gender-based violence.
  • Pay increased attention to gender issues in small arms programmes and initiatives.
  • Ban nuclear weapons.
  • Develop a political commitment by states to end the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas, and ensure disaggregated data collection on causalities and equal rights / treatment for survivors.
  • Reduce militarism and military spending. Global military spending is out of control. This results in skewed priorities regarding social spending and promotes military solutions over all others. States need to reduce military spending and redirect funds towards progressive social issues including climate change, health care, education, and gender equality, in part through gender-aware budgeting and refinancing through the Sustainable Development Goals.